Back when Ghent had a zoo

Summary

Ghent once had a zoo to rival that of Antwerp, but the fate of the animals wasn’t a happy one

Only the street names remain

A few ducks, some blackbirds and a lonesome goose: Nowadays, there aren’t many animals to be seen in the Muinkpark, a short walk from Ghent city library and a stone’s throw from Kinepolis. But a century ago, thing were different. Lions, kangaroos and even an elephant called the park home, back when it was the city’s zoo. Today, the only reminder of the past is a couple of street names.

In July 1843, Belgium’s first zoo opened in Antwerp. It was an instant success, and Ghent soon followed suit. On April 12, 1851, Ghent Natural History Society was created and the city opened its own zoo.

As a location for the park, the society chose the Muinkmeersen, at the time still an open, marshy stretch of land near what was then Ghent South train station. In the centre of the park there was a kiosk with a windmill to pump water, and a building with a bar, restaurant and lounges built in Byzantine style by Ghent-born architect Adolphe Pauli. In 1852, the site was expanded by almost five acres, and in 1860 another half-acre was added.

The zoo’s collection included exotic birds, deer, lions, llamas, kangaroos, bears and even two elephants (pictured). Cages were often too small and badly adapted for their inhabitants, and it’s not hard to imagine that life in the zoo for the animals was much less pleasant than it might be today.

At that time, a trip to the zoo was an exclusive affair, and in the beginning only members of Ghent Natural History Society were allowed to visit. To become a member, you needed to have the right connections. It was also about more than just looking at the animals: Weekly concerts and other occasions were organised in the kiosk.

Because of the many events and festivals held at the zoo, it became an important meeting for Ghent’s high society. Later, non-members were allowed in, but the average person had to wait another decade before they would be allowed to marvel at all these strange creatures. If they could afford it, of course.

But the zoo’s success faded fast, and at the end of the 19th century things started to go downhill. The Flemish coast became a popular tourist destination and the number of visitors to Ghent suffered. In 1905 the curtain fell and the zoo closed.

The city of Ghent bought the land, parcelled it and built a new neighbourhood; only the current Muinkpark remained an open space. To preserve something of the past, a number of streets in the neighbourhood were named after animals that were once to be seen in the zoo. So, you can now walk in Leeuwstraat or Zebrastraat around the Muinkpark.

A miserable end

And the animals? What became of them after the zoo closed? Very little good, it seems. They were sold by public auction to the highest bidder. After all, having a lion as a pet is a bit more interesting than having a boring old dog or cat. Most ended up in circuses somewhere, no better off than in the zoo.

The fate of Jack, one of the zoo’s two elephants, is the most tragic story. After the zoo closed, Jack was bought by someone called Sieske de Gistmarchand (“the yeast trader”). It’s said that he killed Jack and threw a party with the resulting meat; Jack’s head was put on display for a few days in a Ghent hotel. It’s likely, though, that this story was at least partly invented.

What’s known is that De Gistmarchand did indeed buy the elephant for 350 francs, which was a decent amount at the time. His plan was to sell it to a circus, but the deal came to nothing, leaving him stuck with an elephant he couldn’t get rid of.

He decided to kill Jack, but how he did it isn’t clear. Some say he strangled the animal with steel cables; according to others he shot it. In any case, it was a miserable end for Jack, who had been one of the zoo’s main attractions. De Gistmarchand is understood to have sold the flesh to a Dutch sausage manufacturer. Ending up as Dutch sausage: a fate you would not wish on your worst enemy.

All photos © Stad Gent, De Zwarte Doos, Stadsarchief

For 50 years, Ghent had its own zoo - but the fate of the animals wasn’t a happy one

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1 843

Zoo opens

11

surface area in hectares

5 000

animals