Ranua Zoo Wildlife Park’s birth and history

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Although Ranua Zoo turned full years for the last time in 2013, to continue the theme of the 80s I covered in my previous text, I felt it was the right option to tell about the birth and history of the largest tourist attraction in our town.
Ranuan Eläinpuiston sisäänkäynti

Table of contents

A secretive planning and fast construction process

Ranuan eläinpuiston lipunmyyntipiste
Ranua Zoo ticket office nearing completion in spring 1983

The idea to build a zoo in Ranua was born in 1979 during the car ride of Kauno Harju, the mayor of Ranua, Jouko Hernetkoski, the business representative of the municipality at that time, Jorma Törni and Pertti Korhonen. The purpose of establishing the zoo was to revitalize the development of the municipality of Ranua through tourism.

Shortly after the idea was born, a “Bear band” was established in Ranua, whose task was to plan the establishment of the zoo in secret from the public.

The construction work in Ranua itself began in 1982, led by civil engineer Kari Jääskeläinen. Typically for the spirit of the time, a large part of the construction work was done with help of the locals and you could say that the whole town was involved in the building.

In the video below, you can watch a compilation of the zoo’s voluntary work two days before the grand opening in the summer of 1983.

The zoo was finally built in record time and the wildlife park was inaugurated in Ranua on June 17, 1983. It was a very large media event that also marked the beginning of a new era in Ranua’s history. Ranua had now become a tourist attraction and the first real milestone had been struck for the municipality slogan Brave Ranua. Ranua Zoo was originally known as Ranua Predatory Animal Park.

Services diversify and employment grows

Murrr Murrr-linnan avajaiset Ranualla kesällä 1986
Opening of Murrr Murrr Castle in the zoo in the summer of 1986.

The opening of the zoo also brought Ranua numerous new businesses, which also created a lot of jobs in the locality.

By the end of the decade, many new companies had entered the zoo’s courtyard to increase their attractiveness and versatility. The most significant of these were the Fazer confectionery factory opened in 1988, which moved to Lappeenranta in the late 1990s, and the Murrr Murrr Castle, invented by Anu and Topi Pentikäinen and designed by architect Esko Lohmola, which was opened in summer 1986. Tellervo, the spouse of the then in charge President of the Finland Mauno Koivisto, was also present at the opening.

The tower of the Murrr Murrr Castle was designed as a kind of Santa’s lighthouse, which was aiming to help Santa both fill his sleigh and navigate during his gift-giving journey. Initially, the castle had e.g. Pentik‘s soft toy sewing shop, pottery workshop and shop. Pentik withdrew from Ranua in the early 1990s and the business was subsequently transferred to Pelkonen’s entrepreneurial couple.

CEOs of Ranua Zoo

The first CEO of Ranua Zoo was one of the initiators of the idea, the municipality’s business representative Jouko Hernetkoski, who was followed by Jorma Hemmi, who was already strongly involved in the construction phase and the subsequent expansion activities.

Later, Ranua Zoo has been managed by Raimo Pelkonen, curator Elina Torvinen, Reijo Karjalainen, Ilmo Hakkarainen, Tuija Rytkönen, Tommi Hinno, Enna Paavola and Johanna Koivunen, who is the current CEO of the zoo.

Extensions and changes as guarantees of success

Ranuan eläinpuiston jääkarhut Venus ja Ranzo
The only polar bears in Finland have been the main tourist attractions at Ranua Zoo.

Ranua Zoo has been a success to this day and has established itself among both domestic and foreign tourists.

Ranua made major investments and expansions as early as the 1980s. In the summer of 1988, Ranua Zoo, fueled by the publicity caused by the Simojärvi submarine business, beat its record result, which lasted until the 2010s. In the late 1980s, the first polar bear named Istar was acquired for Ranua.

Despite the recession, renovations continued in Ranua during the 1990s. The new decade was also a time of internationalization in Ranua, and although Ranua Zoo has a special place, especially in the hearts of domestic families with children, in 2013 already about 25% of the park’s customers came from abroad. This is noticeable especially during the winter season, when almost the entire customer base consists of tourists from outside Finland.

The handprint of various artists can be seen inside the zoo

Ranuan eläinpuiston kierroksella on mahdollista nauttia myös taiteesta
In addition to the animals, it is also possible to admire the handprints of many artists during the park tour.

In addition to dozens of domestic and wild animals, Ranua has the opportunity to admire the handprints of many artists. The first artist to collaborate with Ranua Zoo was Marja-Liisa Pitkäranta, who worked with Ranua Zoo on several occasions in the early 1990s. Her handicrafts include background landscapes inside the animal houses, as well as old brochures, entrance tickets, and signposts still found in the park. The well-known Jussa and Nessi elves are also the handwriting of Pitkäranta.

Pitkäranta was followed by local artist Ilkka Karttunen. The art he made at Ranua Zoo includes e.g. background paintings of the polar bear enclosure, animal target boards, signposts, and paintings found in the small animal house. Karttunen has also been heavily involved in building and planning process of the ice bar, which is open during the winter, as well as the icy details and ice sculptures inside the ice bar.

The latest enhancements to the look of the zoo are those conjured by artist Riitta Ahonen. Ahonen has worked with Ranua Zoo since 2006 and her skills include e.g. life-size brown animal and polar bear animal signs, animal graphics of waste collection points and the interior design and implementation of the Wild Arctic Restaurant found in the zoo.

In 2018, the work “Seven Steps to Save the Ocean” by artist Maija Kovari was opened in connection with the zoo tour, the aim of which is to inspire people to take everyday actions to slow climate change and thereby protect Arctic nature.

