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A joey looks out of its mom's pouch at the Vivarium in Darmstadt. You can walk through the wallaby's enclosure at the Vivarium, but you can't pet or feed them.

A joey looks out of its mom's pouch at the Vivarium in Darmstadt. You can walk through the wallaby's enclosure at the Vivarium, but you can't pet or feed them. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

A joey looks out of its mom's pouch at the Vivarium in Darmstadt. You can walk through the wallaby's enclosure at the Vivarium, but you can't pet or feed them.

A joey looks out of its mom's pouch at the Vivarium in Darmstadt. You can walk through the wallaby's enclosure at the Vivarium, but you can't pet or feed them. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

Visitors to Darmstadt's Vivarium can be glad that this rattlesnake, and others of its ilk, are kept behind glass in the reptile house.

Visitors to Darmstadt's Vivarium can be glad that this rattlesnake, and others of its ilk, are kept behind glass in the reptile house. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

A tortoise at the Vivarium, a small zoo in Darmstadt, Germany, climbs the walls of its pen for a closer look at a visitor.

A tortoise at the Vivarium, a small zoo in Darmstadt, Germany, climbs the walls of its pen for a closer look at a visitor. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

A brown lemur makes sure the coast is clear before grabbing a bite to eat.

A brown lemur makes sure the coast is clear before grabbing a bite to eat. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

A visit to the Vivarium in Darmstadt, Germany, is sort of a Doctor Doolittle experience: You can walk and talk with the animals — even though they can’t understand you.

The dictionary defines vivarium as “concerning living creatures” and “an enclosed indoor place for keeping and studying terrestrial animals.” Although the indoor part is not totally right, the rest of the definition describes the Vivarium perfectly.

More than 700 creatures from more than 150 species live in this minizoo that, while open to the public, is also a leading institute in the breeding of endangered species.

A lane leads visitors past the animal enclosures to the indoor houses. But there is no need to rush by: You can walk through the wallaby enclosure, where, depending on their mood, the marsupials might come up to you for a closer look or scamper away.

And while you are not supposed to touch or feed the animals, at the Vivarium’s petting zoo you, and especially the kids, are encouraged to pet the goats. A little human-goat interaction is supposed to be good for both species.

The animals at the Vivarium range from large, thick-coated yaks to the common guinea pig. There are owls, parrots and vultures, and there are turtles and tortoises. There are aquariums with fish and terrariums with reptiles, many of them poisonous. There is a monkey house with a crocodile swimming in it, and a walk-through birdhouse. Under construction is a house for an otter family.

A little tip: Try not to visit the Vivarium at midday, especially in the summer. You will likely just see a bunch of animals sleeping in the shade, even ones — such as the camels — that are used to heat.

The pride of the Vivarium is its enclosure for Celebes black apes. These small endangered apes from Indonesia live and play in a three-tiered area, with an indoor cove for sleeping, a large glass house with trees, ropes and swings and an outdoor area with plenty of room to romp.

The cove is behind glass to give the animals a little privacy from the visitors, while the house and outdoor area are surrounded by a moat so apes and visitors can have an unimpeded view of one another.

At the Vivarium, the studying of terrestrial animals works both ways.

On the QT

Directions: The Vivarium is on the east side of Darmstadt at Schnampelweg 4. In Darmstadt, or coming through town from Autobahn 5, follow the signs to Dieburg, then look for signs for the Vivarium (most of them have an owl on them).

From Babenhausen, take Highway 26 to Darmstadt, turn left at the traffic light as the highway ends. Just past the gas station on the left is the road to the Vivarium.

Hours: Open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily from April to September. Closes at 6 p.m. in October and March, and at 5 p.m. November through February. The ticket booth closes an hour earlier.

Cost: Three euros for adults and 1 euro for children.

Food: You can take food and eat at the picnic tables and benches spread throughout the Vivarium. Feeding the animals is forbidden. At the entrance is a café and kiosk that serves snacks and drinks, but it is outside the gate, so you can only eat there before or after your visit.

If you have money to spare, the Vivarium restaurant outside the gate is pricey, but considered by many to serve the best Italian cuisine in Darmstadt.

More information: The Vivarium does not have a working Web site at the moment. You can find information and photos in German at: www.suedhessen-online.de/stadtrundgang/vivarium. The telephone number is: 06155-13394.

— Michael Abrams


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