21st Century Arks: The History and Future of Zoos

Every major city in the US has a zoo. For most children, trips to the zoo are a highlight of childhood. Today, there is a small but vocal movement to eliminate zoos. But zoos actually have a long history–a history that tracks our changing ideas about nature and our relationship to it.


St Louis Zoo.

The earliest “zoos” were menageries. These were simple collections of caged animals, especially exotic species from faraway provinces, gathered together by kings and emperors to show off their power and wealth. The earliest of these discovered so far is at Hierakonpolis, Egypt, where in 3500 BCE the Pharoahs kept a collection of hippos, elephants, baboons and hartebeests. King Nebuchednezzar kept a royal menagerie in Babylon, and the Chinese King Wen of Chou maintained a private animal collection called the “Garden of Intelligence”. Alexander the Great sent back animal specimens from his Asian conquests, which were displayed in Athens. The Roman Emperors not only imported exotic animals from all over the known world for use in the arena games, but also for large private collections that showed off the extent of their exotic provinces as an example of Rome’s power in bringing civilization to the barbarian world.
Royal menageries were especially popular in medieval Europe. The most famous of these was the royal collection at the Tower of London, gathered in the year 1204, by King John I from animals that had been given to him as gifts by diplomats and ambassadors. The caged lions, bears and leopards were maintained for the amusement of the royal family.

When Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the throne in 1558, the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London was opened to the public. By the 1700’s, the collection had expanded to include polar bears, kangaroos and ostriches, and members of the public could see the animals for an admission of one and a half pence, or if they brought a cat or dog to feed the lions with. In 1765, the menagerie of the Austrian Emperor at Vienna’s Schonbrunn Palace was opened to the public, as was the royal animal collection at the Jardin de Plantes in Paris in 1795.

By the beginning of the 19th century, political revolutions had wiped away monarchy as a governmental system, and science and the study of the natural world had swept across Europe and would soon produce the Industrial Revolution. In keeping with the new democratic worldview, governments in Europe began transforming the “royal menageries” into publicly-owned “zoological gardens” as a way of gathering the world’s animals into places where they could be academically studied, as well as providing entertainment and curiosity for the public. In 1828, the newly-formed London Zoological Society opened the London Zoo in Regents Park (though it was not fully available to the public until 1847), and opened a public aquarium in 1853. The London Zoo became the prototype for the publicly-owned (usually by a nonprofit zoological society) zoological park. The Dublin Zoo opened in 1831, and the Melbourne Zoo in Australia in 1860. The Philadelphia Zoological Society was established in 1859, but the zoo itself, delayed by the Civil War, was not opened until 1874; meanwhile the Central Park Zoo was opened in 1860–leading to both zoos claiming the title of “America’s First Zoo”.

These early zoological parks were not much different in appearance from the royal menageries. The animals were confined in small iron-bar cages akin to prison cells. Some of them were taught to perform tricks for the public, who threw them bits of food as a reward. Because knowledge of animal care was lacking, most of the animals died after a short time, and had to be regularly replaced by collecting trips that gathered replacements from the wild. Zoos tended towards “postage-stamp collections”, vying with each other to exhibit one example of as many different species as possible–the more exotic, the better. The underlying message was that of the “conquest” of the primitive natural world by “civilization” and “progress”–the same message that had been broadcast millenia earlier by the Roman Emperors with their menageries.

Zoos often also reflected the pervasive white European supremacism of the times. The London Zoo placed a San woman from South Africa, named Saartjie Baartman, on display as “The Hottentot Venus”, while zoos in Germany and France exhibited Nubians, Samoans and Inuit people. For a number of years the Bronx Zoo had an African “pygmy” from the Congo area, named Ota Benga, living inside the Orangutan cage during the day as an exhibit. There was also a “Philippine village” display with native Filipinos, meant to depict the “savages” who had just been conquered by the US during the Spanish-American War.

