BOOKS: A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2001:

A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future
by David Hancocks
University of California Press (2000 Center St.,Suite 303, Berkeley, CA 94704), 2001.
392 pages, hardcover. $35.00.

Zoo Tycoon
Microsoft Corporation
(1 Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052), 2001.

Available only for Windows computers, a demonstration copy of Zoo Tycoon wouldn’t run on our Macs, but the documentation supplied by Edelman Public Relations adequately conveyed the idea of it. “The Zoo Tycoon game objective,” publicists Katie Goldberg and Rebecca Holmes explained, “is to build a thriving zoo business. Zoo popularity and profitability depend on proper animal care, appropriate animal habitats, and a satisfying number of amenities, from gift shops and food stands to benches and bathrooms. Proper animal care and exhibit environments keep animals healthy and happy. Content animals result in baby animals, delighting your guests and providing additional profit in animal sales for your zoo.”

Zoo Tycoon may be too realistic to please much of the zoo community, whose captive breeding programs are more often rationalized in the name of conservation than acknowledged as profit centers. Most zoos accredited by the American Zoo Association, moreover, portray themselves as educational institutions, not public entertainment.

However, over the past 40 years, zoos have gradually discovered that keeping animals happy is essential to sustaining
public support. During the past 20 years the most ambitious and successful zoos have engaged in unprecedented competition to abolish prison-like bars and gray cement, to instead show animals in semi-natural settings which suggest that they are where they should be. The initial emphasis on better exhibit architecture has over the past decade expanded to include increasing attention to meeting animals’ psychological needs as well as their physical requirements.

The Zoo Tycoon documentation includes an outline of the whole history of zoos, from the one built by Queen Hatsheput of Egypt circa 1500 B.C. to the present, and even mentions most of the existing zoos to which David Hancocks pays special attention in A Different Nature.

Hancocks, however, takes a more idealistic view of what zoos should be doing. Now director of the Open Range Zoo at Werribee, Australia, and director of planning for the Zoological Parks and Gardens Board in Victoria state, Australia, Hancocks has designed zoo exhibits and directed zoos for more than 30 years. Yet instead of defending the status quo, Hancocks is a passionate critic of common zoo shortcomings and failures. Hancocks believes that zoos have a moral obligation to demonstrate to humans a properly informed and respectful relationship with nature.

“All too often,” he writes, “zoos provide confused images of an artificial world, with their disjointed exhibits, second-rate
food services, and wild animals held in ugly conditions. Too many zoos are clumsy monuments to mediocrity. They enclose and confine the most exquisite masterpieces of evolutionary design in sometimes ludicrous environments, displaying and dishonoring beautiful creatures against backdrops of soiled brickwork and concrete.”

Hancocks reviews and critiques the development of many of the best zoos in the world, passing over the worst, to show where good intentions have too often gone awry. The positive developments of the late 20th century, for instance, had direct antecedents at the opening of the century, which were reviled by some of the most influential zoo developers because “wild” and “natural” were not then widely considered positive attributes. Sterile prisons for wildlife were better accepted by the largely fearful public.

“Zoos have the marvelous potential to develop a concerned, aware, energized, enthusiastic, caring and sympathetic citizenry,” Hancocks concludes. “Zoos can encourage gentleness toward all other animals and compassion for the well-being of wild places. To help save all wildlife, to work toward a healthier planet, to encourage a more senstive populace: these are the goals for the new zoos.”

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