Ranua Zoo animal species and animal keepers

Ranuan eläinpuiston ruskeakarhuja vuodelta 2013
Brown bears have always been one of the most popular animal species in Ranua Zoo.

The biggest attraction of Ranua Zoo are the various animal species. The zoo started it’s journey with 17 different animal species and over the decades, this number has increased to more than five dozen and there are more than 200 animal individuals living inside the wildlife park.

The most well-known of these are e.g. the only polar bears in the Nordic countries, the Brown Bears, and the lynxes that have also been seen in the movie screens in the 1990s.

The zoo has also become known for its highly professional and animal-loving animal keepers, who are e.g. Elina Torvinen, already mentioned in connection with the CEOs, Pertti Saarijärvi, one of the first employees of the zoo and a career in the company for more than 30 years, Mari Heikkilä, a long-term curator, and Maarit Hyypiä, a veterinarian in the municipality of Ranua.

Ranua Zoo has also served as a recovery place for many animals injured in nature. The most common animals that come to Ranua for treatment are various birds, such as swans, hawks, owls and owls. Elina Torvinen, who has been in charge of the park for more than 20 years, also cared for many injured animals at her own home. Torvinen could even go to the grocery store with a tame lynx with her.

Some famous animal individuals over the decades

Ranuan eläinpuiston Väinö-ilves näytteli Poika ja Ilves elokuvan toista pääosaa
Film star Väinö is still the most famous and popular animal individual in the history of Ranua Zoo

Over the decades, personal animal individuals have also been included. Such are, for example, the first deer, the adopted Konsta moose, who was known for his love towards humans. Konsta hatched a real pet for the zoo’s caretakers, whom he was also following to work inside the zoo.

Many who were born in the 80’s also remember the astonishing talking raven Jaska. For many zoo visitors, Jaska was an individual favorite of Ranua Zoo’s animals and many people still ask about him these days. 

However, the most famous animal in Ranua Zoo in the 1990s was the lovely Väinö lynx, who starred in the film Tommy and the Wildcat. Väinö was born in the Ranua Zoo, but was soon abandoned by his mother, as a result of which the lynx was cared for by the zoo’s keepers. Indeed, the human-raised lynx became very tame and also spent a lot of time in the animal keepers ’office, where many visitors mistook him as a plush toy. Isa and Bella, two lynxes from Sweden, who starred in the same film, were also acquired to the zoo at the end of the 90s. 

Also worth mentioning is the zoo’s most famous brown bear, Palle-Jooseppi, found as an orphan, who became known over the years for both his determined attitude and his skills as a baseball catcher. Pertti Saarijärvi, who has come a long way with a bear, characterizes the king of the forest as a basic Finnish man who took what he wanted.

The best known of the smaller animals was the affectionate Santtu otter, who traveled with Elina Torvinen all the way to Central Finland. Known for its lively nature, Santtu was also a particularly neat animal individual who used the toilet just like humans.

In the 2010s, two surviving polar bear puppies, Ranzo (b. 2012) and Sisu (b. 2017), have garnered the most attention at the zoo. Both of the cubs are offspring of polar bear male Manasse and female Venus and have since moved abroad to new homes. In 2021, the polar bear male Nord was acquired for Ranua Zoo as Venus’ groom candidate – to replace the deceased Manasse.

Big media attention

Ranuan eläinpuiston 30 vuotisjuhlat
Numerous front-line Finnish artists visited the 30th anniversary celebrations of Ranua Zoo.

Ranua Zoo has gathered a lot of attention around the world. In Finland, one of the biggest milestones has been the whole family’s film Tommy and the Wildcat, shot in the late 1990s, which brought a huge amount of visibility to the entire municipality of Ranua..

Media visibility for Ranua was also greatly enhanced in 2005, when President of the Republic Tarja Halonen and her husband Pentti Arajärvi visited the zoo.

In the 2010s, the zoo, in turn, gathered fame and glory thanks to its first surviving polar bear cubs. Born in 2012, Ranzo helped increase the annual number of visitors to Ranua Zoo to over 151,000, and in 2017 the record was set again by Sisu, with about 157,000 visitors to the wildlife park during the year. The previous visitor records were from the late 80’s, when the Simojärvi submarine also attracted the public to Ranua.

A time of diversification in the 21st century

Ranuan eläinpuiston yhteydessä sijaitseva lomakylä Gulo Gulo
Holidays Village Gulo Gulo was built next to Ranua Zoo in 2012.

The 21st century has been, above all, a time of diversification for Ranua Zoo. A new selection has been obtained in Ranua for both activity and accommodation. During the 21st century, e.g. own camping area, Holiday Village Gulo Gulo, completed in 2012, and Arctic Fox Igloos, which started operating in the Ranuanjärvi camping area in 2018. In 2020, the old playground area of ​​the zoo, which had been opened in the 1990s, was renovated by Lappset Group Oy.

Although the zoo’s activities have also become more international, it has also retained its place as a standard destination for many domestic tourists, especially during the summer. The zoo has also played a strong role in maintaining the vitality of Ranua municipality.

In recent years, new animal attractions have also been brought to Ranua Zoo, e.g. dholes and manuli, new wolf pair Ruska and Routa, who had their first offspring in spring 2020 the previously mentioned male polar bear Nord, and the lynx siblings Jakobine and Lüsija who moved to Ranua Zoo in spring season 2021. 

About the topic elsewhere: Lonely Planet | Ranua Zoo | Finland Attractions Ranua Zoo Facebook Page | Image folders Lapland.fi | Ranua – Home of Finland’s polar bears Discovering Finland | Ranua Wildlife Park

Article images: | Ranua Zoo Facebook Page | Image folders 

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