Depending on how the wind blows, you might not need to walk many steps from the bus stop before you start to hear the barking. It’s visiting hours at the Tierheim, Europe’s largest animal shelter. Here, deep in Lichtenberg, about 12,000 animals are brought in every year, for a variety of reasons: the owners have moved, divorced or been sent to prison; a dog has gotten old and sickly; a lizard has grown bigger than expected. In rarer cases, the animals were mistreated and had to be brought here by the Veterinary Office.
A Sunday afternoon here feels like a day out at the zoo: dozens of people stroll around the 16-hectare grounds, many pushing prams or walking a dog alongside the artificial pond that runs next to the cat house, where you can watch felines napping or playing behind the windows. Children tunnel through the corridor-like rabbit-and-rodent house where guinea pigs and bunnies are cuddled up. A footpath leads visitors around the big, circular concrete building that houses the dogs, runaway pets, an elderly cats’ home and a rehabilitation and training facility. Beyond that are enclosed pastures where small visitors can gawk at the Nutztiere: lambs, pigs, geese, chickens and even a pony.
A more exceptional attraction, but kept away from visitors’ eager eyes, are the boarders of the Reptilienhaus, including a giant royal python snake that was transferred here last year from another shelter and a water monitor lizard that grew too large for its owners. Also hidden from the public are the shelter’s 16 primates – rescued from GDR laboratories, the circus or private homes and definitely not up for adoption.
At any given time, about 1200 animals live here, including nearly 600 cats, 320 dogs and over 120 reptiles. The numbers peak before Easter and Christmas, and around the summer holidays. While pure-bred kittens and puppies quickly find new homes, others might have to wait for weeks, months or even longer: the shelter’s record holder, a pit bull terrier named Taylor, stayed there for seven years before he was finally adopted in October 2013. But long-term residents need not worry about getting put down. Like all animal shelters in Germany, this one is “no-kill” – animals aren’t euthanised unless it’s for a medical reason, or if they’re a danger to themselves, and even then the decision must first be carefully weighed by an ethics committee.
The complex opened in the summer of 2001 under controversy, considered too expensive (building costs grew to nearly €48 million) and extravagant by some members of the Berlin Animal Protection Society. Others praised its aspiration to provide light and space through modern design elements like skylights, exposed concrete, a water fountain and square ponds.
Keeping all these animals fed, walked and cared for isn’t cheap: one day in the Tierheim runs up a bill of around €12,000. The Animal Protection Society gets all its income from membership fees and private donations – there are no profits here, and the shelter doesn’t get money from the Senat or the city except for its lost pet station, which is administrated by Bezirksamt Lichtenberg.
Want to bring home a furry friend? Once you’ve chosen your pet, you must pay a fee that covers the animal’s care, food, vaccinations and microchips, as well as castrations and possible veterinary expenses. Dogs cost up to €205, cats €65-85, rabbits €20 and other small critters €5-25. If you can’t adopt but want to help, you can become a member of the animal protection society for a fee of €20 per year – or, if you’re an animal lover with a lot of time on your hands, apply to become a regular dog walker or cat petter.
Berliner Tierheim, Hausvaterweg 39, Falkenberg, S-Bhf Ahrensfelde + Bus 197 to stop Tierheim Berlin, Tue-Sun 11-16:00, www.tierschutz-berlin.de
Originally published in issue #123, January 2014.