Take a walk on Berlin’s wildest side

It was a lovely summer night and I was riding my bicycle down Unter den Linden towards Alexanderplatz. There was hardly any traffic, so I had the street to myself and I was enjoying the beautiful buildings on Berlin’s most famous boulevard – except for Karl-Marx-Allee, of course. And then I saw it, crossing the road right in front of me. At first I thought it was a cat, which would have been strange enough since I hardly ever spot any cats in Berlin. Could it be a dog, wandering the streets all alone?  No, I had never seen a tail like that on a dog: it was big, furry and red, with a white tip. This had to be a fox!

I had never seen a wild fox before and the centre of Berlin was the last place I’d expected to see one. Amazed, I followed it as it ran into the front yard of the Humboldt University and relieved itself in the middle of it. Realizing I had no time to lose, I grabbed my phone to take a picture – but the battery was empty, as it always is at that one moment a year you REALLY need to take a picture of something. Right next to me, an Italian guy had better luck. He was filming it while whispering: “Incredibile… Una volpe in mezzo Berlino…” (“Unbelievable…A fox in the middle of Berlin”).

The quick brown fox…

So for a few days I thought something magical had happened and I had been so lucky to witness it. But then I spotted another fox, just off the Oberbaumbrücke. And then my boyfriend and his friends spotted one in Kreuzberg. I started doing some research and found out that there was nothing magical about seeing a fox in Berlin. In fact there are an estimated 2,000 foxes in Berlin. That’s right: 2,000! I was truly amazed at this number, until I switched on my laptop and did some research.

Berlin turned out to be wilder than I would ever have expected – much wilder. In Holland I was used to spotting many many pigeons and sometimes a mouse. Truth be told: seeing those animals didn’t make me exceptionally happy.  When I look out of the window on the back side of my apartment now, I see squirrels and rabbits – not just when I’m very lucky, but almost every morning and every evening. And apparently that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because a quick Google search told me Berlin is the ‘wild boar capital’ of Germany (5,000 of them!) and also home to quite a few raccoons (800!).

Some cat food for lunch

So what’s up with all these animals just running around on the streets of Berlin? Where do they come from and how do they survive? As I found out, there are many stories to be told about that. Let’s start with the foxes and biologist Sophia Kimmig (Leibniz-Institut für Zoo- und Wildtierforschung). This May she started a big research project on foxes in Berlin. As she told Radio Berlin Brandenburg: “[The fox] is very successful, not to say the most successful predatory mammal of all. Its conquest of the city is a sign of this success. What makes him so successful in this, is one of the central questions that we want to answer with this project.” All Berliners are asked to file a report whenever they spot a fox – and in only a short time, 1,000 people did so. Kimmig also examines dead animals, to find out what they have been eating and how far the foxes travel inside and around Berlin. Cat food appears to be on the menu, as are mice and the occasional McDonald’s bag.

So it turns out that foxes adapt pretty well to city life – although they might want to forego the bags in the future. Other animals need more help – squirrels, for example. Yes, those furry little toy animals are in distress. Why? Because they are in a hurry to collect nuts for their winter stock. While doing so, they forget to watch out for cars. But there’s help: last year, two Berliners built a squirrel bridge over one of the busiest streets in the city. Then there’s the Eichhörnchen-Hilfe Berlin/Brandenburg, volunteers who look after squirrels in trouble, feeding them and giving them first aid until they’re ready to hop from tree to tree again. Sad note: at this time of year there are so many squirrels in need of help that even the Eichhörnchen-Hilfe can’t help them all. That’s why they created this special first aid video.

The Berlin Wall rabbits

Last but not least, there are the rabbits, hopping around on the playground and parking lot behind my house. As it turns out, there are ‘only’ 3,000 of them left in the city. When the Berlin Wall came down, the city was flooded by rabbits who had all been living in the Todesstreifen, the zone between the two walls. They had no enemies and plenty of grass to eat, so they could breed like rabbits – so to speak. The documentary ‘Rabbit a La Berlin’ tells their story: after procreating between the walls for 28 years, the tens of thousands of rabbits from the most recent generations had no idea that there was a world outside. Diseases have drastically reduced the number of rabbits, otherwise there would probably be more rabbits than people in Berlin right now.

So what if you’re in the centre of Berlin and you want to take a walk on Berlin’s wildest side, too? Just go for a walk in the middle of the night and keep your eyes open, the foxes are all around you (that makes it sound scarier than it is, sorry). Apparently, last year there was a fox who really liked the Christmas market at Potsdamer Platz. Rabbits can be found around dawn at the back side of the buildings on Strausberger Platz and Karl-Marx-Allee. And squirrels, as weird as it may sound, really like graveyards. Close to Strausberger Platz there is a beautiful graveyard next to Volkspark Friedrichshain – last time I visited it, a squirrel was throwing maple tree samaras at me. Yes, this really happened.