History of the polar bear enclosure

One of the most important criteria for keeping animals at a zoo is recreating the right living conditions. Zoo architecture plays a vital role in this area and always presents unique challenges not only for architects, but also for zoologists and landscapers. The claim to offer our fellow creatures the best possible living conditions is, to a large extent, a reflection of the standards of animal welfare of the period, which are backed by government regulations, such as the stipulation of the size of each enclosure. Each decade is marked by a distinctive architectural style. Polar bears have been kept in the southernmost part of the zoo since Hellabrunn first opened in 1911.

After a period of closure due to inflation in Germany, the zoo re-opened in 1928. However, six years of neglect had left the polar bear enclosure in ruins. A new home for the polar bears had to be built. Thanks to a donation of cement and gravel from the Isar's riverbed, a purpose-designed polar bear enclosure with new outdoor facilities was opened in January 1933. The new enclosure comprised a semi-circular curved swimming pool and a wide platform with rising terraces. The back wall, which had openings leading to the polar bears’ night quarters, was covered with artificial rock to replicate the Arctic environment.

This enclosure remained in operation for over 40 years until the masonry began to decay and the doors and sliders had rusted to such an extent that the polar bears could no longer be locked away inside the building itself. As a result, the keepers had to go inside the open enclosure to feed and clean the animals - an intolerable situation. (Polar bear zookeepers were also tamers and a stumble could be fatal.)

Time had also taken its toll on the remaining enclosures of the Polarium. The proposal for a new Polarium was therefore incorporated into the general expansion plans for the zoo. The architect Peter Lanz was commissioned for the project, with construction costs amounting to 5,226,000 DM (approx. US $2.2 million). Opened in summer 1975, the new Polarium was at the time one of the most modern enclosures for polar animals. The new facility comprised a total of 730 m² of outdoor enclosure, of which 361 m² was terrestrial. An artificial polar landscape was created with "ice floes" made of exposed concrete, in accordance with the accepted standards of animal welfare of the period. In fact, only a 3.8 cm thick bulletproof glass pane separated the visitors from the polar bears. A smaller adjoining outdoor enclosure served for rearing young cubs or to separate individual animals. The polar bear house itself comprised of single quarters, birthing dens, work areas for food preparation and a 30-tonne capacity refrigerating room. Seven polar bears lived in the new Polarium when it first opened. In the years that followed, the zoo witnessed the births of four healthy cubs. All the cubs were raised by their mothers alone. Among them was “Lars” the father of the world-famous polar bear “Knut”.