Adoption ban reminds Germans pets are not just for Christmas

Europe’s largest sanctuary will keep 1,400 animals over festive season so that none end up as unwanted gifts

Max and Moritz are possibly two of the happiest occupants of Berlin’s animal sanctuary. The green-cheeked parakeets were reunited after weeks of separation, having flown away from their previous owner. They lean into each other as they chew on vegetables hanging from the ceiling, chirpily sharing a cage with several budgerigars and bourke’s parrots.

A few blocks away in the dog kennels, Fridolin, a two-year-old dusky pale brown weimaraner, stands on his hind legs and presses his nose against the window of his cubicle. He has been at the sanctuary since mid-October after being picked up on the street.

They are just a handful of around 1,400 animals being looked after at Tierheim Berlin , Europe’s largest sanctuary, as they await new homes. But they won’t be moving on before Christmas, after shelters across the country imposed a temporary ban on adoptions.

“We just don’t want to see animals being placed under the Christmas tree and then soon after returning to us because the creature turned out not to be such a good idea after all,” says Beate Kaminski of Tierheim Berlin.

Scores of animals typically end up back at the shelter in the days and weeks after Christmas as their new owners discover the flaws in their new pets or their incompatibility with busy Berlin lifestyles. Most common are turtles and tortoises, lizards and snakes.

The shelters hope their campaign, Animals Don’t Belong Under the Christmas Tree – the German equivalent of the slogan “A pet is for life, not just for Christmas” – will at the very least make people think.

An aviary at Tierheim Berlin


An aviary at Tierheim Berlin, Europe’s largest animal sanctuary. Photograph: Christian Jungeblodt for the Guardian

In the reptile house, Kay Kieselbach, a keeper who has worked at the shelter for seven years, says he is exasperated by attitudes towards the animals in his care, which include Australian bearded dragons, once en vogue. He says they get discarded for reasons ranging from changes in trends for scale colours to the high electricity costs of heat lamps. A booming online trade in reptiles has only made the problem worse.

“We’re keen to raise awareness that animals are just not suitable as presents, often brought on a whim by people who can’t think of what else to buy,” he says. “Never surprise anyone with a pet.”

A rhesus monkey, one of the few leftover inhabitants from an East German research laboratory, is playing outside despite the cold. He’s not a likely candidate for adoption, Kaminski admits. Nor are the hundreds of pigeons that have dropped, exhausted, out of races between southern and eastern Europe and are kept on site, nor the pigs and geese, pit bulls and rottweilers. But no less care is shown towards them, she says.

“Of course people are looking for the cute ones. Little dogs and kittens – ideally the ones who are going to be the least work. That’s why we put frosted glass on the windows where the kittens live, otherwise visitors would spend the whole day drooling over them.”

The shelter takes in between 10,000 and 12,000 animals a year, and its estimated €8m running costs are financed mainly through donations. Set over 16 hectares in Falkenberg, in north-east Berlin, it boasts 173 carers, eight vets and an army of between 500 and 800 volunteers who help with everything from cleaning to taking dogs for walks.

A cat in the sanctuary


A cat in the sanctuary. Photograph: Christian Jungeblodt for the Guardian

Underfloor heating, colour-coordinated suites in the senior cats’ residency – a separate block where noise is kept to a minimum – and an underwater treadmill for dogs with joint problems are among the facilities on offer. There is a separate hut for treating injured aquatic birds such as swans, and even wounded city pigeons have their own tin shack.

“We never kill unwanted animals,” says Kaminski, watching a French bulldog who arrived two days ago and has a slipped disc, painfully dragging his legs behind him as he is taken for a walk in the forecourt. She explains that an ethics commission decides if and when an animal should be put down.

In this case the dog will probably be operated on, followed by rehab on the underwater treadmill to build up his muscles. Everywhere there are Christmas decorations, including tinsel and stockings in the cat house and a crib by the rabbits’ hutches, as if to try to make up for the fact that these animals do not have homes to go to. The ban will be lifted on 27 December.

Jutta Meier, 71, a retired lecturer in German and ethics, found her dream pet just before the ban came into force, paying €200 for a small black and brown crossbreed called Kira

“The staff gave me a two-hour interview to check my suitability and will visit my home to check that Kira is happy,” she says. “They couldn’t be more thorough.” She has been given a 10kg bag of dog food and can return for free vet inspections any time.

In the aviary, Lisa Galey, cleaning up after her birds, says: “It’s no good surprising a loved one with an animal only to discover after Christmas that it doesn’t fit into your hectic daily schedule.”

Her colleague Paula Heindel, agrees. “People need to realise ahead of getting one that animals need cleaning up after them and they don’t always want to cuddle.”

The pair feed walnuts to the inseparable parakeets and a two grey parrots, Roger and Willi, who met at the home and appear to have found love together. Roger is even in the process of teaching Willi his former owner’s telephone number and his favourite phrase, “Keine angst” (fear not).


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