Casa de Fieras, Madrid, Spain

Category: Madrid

Are you planning on visiting Madrid in the near future, Spain’s capital and largest city?  Have you decided on an itinerary for your upcoming holiday, the sites and attractions you’d like to visit while you are in town?  Madrid, Spain is a vacationer’s dream, with literally thousands of things to do and see, including many famous structures and monuments in the city’s most popular park, the Parque del Buen Retiro.  One of the most interesting sites at this renowned park is the Casa de Fieras, or Home of the Beasts, a building which once housed Spain’s oldest collection of wild animals.  In the article below we have provided some background on the Casa de Fieras, including some information regarding its history and the current state of the facility that once housed the zoo.

Casa de Fieras:  Overview

The Casa de Fieras, home to Madrid’s oldest zoological collection, was founded in 1774, although some historians believe there may have been a few species of animals, including a pair of elephants, inhabiting the Royal Menagerie as early as 1770.   The zoo came into existence as the result of an order from King Charles III (Carlos III), and although the collection was housed in as many as four different locations throughout its 220 year history, the complex that still stands in Retiro Park was where the animals called home from 1830 until 1972, when the entire collection was moved to the Casa de Campo.

Casa de Fieras was the longest-lived name for Madrid’s first zoo, which survived for over two centuries despite not having the stability of such historic zoological institutions as the Tiergarten Schonbrunn in Vienna, Austria or the Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris, France.  For a time, Madrid even had two zoos.  In 1858 a small collection of animals was opened to the public as part of the botanical gardens, under the direction of the Museum of Natural Science, but that zoo lasted only eleven years, closing in 1869.

Although there is very little historical documentation regarding the Casa de Fieras, the records kept in the Royal Archives seem to indicate the zoo encountered a series of problems throughout its long history, primarily financial woes.  It faced closure several times, first during the invasion of Napoleon’s army from 1808-1813.  The most prosperous years of the Casa de Fieras—1884 to 1916—were when the zoo was owned privately by a man named Luis Cavanna.  Cavanna was an Italian animal dealer living in Spain and a true showman; it was his idea to create circuslike animal shows for zoo visitors.  A few months after his death in 1917, an inventory of the zoo’s animals showed a mere 98 specimens, including examples of Abyssinian lion, black panther, European deer, red fox, Andean condor, ostrich, peacock and pelican.

Despite having only 98 animals in 1917, the Casa de Fieras somehow survived, although it would never again thrive as it had during Cavanna’s ownership.  The year 1920 saw the beginning of many major renovations aimed at modernizing the Casa de Fieras, but any progress toward that goal was ruined during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, a time during which Retiro Park became a staging area for troops and a number of battles.  At the conclusion of the war, records show the zoo had been reduced to only 25 animals of 13 species.

Although animals were gradually added to the zoo in the 30 years that followed the war (mostly animals from abandoned circuses around Europe), waning popularity and a lack of proper funding finally led to its end, and the animals that remained were transferred to the Casa de Campo, Madrid’s only zoo and now one of the largest in all of Spain.

Throughout the long history of the Casa de Fieras, locals and tourists alike were granted up-close access to a number of exotic animal species, the most precious being the Andean condor.  Records show the large bird was added to the zoo during Cavanna’s tenure, and although there is no supporting documentation, it is widely believed the condor lived in captivity for over 60 years.

No animals have been housed in Retiro Park’s Casa de Fieras since 1972, although at times the structure has served other purposes.  In the 1980s, for example, part of the facility was converted into municipal offices.  Today the building stands abandoned and has sadly fallen into disrepair, but despite being empty, the history and beautiful architectural design of the former zoo makes it well worth checking out. Built in 1830, the complex was the longest-standing home of the wild animal collection and is a brilliant example of early 19th century Spanish architecture.  Plans have been suggested to renovate the complex to create a state-of-the-art library in the park, but as of the writing of this article those plans are still on hold.