Near southwest Berlin in the River Havel is a strange little island known as the Pfaueninsel (“Peacock Island”). As the name implies, this island is in fact home to a flock of wild peacocks – and these birds have been here for centuries!
If you visit the island today, you’ll find yourself surrounded by greenery, abandoned buildings, peacocks and even an old castle.
To understand why, let’s take a look at the island’s history.
The 243 acre island was used for the first time in the 17th century, when William I of Brandenburg established a rabbit farm on the land. As a result, the island was called Kaninchenwerder (“Rabbit Island”).
In 1793, Prussian king Frederick William II decided to use the island to build a castle for himself and his favorite mistress. This was primarily used as a summer residence.
The king’s successor and son, Frederick William III, had other ideas for the island. He turned it into a farm with grottos and aviaries and had exotic animals brought to the island, including alligators, kangaroos, buffalos, chameleons, monkeys, wolves, bears and (of course) peacocks. Over 900 animals of 100 species were brought to live on the island. The king then opened this exotic zoo up to the public.
Many people flocked to the island to see the exotic creatures, leading to overcrowding and chaos. Those responsible for the animals had to find a solution – the island simply wasn’t big enough to accommodate all those visitors.
In 1842, the animals were transferred to a location in Berlin (minus a few peacocks), which opened its gates in 1844. This became known as the “Berlin Zoo” and was the first zoo of its kind in Germany.
Meanwhile, the island went through a series of transitions and uses. Today, however, it remains home to free-ranging peacocks and exotic birds and is a designated nature reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Frederick William II’s castle still stands on the island, and visitors can take a ferry over to see it.