But in the early 20th century, zoo design underwent a major revolution, led by one man–German animal collector Carl Hagenbeck. In 1907, Hagenbeck founded a zoo in Hamburg that was vastly different from anything else in the world. The iron-bar prison cells were gone–Hagenbeck housed his animals in large open areas that were landscaped to mimic as much as possible the natural habitats they were found in. Walls and fences were replaced by moats and ditches. These enclosures contained a mixture of different species, living together as they would in the wild. And rather than being housed together according to taxonomic groups, with all the “mammals” here and all the “reptiles” there, Hagenback organized his zoo along natural geographical lines, with the Asian animals in one section and the African in another. By the 1930’s, with the appearance of the automobile, Hagenbeck’s open-air concept had become transformed into the “safari park”, where animals were displayed in open fields with dirt roadways where cars could be driven. The first of these “safaris” opened in Whipsnade Park in England in 1931.

During the political and social turmoil of the 1960’s, the environmentalist movement rose to prominence, and zoos came under heavy criticism. They were, critics charged, “animal prisons”, where living creatures were confined in substandard cages as objects of amusement and spectacle. These criticisms were all valid, and in response, “zoos” underwent a major transformation, led largely by the Jersey Zoo in England, the Bronx Zoo in New York, the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, and the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. The iron-bar cells disappeared, the fenced pens were removed, the “Monkey Houses” were torn down–replaced by Hagenbeck’s vision of open-air naturalistic enclosures which replicate the natural environment as closely as possible, and which allows for the naturalistic mixing of different species that would be living together in the wild. Emphasis on replicating nature has now led most zoos to be partitioned by geography rather than taxonomy–instead of seeing zebras in one area and rhinos in another, now one can see zebras, antelope, rhinos and wildebeest all together in large open areas replicating the African Plains, as they would live in the wild. They are even able to have predators and prey seemingly intermingled with each other, safely separated by barriers that are invisible to both animals and humans.

The purpose of the zoo also changed completely–now it was no longer about simply displaying as many different varieties of species as possible for the public. The watchwords for every zoo became “education” and “conservation”. Zoos would become lifeboats for all the species that were rapidly disappearing from the wild, places where endangered and threatened species could be bred to augment their dwindling numbers, where we could learn as much as possible about their needs, both in captivity and in the wild, so we could increase their populations and release captive-bred animals back into the wild, make their lives as comfortable, stimulating, and enriching as possible while doing so–and at the same time educate the public about the entire issue of endangered and threatened habitats. Zoological societies began establishing research stations around the world to study natural habitats, both to learn how to protect them, and how to prepare their captive-bred animals to survive in them.

In the US, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) was set up as a nationwide accrediting agency, which produced minimum acceptable standards regarding animal housing and care (AZA produces its own updated Animal Care Manuals for zoo species, specifying the acceptable housing and care requirements), financial responsibility and transparency, conservation work, veterinary care, and staff training. Every zoo that applies for AZA membership undergoes a multi-day inspection by an outside team of zoo experts, and members are required to be re-certified every five years. All of the major zoos in the US are AZA-accredited.

AZA also coordinates breeding and exchange programs between zoos through “Species Survival Plans”, which are drawn up for each species to facilitate the best genetic matches between zoo animals for breeding the most robust population for release back to the wild. As a result of their focus on captive breeding for re-release, the number of species on display in most zoos has now become smaller, but the number of individuals for each species has increased as breeding groups became important, and particular zoos have became specialized in captive-breeding a small number of species for conservation and release. Today, the goals of every modern zoo are conservation, captive-breeding, and education.

And zoos have been remarkably successful in meeting those goals. A growing number of species, including Arabian Oryx, California Condor, Pere David’s Deer, and Przewalski’s Horse, are already either nearly or completely extinct in the wild and survive only in zoos, which are breeding them to maintain the population until wild areas can be re-established for them to be introduced back into. Most zoos do rescue and rehabilitation work for injured or orphaned wild animals–the Monterey Aquarium in California does rescue work with endangered Sea Otters, and the Lowry Park Zoo in Florida has a specially-built hospital for treating rescued Manatees. Working together, zoos have also founded a “frozen zoo”, in which multiple DNA samples from endangered species are permanently stored in liquid nitrogen as an insurance policy against extinction, allowing future biologists to re-create the species from cloned DNA.

Problems and valid criticisms remain, however. The most trenchant criticism is directed at keeping highly-intelligent and wide-ranging animals in captivity. Many animals live sedentary lives and have needs that can be easily provided in a zoo. In the wild, for instance, an arboreal tarantula would be making its silk shelter on a tree trunk or a rockface, and would never venture more than four or five inches away from it. In a glass tank at the local zoo, its life is utterly no different than it would be if it were in the wilds of Panama. The same is true for snakes in their rock shelters, or turtles in their ponds. Animals like these really don’t know or care whether they are in captivity or in the wild, as long as their requirements are met.

