Derk Ehlert has a rather unusual job in the Berlin city government.
As its official wildlife officer, Ehlert is the expert on Berlin’s wild animals. But even though his official job description is to protect the city’s furrier residents, Ehlert says he spends most of his time calming down frantic humans. He receives up to fifty phone calls a day from Berliners who find themselves suddenly face-to-face with wild animals – whether it’s a family of wild boars in the garden of their Grunewald villa, or a raccoon prowling around their attic. We sat down with Ehlert to talk about some of Berlin’s stranger animal stories, from the fox that rides the U-Bahn to the raccoon that moved into a hotel at Alexander Platz.
What kinds of animals live in Berlin?
Here in Berlin we have what we call “the big five” – foxes, raccoons, weasels, wild boars, and rabbits. But that’s only a small part of the animal population. We’ve got everything from ants to squirrels to wild boars here. Even here in my office, in the middle of Berlin, we have a beech marten (a member of the weasel family) living on the roof, and a fox in our garden. We’re in good company!
What is it about Berlin that makes it an ideal place for wild animals?
We have an area of about 900 square kilometers, of which over 40% is green space — so woodlands, vacant lots, swamps, waterways, etc. In the 20th century, the city’s urban planners recognized that Berlin should not just be an industrial city but also a liveable city. So Berlin has all these green corridors and water channels that animals use to get from the outskirts of the city into the center of town. That’s why we get to see species of animals in the middle of the city that we would never otherwise see in a big European metropolis.
What’s a normal day like for you?
I get up to fifty calls a day. My official role is to be there for the animals, but in practice I spend most of my time dealing with humans who have problems with animals, calming them down. I answer the calls and then often go out to investigate specific cases. The kinds of calls I get completely depend on the time of year. During fox mating season in January and February we get a lot of calls about foxes, later on, from March until May, we get a lot of calls about wild boars giving birth to their young in people’s gardens. From April on raccoons become active, so we might get a call about a tired raccoon that is wandering the streets.
What’s the strangest case you had to go investigate?
Actually every day is pretty funny and strange. Recently I had a case where multiple people called to complain about loud foxes in their gardens. The foxes had been lying on top of each other and screaming loudly – and people still asked me what the foxes were doing! As an enlightened person living in a big metropolis, I found it interesting that I had to explain to them the basics of sexual reproduction. You realize how removed we are from nature.
There’s a fox that has learned to take the U-Bahn. He always gets on at the same stop, drives schwarz (without paying) for one stop and then jumps off. The BVG initially reported it to me.
Which U-Bahn stop is it?
Laughs. I’m not telling! I don’t want a crowd of people showing up there tomorrow, trying to lure the fox onto the platform.
What are some of Berlin’s more famous animal residents?
A few years ago a raccoon appeared in the parking garage of the “Park Inn” Hotel at Alexanderplatz. There was a big commotion in the media over what to do with the raccoon. My phone was ringing off the hook. So I went to investigate. We decided together with the hotel management to leave it alone and let it live in the parking garage.
There’s also the fox that lives in the chancellor’s garden. He has no predators there as the guard dogs there are from the Bundesgrenzschutz and are all on leashes.
Would you say Berliners in general are tolerant of their furry neighbors?
Yes, I would say so. And I wish for the future that Berliners will extend their tolerance to larger species of animals. Wolves, for example. Thankfully, we’ve seen a return of wolves to this region in recent years. They are on the city’s doorstep. We should be tolerant and intelligent enough to give other large predators besides us living space.
If you could be any animal in Berlin, what would you be?
Well, it really depends on the season. But in the summer I’d like to be a Mauersegler (swift). Berlin has thousands of them. They fascinate me because they can stay in the air for an extraordinary amount of time; they can fly uninterrupted for several years at a time. They only need sleep for 2.3 seconds and keep flying while they’re sleeping. And they live very long for birds — over 20 years. What more could one want?
To learn more about Berlin’s four-legged community, listen to our summer Utopia special. It airs at 7 p.m. on June 21 on NPR FM 104.1 and at 8 a.m. on June 23 on NPR Berlin and Worldwide.