A frequent visitor as a young child, Erik Zevenbergen never lost his fascination with the wild animals at Blijdorp Zoo. In his role as zoo director, he’s connecting the past with the present, future-proofing the Rotterdam zoo for coming generations.
Words: Irene de Vette
Recently turned into a new home for the gelada baboons, a troop of handsome grazing primates, Blijdorp’s former predator building brings back memories for Erik Zevenbergen. “As a boy, I often stood here face-to-face with lions and tigers. It’s almost as if I can still smell them. I must’ve visited Blijdorp hundreds of times. Even as an adult, I went once or twice a year. This zoo has always been close to my heart.”
When Zevenbergen joined Blijdorp two years ago, he started with a crash course behind the scenes. “I wanted to learn as much as possible about all the departments: from zookeepers to researchers to restaurant staff. I immediately realised that people don’t just ‘come to work’ here. They don’t want to be anywhere else. They’re fully committed,” he says.
Blijdorp then and now
With a new steel arch structure on top, the gelada enclosure is the 15th of the zoo’s 21 listed buildings to be fully renovated. Architect Sybold van Ravesteyn’s late 1930s neo-baroque designs were exceptional at the time, and they still are. “The government recently named us one of the ‘gems’ of our national heritage, earning us extra funding as a result. It’s our duty to preserve our historic buildings, as challenging as these projects can be. I think the gelada enclosure is a good example of how this should be done: its grandeur has been restored, but we’ve also added to it. The building is fully sustainable, as we are working towards a climate-neutral operation. Most importantly, we’ve ensured a high level of animal welfare.”
Throughout Blijdorp’s 162-year history, the definition of ‘zoo’ has drastically changed. Zevenbergen and his team are working on a plan to future-proof the zoo until 2030. “Why do we keep animals? It’s a valid question, one that forces us to think even more about what we stand for. If the answer is ‘for entertainment’, it can only lead to disappointment. I’ve seen that in other zoos. Blijdorp’s focus is nature conservation, education and research. Our priority is to help save endangered species through conservation programmes, here and in their natural habitats. Of course, it does help that we’re a world-class attraction with 1.5 million visitors a year.”
Generations of fans
When Erik Zevenbergen goes around the zoo these days, he recognises the look of amazement on the faces of children. “People who visited us as a child now take their children or grandchildren. There’s an emotional connection, a sense of nostalgia even, which also means they have clear ideas about what they like and what they don’t like. I compare us to our football team Feyenoord. Everyone has something to say about them, but in the end, we all wish them well. Blijdorp has a lot of fans on social media. There are approximately 115,000 annual pass-holders, and the association Friends of Blijdorp has almost 5,000 members. That’s huge. In order to keep improving, we always try to listen to our visitors. Our wayfinding signage has recently been updated, for example.”
Picking favourites is too difficult, but for Zevenbergen, one of the best parts of the job is simply wandering through the zoo. “When I walk back from a meeting on the other side, I pass through the Chinese garden. It’s stunningly beautiful. People often don’t know that Blijdorp is also an official botanical garden. Usually, I’m there long after visitors have gone home. When the sun sets over the deserted park, and I hear the lions roar and the elephants trumpet, I get goosebumps. It brings out the little boy in me.”
Picture: Bart Hoogendorp