But that is emphatically not the case for large intelligent species, particularly social ones, like great apes or elephants or orcas or dolphins, which live in extensive social groups and also require enormously large territories and a constant social interaction and intellectual stimulation. While zoos try their best to provide these needs, with large outdoors enclosures and “enrichment” in their environments, nearly all fail. Indeed, a number of zoos are now giving up their elephant and great ape colonies simply because they lack the physical space and/or resources to meet those needs.

But here is the dilemma: these “charismatic megafauna” are precisely the animals that people are willing to pay to see. Few people are willing to pay to see spiders and turtles, but lots of people are willing to pay to see lions and bears and pandas–and zoos must be sensitive to that economic reality, even if, as a nonprofit organization, the zoological society is not driven by a profit motive. The very best educational conservation program in the world is useless if nobody comes to see it. So, the only way for zoos to entice people to come see it (and pay to support it) is with displays that undermine the very goal of that education.

Many zoo educational programs attempt to solve the dilemma by using animals for talks and display that have been rescued from injury and now simply cannot be returned to the wild. That works even for dolphins and orcas. But it doesn’t work for elephants or gorillas. And even the recovered rescue is still essentially doomed to life in a cage.

Some people will emphasize one side of that dilemma, some people will emphasize the other. But there is no solution for the dilemma itself, and anything done is, by definition, a compromise.

There are some in the US who therefore criticize the very idea of zoos, who think no animals should ever be kept in captivity, and who declare all zoos should be closed down and the animals “released back to the wild”. As an environmentalist who has been active since the 70’s with groups like Greenpeace, Earth First! and Sierra Club (and who, in full disclosure, has a membership in the local zoo in Tampa and has visited nearly every major zoo in the US), I must disagree strongly.

The ideal solution would of course be to leave the animals in the wild and stop cutting down and paving over all their habitats. And I’d be all in favor of that. (Indeed, I sometimes think it’s the humans who should live in the cages, to protect the rest of nature from the madly destructive bipedal apes.) Sadly, though, that simply will not happen, at least not for the forseeable future. Whether we like it or not (and I don’t), there simply is virtually no “wild” left anymore, anywhere. There’s not one square foot anywhere on the Earth’s surface that is not impacted for better or worse by humans and our activities. The entire planet is now basically one huge managed reserve.

Even the largest “natural parks” or “wildlife preserves” on the planet are still just fenced-in enclosures, albeit very large ones. And as the elephants and lions and tigers in Africa and Asia who get shot every day for leaving the parks and entering the surrounding human farmlands show, even the most enormous fenced-in cage is still just a cage, and animals who leave it do so at their peril. So even the remaining “wild” animals can’t be “wild”. Their behavior is constrained, continuously, merely by our human ever-presence. For better or worse, this planet is ours, and everything else lives here merely because we haven’t (yet) decided to wipe it out.

Given the choice of “animals in managed care” or “no animals at all”, then, I don’t think there’s any real choice.

But there is another reason for zoos that is, to me, even more compelling. In our urbanized world, most people see only cement and glass, and the only “wildlife” they see is squirrels and pigeons. We as a species have utterly lost touch with the natural world, and know none of it. And that presents an enormous problem for environmentalists. As Greenpeace was always so fond of saying, we protect only what we love, we love only what we understand, and we do not understand what we never see.

Zoos provide that opportunity. They are a place for people to see and appreciate things they would never see otherwise. And from that appreciation comes understanding, love, and protection. When I visit zoos, I often watch the expression on the faces of all the children there.  And nobody who has ever once seen the look of amazement that passes over the face of a child who has seen a live rhino or ostrich or tiger for the first time, can ever again doubt that it leads precisely to the desire to protect all of those living things, and the places where they live, which is the sole basis for any successful environmental movement. Scratch any active environmentalist, and you will find someone underneath who spent a lot of time at the zoo as a kid.


2 thoughts on “21st Century Arks: The History and Future of Zoos”

  1. When I was a kid, the Pretoria Zoo still had animals in small, barred cages, Victorian-style. You have seen the zoo during your visit – much better now. As you point out, still far from what one would really want, but reality is what it is.

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