Zoo closed? Why not build your own?

Building an exact virtual copy of the Dutch Beekse Bergen, the largest safari park in the Benelux, this is the goal Jurrien Brondijk has set himself. The master's student of Industrial Design is plowing all his spare time into perfecting his digital zoo. His project caught the attention of national radio and TV channels, as well as the director of Beekse Bergen himself.

image Jurrien Brondijk

Has he always been a gamer? Jurrien Brondijk points to the shelves full of games behind him, when Cursor speaks to him on Teams. For a year now this Eindhoven student has been playing Planet Zoo exclusively: a game in which you create a zoo and then aim to run it at a profit. “I'm playing it in sandbox mode. That means I've got an unlimited budget, so that I can concentrate wholly on the construction.”

Whereas other gamers imagine the zoo they build, Brondijk is replicating the safari park in the Dutch town of Hilvarenbeek near the border with Belgium. Yes, replicating; creating an exact replica of everything from the reptile house to the dung heap. Why Beekse Bergen of all places? That was almost a matter of chance. “The idea occurred to me while I was visiting the zoo to see the red pandas - amazing animals, I think; they had just had young.”

Learning more about the Brabant safari park as he builds, his love for it only grows. “Beekse Bergen is actively involved in animal conservation. They are doing a lot to help conserve the rhino and the cheetah. What's more, they have the largest sea mammal habitat in Europe; their animals include sea lions. And sea lions - the oh so elegant females, the males rolling in fat - are one of my favorite animals.”

Bob Ross

Brondijk soon bought himself a season ticket to Beekse Bergen and on every visit he shot masses of photos. Unfortunately, zoos are among the places that went into lockdown in December. “There are still some parts of the site I'd like to photograph from another angle.” Incidentally, there's not an elephant or lion to be seen in his photos; he tends to capture litter bins, animal stalls and restaurants on film. This is because the game allows you to buy them ready to use, whereas the buildings and infrastructure you have to build yourself. Which for Brondijk is where the challenge lies.

“Materials like planks, rope and walls are available in the game. But these standard elements don't always look like the real ones in Beekse Bergen. I enjoy exploring the limits of the game, pushing it until I get the result I'm looking for.” Brondijk is creative. For instance, he uses the letters not only for texts but also as building elements for small objects. On his YouTube channel, now drawing well over five hundred subscribers, he demonstrates his approach. Fellow gamers like to watch and pick up his tricks of the trade.

Brondijk enjoys the online interaction. When he made some information panels showing pictures of animals - all the while explaining in English what he was doing - someone commented that he looked like artist and cult icon Bob Ross. “The biggest compliment ever,” he says, laughing.

Children's news

Brondijk's virtual zoo fame has already travelled beyond the niche world of gamers. This ball started to roll when he posted news of his project on Reddit. “Staff at Beekse Bergen saw his post and called in the regional broadcaster Omroep Brabant.” The entertaining TV news programs Editie NL, and Jeugdjournaal (a news roundup for children) followed, together with radio stations Qmusic and 100%NL. As the “wicked” result of all this, the student now has an appointment with the director of Beekse Bergen. “To take a walk through the park together and to see the changes made since the park's been closed to visitors.”

Although Brondijk sees his virtual safari park as a creative outlet alongside his TU/e Master's of Industrial Design, he is now considering combining the two. “I like spending time on educational games and augmented reality. Perhaps I can do my final project in this area, in collaboration with a zoo.”

Let's not forget that creative outlets can also be time-consuming. Brondijk has already invested more than a thousand hours in his safari park, and he is about halfway to his goal, he reckons. “But six months ago I said the same thing. Then an update with all kinds of new options was released, and I've sort of rebuilt everything again since then.”

For more about the safari park, visit https://www.beeksebergen.nl/en.

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