Today we had the pleasure of visiting the Koch Institute and the Berlin Zoo.
I was particularly excited for the Koch Institute, not only because it is named after a brilliant epidemiologist but because of its crucial role in controlling and preventing disease in Germany. We heard fascinating talks from Dr. Klaus Stark, Dr. Tanja Ducomble, and Hendrik Wilking, who discussed the Koch Institute’s role in public health as well as their own research.
The Koch Institute tracks epidemiological data across Germany, providing regular reports for the scientific and medical community and writing medical recommendations for local practitioners. In addition to commonplace outbreaks such as food-borne illnesses and annual influenza, the Koch Institute has preparation strategies for high-risk exotic threats such as Ebola virus.
Our hosts spoke on such diverse topics as the role of vaccination in reducing Salmonella enteritidis infection to the presence of Yersinia enterocolitica in German wildlife. I was surprised to learn that Lyme disease is a problem in Germany as well as in the United States, though ticks in the region carry Borrelia species unknown in the United States, such as Borellia garinii.
After a morning of stimulating scientific discussion, we took the metro to the Berlin Zoo, stopping for lunch at the nearby train station. I was surprised at the variety and quality of affordable food near the metro – I would never dream of finding such tasty curried tofu at Atlanta’s MARTA stations. During the afternoon, we were guided through the historically rich Berlin Zoo by biologist Dr. Renate Foerg. Dr. Foerg spoke candidly about the museum’s history and the problems a modern zoo faces.
Some of the exhibits were very old, such as the giraffe exhibit, which dates back to 1871. I was struck by the fact that several of the habitats feature simulated human dwellings – the giraffe habitat looks like a Middle Eastern palace, for example. Dr. Foerg explained that this is a feature of the changing values of zoos, shifting away from exhibits shaped to human tastes towards more natural imitations of the animals’ homelands.
A particularly charming sight was that of the life-sized bronze statue of a hippo named Knautschke. During the second World War, the zoo was struck by bombs, and Knautschke was thought dead. To the surprise and delight of many, Knautschke actually wandered down to the local train station and survived on his own for several days. This famous hippo bred 34 offspring and lived to the ripe age of 45, five years longer than average.
Dr. Foerg candidly discussed issues such as overcrowding and euthanasia in zoos. One disadvantage of the Berlin Zoo’s location in the heart of the city is that they are unable to expand outward. Instead, the zoo keepers must carefully manage the space they have and
limit breeding that isn’t necessary for conservation. It was clear from Dr. Foerg’s statements that animal welfare is an important issue for the zoo.
Overall, today was an exciting, informative day, and I could have spent weeks discussing infectious disease with the Koch Institute’s scientists, or combing through the diverse wildlife exhibits at the Berlin Zoo.
The evening was spent writing “thank you” notes to our gracious hosts who spent their time so generously with us and enjoying our last German meal together. Joining the University of Illinois Study Abroad Germany program has been one of the best decisions I have made as a veterinary student.