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Germany

Berlin and beyond: Zootopia to zoomania

Berliners may be gruff, but as Tamsin Walker found out at one of the oldest zoos in the world, the city's affection for its bears, be they polar or panda, is as real as it is historic. And that is not all she discovered.

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WorldLink: Berlin zoo reveals Germans' cuddly side

Simon and Garfunkel once tunefully pronounced, "it's all happening at the zoo." And it's true. I've been, I've seen, and I can testify to the truth behind the lyric. At least in the context of the Berlin Zoo, which in case you haven't already heard, now has pandas. Meng Meng and Jiao Qing, who in stripping and chewing bamboo with their inimitable comic abandon, have comprehensively captured the city's often obscured heart.

So steady, in fact is the stream of visitors, that several security guards have been put on duty to ensure every one of the hoards of curious visitors gets their chance to gawp, giggle and coo at these black and white sensations.

Panda in enclosure (Getty Images/AFP/T. Schwarz)

It's hard to get a glimpse of the pandas at Berlin Zoo

Given the average Berliner's gruff exterior, such enthusiasm for furry animals seems incongruous. But there it is. And it pre-dates not only the pandas - whose first visit, incidentally, was from Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping - but Knut, the polar bear cub who became an international media sensation in 2007.

United by a hippo

In fact it goes way back to WWII, which a mere 91 of the 4,000 animals in pre-war listings survived. Among them was a young hippo called Knautschke, which was found beside its mother's dead body in the Battle of Berlin. The animal claimed the city's heart and during the aftermath of the conflict, quickly became a beloved symbol of the will to survive.

Residents shared their rations with the orphaned hippo, and as the zoo - which having opened in 1844 is the oldest in Germany – began the process of rebuilding, many West Berliners used it as an easy opportunity to escape the urban island in which they lived.

I have been there myself many times, but it wasn't until my most recent visit that I learned of the relationship between the 1930s zoo authorities and the Nazis. A permanent exhibition that opened last year reveals a past in which Jewish board directors were pushed out, Jewish stockholders either forced to sell their shares below value or stripped of them entirely, and a zooscape which by 1939, had banned Jewish visitors entirely.

Unwitting ambassadors

Though much of this was news to me, I can't say it surprised me. The reach of Germany's past horror is too extensive for that.

pandas (DW/T. Walker)

Panda mania is evident all over the zoo

But as I walked along the gravel paths that lead to the zoo's most prominent Chinese guests, trying to imagine the park during that bleak chapter in time, the history of the place, though perhaps somehow palpable on a quieter day, was hidden by the sounds of the here and now, of animated children and adults come from all over the world to join Berliners in lining up to gawp, giggle and coo at the black and white bears who strip bamboo.

To that end, though they don't feature in Simon and Garfunkel's musical menagerie that casts zebras as reactionaries and antelopes as missionaries, they would be deserving of a role as ambassadors.

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