University of Helsinki and Helsinki Zoo brought together by species protection

There are many connections between Helsinki Zoo and the University of Helsinki. The university trains some of the best specialists in animal welfare, while deceased zoo inhabitants may end up at the museum, where they are of use to researchers.

Founded in 1889, Helsinki Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the world. It has collaborated with Helsinki University Museum for several decades. In this time, views on the proper treatment of animals have changed quite a bit, as have animal welfare decrees.

‘Helsinki Zoo has been home to many sorts of species. Shared cages for various apes are a good example of how different the living conditions for the animals once were,’ says Henry Pihlström, biologist and researcher at the Finnish Museum of Natural History.

The exotic specimens in the bone collection at the museum include endangered species, as well as species that are no longer found in the wild. Collection safaris for rare animals have been out of the question for a long time now, and exotic specimens have primarily been received from private donators who wish to be rid of the antelope horns on the wall of the family home or the skin in front of the fireplace – and from Helsinki Zoo.

The spotted hyena at the circus

The fate of a spotted hyena that performed at a Finnish circus before the wars and eventually ended up in the museum’s collection is a good example of how differently people used to think about animals.

‘Animal-related stories are portrayals of their time. In the 1930s, hyenas were terribly abhorred, and people called them cadaver diggers. After its circus career, our hyena met its end at Helsinki Zoo, shot in the head, and it wasn’t the only one.’

‘We have done our best to glue the damaged specimen back together...’

A deadly fire

Perhaps the most tragic – and from the museum’s point of view also the most prolific – moment in the collaboration with the zoo also took place in the 1930s. The museum’s ape collection grew by nine specimens at once.

‘There was a fire in the ape house at the zoo in 1938, and apparently every single ape there died. The destruction was so complete that even the keepers were evidently not able to identify the bodies, and many species in the donation received by the museum had been identified wrongly,’ Pihlström says, recalling the now forgotten incident.

When Pihlström’s team went through their old collections of vertebrates a year ago, they found other specimens received from the zoo that were still lacking proper identification.

‘Among other activities, we performed a thorough skeletal and dental examination of a giant kangaroo brought from the zoo and were able to definitely identify it as a red kangaroo.’

The inventory and repair of the bone collection continues this summer.

‘We won’t be running out of treasures waiting for attention any time soon!’

When living space runs out

The university has received research material and questions from the zoo, but the benefits are mutual. Specialists in biology and animal welfare are in demand at the zoo.

The zoo’s key tasks, by its own definition, are environmental education and species protection.  According to Kirsi Pynnönen-Oudman, scientific expert and general curator at Helsinki Zoo, a zoo biologist’s wish is to become redundant: if the populations in the wild were strong enough, zoos would not be needed in order to keep species alive.

‘I have no desire to keep animals in cages, but there is no longer room in the wild for many of the world’s species,’ Pynnönen-Oudman said in an interview for the university magazine.

European mink in Finland, tiger in Siberia

There is not one single European mink left in the wild in Finland, she says, to illustrate the fact.

‘There are no suitable zones for them anymore, and the American mink has probably brought the species to extinction.

Sadly, there are many other examples from around the world.

‘If cat plague strikes in the far east of Russia, leopards and tigers will be lost. Zoos can perhaps restore animals to the area.’

Pynnönen-Oudman trained as an animal physiologist, and she has also taught at the Department of Biosciences at Helsinki University. The Director of Helsinki Zoo, Sanna Hellström, also worked as researcher at the university’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine for a decade before taking up her current position.