Prague Zoo’s Founder and First Director

Director´s view

Miroslav Bobek  |  21. 04. 2015

This Friday, April 24th, marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Prof. Jiří Janda

Prof. Jiří Janda, photo: Prague zoo´s archiv Prof. Jiří Janda, photo: Prague zoo´s archiv

As I proudly point out to most of the people who come to visit me at the Office of the Director of Prague Zoo, the study has, for some years now, been appointed with furniture that was once used by Prague Zoo’s founder and first director, Prof. Jiří Janda. Among the items that served him are its massive bookcase, the writing desk, coffee table, leather-bound sofa and armchairs, cabinet and, last but not least, a chair with arm rests. In a corner of the study stands his bust, overlooking the office and reminding me of the great effort it took to found and build up Prague Zoo and of all the sacrifices that had to be made for this goal.

The first calls to establish a zoological garden in Prague were heard in the early years of the 19th century, but they started to take on a more definite, practicable shape only in 1881, exactly fifty years before the zoo was actually inaugurated. In 1881, Jiří Janda was sixteen, so it is difficult to say whether he was aware of these calls. In his later years, he would reminisce about having conceived the plan to found a zoological garden in Prague on a visit to Dresden Zoo at the age of nineteen.

After his studies and a several-year stint at Charles University, Jiří Janda, a born-and-bred Praguer, took on the first long stretch of his professional life to be spent outside the capital city of the Kingdom of Bohemia, working as a high-school professor at various postings throughout Moravia. Besides teaching, he pursued his passions for ornithology – in which he gradually became an expert of European stature – and travel, the latter thanks to an advantageous marriage. While Prague was constantly abuzz with talk about plans to found a zoo (without it ever leading to much in the way of concrete results – although Alderman Vojta Náprstek did receive a gift of a pair of pelicans for a future Prague zoo in 1899, which, however, he was only too glad to have taken off his hands later on), Jiří Janda would travel all over the world to visit all kinds of zoological gardens, some renowned and some downright bizarre. Within the latter category was “the world’s northernmost zoo” located on the Kola Peninsula, which consisted of a wolverine and an arctic fox tied to barrels for cod, and five bean geese.

After returning to Prague in 1904, Jiří Janda played a key role in a notable, but failed effort to found a zoological garden on the island of Štvanice. There were many reasons why it failed, but a major share of the blame can be attributed to, among others, the explorer Vilém Němec, who was not just a critic of Jiří Janda, but his out-and-out personal enemy. Indeed, all Janda’s efforts to build and operate a zoo in Prague were to be accompanied, right up until his death, by callous criticism, envy and hostile invective. Janda could repel such blows, wrote his second wife Ludmila, “thanks to a light mantle of humor, which might at times turn bitter and caustic”.

The outbreak of the First World War pushed all thoughts of building a zoo in Prague into the background, but when the Czechoslovak Republic was proclaimed, they returned immediately and with a vengeance. Nevertheless, it would still take many years of unimaginable effort before Jiří Janda and his colleagues could see their goal draw near. In the spring of 1928, he and his wife Ludmila finally moved into a two-room apartment in the Trója neighborhood. From there, he oversaw the development of his zoological garden, and there he also kept all the exotic birds that he had acquired for the zoo in Hamburg as early as 1922. With more and more animals arriving, some had to be kept in Jiří Janda’s garden, among them Šárka, the famous lioness. Moreover, Janda never stopped writing. He would write to explain, for instance, what criteria a modern zoo had to meet: “And let me now state something that the layman keeps forgetting: living exhibits do not make a zoological garden! A menagerie or a circus can be packed as full of animals as their cages allow; a zoological garden, on the other hand, places its animals in their natural environment according to biological principles...”

Contemporary records show how enormously difficult it was to push through his plan and then to actually build the zoo. Jiří Janda not only faced attempts to take over the cooperative society that he had formed for the purpose of building the zoo, he also had to deal with political intrigues, various failures, personal attacks and all kinds of know-it-alls (“Once again, we will receive a whole heap of advice and instructions from experts whose auntie kept a canary four years ago.”) But his main occupation was to raise money for the zoo – literally crown by crown. Among those who contributed was Czechoslovak President T. G. Masaryk, who gave fifty thousand crowns – mainly, it appears, because Janda helped his daughter Alice with her parrots. What is more, Jiří Janda did all this work for the zoo for no pay whatsoever. In fact, he put his automobile – and on many occasions his own money – at the Zoo’s disposal…

Finally, on September 28th, 1931, he could solemnly inaugurate Prague Zoo, still under construction at the time, and open its gates to the public. For seven more years, until his sudden death, Prof. Jiří Janda served as the Zoo’s first director. Even today, we are still building on the strong foundations that he managed to lay through decades upon decades of effort.

This Friday marks the 150th anniversary of his birth.