Switzerland

Posted on July 31, 2014

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Chocolate, cheese and cows just some of the things Switzerland is famed for. I experienced all three in equal measure during my trip a few weeks ago.

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Staying in the beautiful area of Neuchâtel and La Chaux-de-Fonds I was fortunate to wake up to the gentle chiming of cow bells and chirping birds. The Jura mountains are beautiful. The house I stayed in had no wifi and no phone signal – perfect!

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If you wanna disappear and get back to nature this is the place to do it. My two days in Geneva were soggy. The rain fell hard and fast. But despite this I managed a boat trip on Lac Leman to take in the sights and a day trip to the pretty city of Lausanne.

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The weekend brought sun and so my stay with my friend, Olivier on his family farm was idyllic. We visited a few nature reserves and did some walks through enchanted forests.

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He works for a zoo and wildlife rescue centre Le Bois du Petite Chateau. His boss and chief animal keeper Yasmine Ponnampalam agreed to give me an interview. I caught up with as she mucked out the brown bear enclosure.

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The captive bears at the zoo have come from Europe. The male is originally from Turkey and came from a Zoo in Bern and the female came from a breeder.

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The zoo was actually established in 1891. Yasmine has been there for nine years and has been key in setting up and running the rescue centre which focuses on releasing indigenous animals to the area back into the wild.

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She told me, “I used to work in another zoo in Canton while I was studying at university. I did an apprenticeship at the same time but I had to stop the job as it got too much and I needed to finish my studies.

“I then went onto do a year and a half working with dogs and cats at a rescue centre before coming here.”

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Yasmine works a long day because animals unlike people are naturally early risers. She is very passionate about her work and her small but dedicated team of staff clearly love their jobs.

She said, “Many years ago the natural history museum in the city used to rescue some bats and birds but they did not have the capability to take care of the animals properly. The rescue centre started up as a result of that I suppose. When we started the work here when I joined, the first bird to arrive for treatment was a Magpie. Slowly through word of mouth people brought more animals to us, even forest rangers started to bring us animals. We would like to have more space but we can’t take more than 300 animals a year.

“If we have too many animals we either try to dispatch them to wildlife centres in Lausanne and Geneva and with species like Roe deer they will be sent to Bern because they have huge space and a hospital.

“I think people in the city really appreciate the zoo (which is free) and the wildlife centre has a very positive image. Years ago before I was here many people used to have a bad impression of the centre and the rumour mill fuelled gossip that animals were killed for meat. But today people are very happy to bring animals here once they have found them.”

One of the rarest birds the zoo houses is the Grand Tetra (one male and two females). The main reason for their demise in numbers is habitat disturbance. They are very sensitive to winter periods. When there is not enough food from pine trees they can find it hard to consume enough calories . Their natural predators are lynx and foxes and in some areas of Europe they are also hunted.

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Yasmin said, “The Grand Tetra females recently laid eggs but she abandoned them before they hatched. They are meant to have an incubation period of 28 days. She left her eggs just a few days before. When we opened one of the eggs the baby inside was fully formed but dead, perhaps she already knew, but we have no way of knowing that. There are very few of these birds left in Switzerland. Within Neuchâtel there are probably only 10-15.”

Sometimes the zoo has to euthanise the animals brought in if it is not possible to prolong their life. They don’t have vet on site but there is a local vet with his own practice nearby that does help with minor complications.

She added: “He takes care of the zoo animals and when they need an X-ray and we can send them to him, like for example a Raptor with a broken wing. But for other problems we would then take the birds to more specialist vets.”

Animal lovers can volunteer at the zoo and centre but Yasmine tells me that some people arrive with a romantic idea of what they will be doing which is far removed from what is actually involved during a normal working day.

“The volunteers need training so that means that a full time member needs to be with them so we end up having less people on that day. There is a big demand to come here to work. But many people have an image that is not always accurate. The reality is that you are dirty all the time and the hours are very long. But if that is your passion then you will enjoy it. You do see animals die here. We can’t save everything that is brought in. We try to release as many as possible and usually it is a little more than fifty per cent, but the rest don’t survive.”

Then there is the issue of feeding. She added: “We do buy some meat, mainly beef for the carnivores, but we also breed animals to feed them. These will be rabbits, guinea pigs and mice – they are fed to the lynx, foxes, bears. Killing these animals can be difficult, especially for the animal keepers but at least you know that they have been killed in the correct way and that they have been raised well. There are very strict laws in Switzerland about how to kill animals and we follow these closely.”

This year alone the zoo has received 215 animals and Yasmine says that they are likely to exceed the 300 figure.

The zoo and rescue centre relies on donations and its main funding comes from the city as well as the The Royal Society of the Protection of Animals. The Zoo is free to the public and there is a donation box. It also accepts donation through its website:

http://www.mhnc.ne.ch

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Posted in: Branching out