Renovated Hsinchu Zoo aims at greater human-animal connection

After a two-year renovation, the oldest zoo in Taiwan reopened on Saturday, hoping to rekindle visitors' childhood memories by creating an environment that brings humans and animals closer than before. (Courtesy of Hsinchu Zoo)
After a two-year renovation, the oldest zoo in Taiwan reopened on Saturday, hoping to rekindle visitors' childhood memories by creating an environment that brings humans and animals closer than before. (Courtesy of Hsinchu Zoo)

TAIPEI (CNA) — After a two-year renovation, the oldest zoo in Taiwan reopened on Saturday, hoping to rekindle visitors’ childhood memories by creating an environment that brings humans and animals closer than before.

Built in 1936, the Hsinchu Zoo underwent an overhaul after its old facilities and poor space management clearly became unable to cope with the 70 animal species at the facility.

“That was a very difficult challenge,” said zookeeper Yumiko Okamoto, a Japanese national who is the only foreign national to have ever worked at the zoo.

It took extensive discussions to develop a renovation plan because those in charge had to come up with a modern zoo based on limited examples in Taiwan and a vision to create a zoo in which “the animals rule, not the visitors,” Okamoto said.

Okamoto, who volunteered to work at the Hsinchu Zoo in 2017 after she helped coordinate a friendship accord the previous year between the zoo and her then-employer the Ueno Zoo, said the new Hsinchu facility has met the challenge. Going cage-free

There are no cages used in the zoo, and animals are being kept in specific areas through ditches, bushes and fences no taller than 120 centimeters, giving the animals an environment more similar to their natural habitats, she said.

The areas for visitors are also carefully designed so that people can observe the animals at a closer distance without disturbing them, Okamoto said.

As the facility was being renovated, some of the animals stayed on site while others were relocated and have been returned to the zoo gradually over the past month. Okamoto believes the animals appreciate their new dwelling.

“From the change in the behavior of the animals, we can tell that they like their new home a lot. All of the hard work has been worth it,” she said.

The sun bears, for example, have been seen for the first time digging up earth in their enclosure, a behavior that only occurs when the animal is in the wild, and monkeys have been seen swimming in their new pool, according to Okamoto.

“Lele,” a popular hippo at the zoo, is among those most satisfied with the new home, as sandpits, grasses and pools have replaced the original hippo closure surrounded by cement and iron bars, she said.

The new zoo has also reduced the number of animals it cares for, from 70 to 44 species, to make sure each one of them has ample space, said zoo director Yang Chia-min (楊家民). Inspiring experiences

Most of the species released to the wild or relocated to other animals were birds, Yang said, adding that one of the bird cages that came free was turned into an art installation near the zoo’s gate through which every visitor has to walk to start their tour.

The conversion of the cage was meant to inspire visitors by putting them in the animals’ shoes to get them to rethink how they feel about nature and animals, he said.

Besides giving animals a better home, the renovation is also aimed at rekindling public interest in going to zoos, as the Hsinchu Zoo, one of the only three public zoos in Taiwan along with the Shoushan Zoo in Kaohsiung and the Taipei Zoo, has been part of the area’s collective memory.

The 2.7-acre Hsinchu Zoo, the smallest among the three and only around 2 percent of the size of the Taipei Zoo, was originally a children’s park back in the Japanese colonial period.

A zoo slowly emerged after Ho Kuo-hua (何國華), who worked in Japan at the time, donated an Asian black bear cub born in Hokkaido, Japan, in 1957.

Ho continued to donate various kinds of animals, including a lion, an elephant and a crocodile, to the zoo. It was considered at the time a way for Ho to show gratitude and give back to his hometown, turning the place into a special destination for many Hsinchu residents. Shared memories

Given the zoo’s long history, the renovation consciously kept some of its historical features, such as its well-known gate decorated with elephant and lion sculptures.

The bronze sculptures, which followed the design concept of the Hagenbeck Zoo in Germany, reflected the trendiest zoo style at the time, according to the Hsinchu Zoo.

Its round fountain, registered as one of the city’s cultural relics, and a building in which the first elephant of the zoo lived were also kept but refurbished to keep nostalgia alive.

For its opening weekend, the zoo is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, and admission is free for children aged 12 or younger and senior citizens aged 65 or more on those two days.

The city government estimated that there will be 50,000 people visiting the zoo each day during its opening weekend.

It will be open every day except Monday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. after the opening weekend.