A man with an idea

In the sixties, Wim Mager, a photographer from Rotterdam, had two tamarins. At the time it was legal to buy monkeys at a pet shop. What started as a hobby, ended in a primate park. Mager decided to give up his job as a photographer and developed the ‘apen-heul’ concept (‘apen’ means ‘apes’ or ‘monkeys’ and ‘heul’ is old-Dutch for ‘refuge’ or ‘safet zone’).

The concept was simple: people enjoy primates most when the primates are enjoying themselves and behaving naturally. So the monkeys no longer lived in cages with bars, but in large, natural enclosures in the forest.


Apenheul opened in 1971 as a small but revolutionary zoo. It is the first and only zoo in the world(!) where monkeys live free in the forest but can also walk around the visitors. The zoo began with woolly monkeys, spider monkeys and a few other small species. Before long the concept became a proven success among monkeys and visitors alike. The freedom given to the animals allowed them to form ideal social groups and to reproduce perfectly.

Breeding successes

The breeding successes were the main reason for Apenheul’s expansion and gradual acquisition of other primate species. The gorilla, the biggest of all apes, arrived in 1976. Three years later, in 1979, the first gorilla babies were born, followed by many more. Every baby was raised in the gorilla group by the mother, which was very unusual in those days! In addition to attracting more visitors, the success brought primatologists (primate scientists) from all around the world to see “the completed masterpiece”.