On the outskirts of the West German city of Duisburg, a 130,000-square-foot warehouse is home to a jaw-dropping 250,000-plus living creatures of all shapes and sizes. Zoo Zajac, named after its founder Norbert Zajac, is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest pet store, yet it seamlessly blends in with the surrounding countryside buildings, containing its true nature until you walk through the front door and are immediately greeted by the sights, sounds and smells of Noah’s Ark.
The now decades-old landmark is a German institution, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the globe each year. But in an era of ever-increasing (warranted) concern for the well-being of animals, the very idea of an establishment like Zoo Zajac seems nothing short of an ethical minefield. The debate over zoos rages, with PETA comparing them to prisons, and TIME rebutting that, on the contrary, they actually “improve the lives” of their residents. There was no way I’d be able to adjudicate this one from afar, so on a recent visit to Germany, I sojourned to the massive menagerie to get some answers and figure out if there’s any guilt-free way to enjoy this many captive animals.
The zoo grew out of Zajac’s lifelong affinity for animals. He started as a child, breeding hamsters in the basement of his family home and selling the offspring to local shops. Over time, he added reptiles, birds and other critters to his operation, quickly gaining renown in the region as something of an animal husbandry wunderkind. In 1975, with the help of a loan from his father, Zajac purchased and took over a small pet store in Duisburg, eventually expanding to the Walmart supercenter-sized warehouse he’s at today.
One of the first things you’ll note when entering the store is that, mercifully, the “zoo” is not crammed wall-to-wall with animals. In fact, the majority of the aforementioned 250,000 animal figure is likely comprised of crickets, mealworms and other bulk-feed insects. There are cages, tanks and cases lining the building’s perimeter and scattered about the center, but most of the store’s aisles are stocked with pet accessories, which make up the lion’s share of sales. As Zajac told Bloomberg in 2015, “If I just sold only animals, I would lose €250,000 a year.”
Another noticeable feature of the store was that, despite its abundance of life when compared to your average Petco, the most common household pets were in short supply. I saw only a couple of cats and maybe a half dozen dogs in total, which I later learned was due to the country’s strict dog laws. To incentivize adoption and help shake the specter of their eugenics-heavy past, Germany has all but forbidden dog breeding, and Zoo Zajac is one of the few pet stores that has been given special permission to sell dogs. And it’s not just dogs who are treated like kings in the Rhineland; Germany has some of the most progressive animal welfare laws in the world. This, alone, mollified many of my concerns about Zoo Zajac. The place is a prominent landmark. There’s no way the animal cruelty bureau suits from Berlin haven’t already covered every inch of the store with a fine-tooth comb.
I meandered through the labyrinthine store, taking in all the animals I saw, each new enclosure’s residents more surprising than the last. There were the usual hamsters, tarantulas, ferrets, lizards and fish, but also marmosets, toucans and alligators. I couldn’t find the three-toed sloth I’d heard so much about in my preliminary research. I could only hope it had found a forever home.
Also nowhere to be found was the store’s owner. It seemed I had chosen one of Norbert’s rare off days to make my visit and would be unable to accompany him on one of his famed five-hour tours of the store.
I entered the avian section and paid €1 for some feed to take into an enclosure full of parrots and cockatiels. The birds playfully swarmed me, perching about my shoulders and arms, tugging my ear gently when I’d gone too long without offering them another treat. I can’t say for certain that these captives were happy per se, but their playfulness was on full display. I flagged down an employee who thankfully spoke some English and asked if she thought the birds liked it here.
“Oh, yes,” she replied. “They seem to enjoy it very much.”
In an adjacent outdoor enclosure for larger birds like peacocks, turkeys and chickens, the employee’s assertion seemed to be confirmed as the mini-dinosaurs strutted around like they owned the place, ambivalent about the humans near them, unless one was offering food. One of the turkeys took a liking to me and followed me around like a dog for the half hour I spent out there.
Try as might, I was unable to find any forlorn or neglected creatures during my day at Zoo Zajac. In every section I passed through, a worker was diligently cleaning a cage or feeding its inhabitants, caring for all animals, big and small, with the same level of attentiveness and compassion.
It seems Mr. Zajac’s unrelenting love for animals has permeated all aspects of his business. He claims he’s been legally dead and resuscitated three times while caring for his “babies” over the years. The most recent brush with death came from a lionfish’s spines. For most jobs, one workplace injury would be enough for most to consider seeking employment elsewhere. That Norbert carries on with his mission after DYING three times only speaks to his heart being in the right place. PETA might not agree with me, but I left the shop happy that it exists and that a little German boy was able to turn his nurturing nature into a one-of-a-kind destination.