Editorial feature: The lessons zoos teach, & how to teach them better

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2007:

Trying to talk to animal advocates about good zoos, when
most have seen only bad zoos, is much like the proverbial effort to
introduce six blind men to an elephant. Merely describing a good
zoo, and especially describing how bad zoos can become good zoos,
tends to strike most as describing a series of contradictions in
terms. Each grasps a different part, and none have any idea how to
reconcile the tusks, tail, ears, legs, belly, and trunk.
Unfortunately, the same is also true of trying to describe
to zoo planners what makes a good zoo, from an animal welfare
perspective. Many zoos include some excellent quarters for species
whose needs are well understood by the management, alongside
horribly botched exhibits based on gross misunderstandings. An
expansive concrete floor polished to resemble ice, for example, is
anything but homelike to a polar bear–but the bear may thrive in a
habitat which in no way resembles the Arctic, if the habitat
includes mental stimulation of equivalent intensity of interest to
the bear as the challenge of finding seals beneath ice.

Hardly any zoo succeeds in all aspects of design and
management. Probably no zoo completely succeeds at engineering a
major new exhibit on the first multi-million-dollar try. Nor do most
zoos have sufficient wherewithal to try again immediately, once
mistakes are recognized, unless the mistakes jeopardize public
safety. Even the best zoos typically mingle a few successes with a
variety of exhibits, some not so old, that the staff would very
much like to replace, when and if funding becomes available.
Meanwhile, facilities that fail to comfortably accommodate
their original occupants are adapted and re-adapted, for example
from lion rock to monkey mountain to reptile basking rocks, often
for decades, in hopes of finding some species for whom they might
work. Sometimes a disaster for the original species becomes a
triumph for another, but seldom without years of learning from
frustration and error, as animals endure lives of imprisoned misery
while keepers try to figure out what is not working, or how to do
something effective about it.
This is not so easy as activists often imagine. Despite the
intensity of animal behavioral study today, and despite the
centuries that some of the most popular species have been kept in
zoos, the sum of behavioral knowledge about more than 90% of the
species now on exhibit has been collected from observing just a
handful of captive animals for only a few decades. Twenty years ago,
for example, no one imagined that okapis, solitary in the wild,
might prove quite gregarious when not subject to hunting and
predation. No one knew that beluga whales might amuse themselves by
learning how to set off sonic alarm systems.
Even some of the longest-kept zoo species turn out to have
been poorly understood. Elephants have been kept for exhibition and
work for nearly 4,000 years, yet barely 15 years ago no one knew
that they communicate over phenomenally long distances by making
ultra-low frequency sounds that are inaudible to human ears.
There are presently at least 5,000 zoos in the world, of all
sorts. Among them are hundreds of bad zoos for every one that is an
authentic animal welfare success.
Worse, dozens of the zoos that are most often mentioned as
“good zoos” by much of the zoo community are in truth mediocre or
even bad zoos from an animal welfare perspective.
This is not so much because of differences of opinion between
behavioral researchers and zookeepers as to what individual animals
want and need, as because of differences between management and
those who actually work with the animals about what the first
priorities of a zoo should be. Almost any zookeeper can draw up a
“wish list” for the animals in custody that differs little from what
most activists might want, short of turning all the animals loose in
ideal wild habitat–which, for most exhibited species, does not
Yet what would be most comfortable and congenial for the
individual animals is not always most conducive to successful captive
breeding, or easy viewing by children, or accommodating
photographers. Neither is it necessarily what zoo donors want to pay
Further, what animals want is not always what is most likely
to ensure their longevity, especially after they are already
geriatric by the norms of the wild.
Almost forgotten today is that trying to keep animals alive
and well was responsible for the extreme sterility of the featureless
steel-barred cement cages built in the middle decades of the 20th
century, now thought of as “old zoo” architecture. The advent of
“old zoo” design coincided with dawning awareness of the need to
protect rare animals from infection. This developed into an
obsession at the cost of driving both animals and sympathetic keepers
insane–and, ironically, led to generations of elephants developing
foot infections from prolonged standing on hard surfaces, a
circumstance previously unknown in their evolution.
Zoos today like to think of themselves as conservation
institutions, but with rare exceptions, such as the Bronx Zoo under
founding director William Hornaday, 1896-1926, conservation was not
among the purposes that most zoos claimed until very recently.
Conservation breeding, only occasionally emphasized earlier, came
abruptly into vogue as a reason for zoos existing after the 1973
passage of the U.S. Endangered Species Act and global introduction of
the Convention on International Trade In Endangered Species.
Only then, when zoos became obliged of necessity to breed
their own replacement specimens, did the American Zoo Association
and major international zoo associations begin organizing Species
Survival Plans.
Zoos in most of the world evolved from popular entertainment.
Historically, in Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America, the
chief difference between a zoo and a traveling circus was that the
proprietors of a zoo managed to attract enough visitors to their
winter quarters to buy more land and settle down. Alternatively,
some zoos are descended from royal menageries, originally kept for
the personal amusement of rulers and their retinues.
Outside the U.S., most zoos to this day are privately owned,
and even within the U.S. there are still more private owned “roadside
zoos” and family-operated “sanctuaries” functioning as zoos than
there are zoos qualifying for AZA accreditation.
AZA zoos, on the other hand, have their philosophical
antecedent in a string of royal menageries established across India
by the 16th century Mogul emperor Akbar the Great, with a guiding
vision worlds apart from the likes of the infamous Tower Menagerie in
“Unlike the cramped European menageries,” recounted zoo
historian David Hancocks in A Different Nature (2001), Akbar’s zoos
provided spacious enclosures and cages, built in large reserves,”
as direct architectural ancestors of the Animal Rescue Centres
managed by the Central Zoo Authority of India, profiled in the April
2007 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE. “Each had a resident doctor,”
perhaps the first zoos to institutionalize veterinary care, “and
Akbar encouraged careful study of animals. His zoos were open to the
public. At the entrance to each he posted a message: ‘Meet your
brothers. Take them to your hearts, and respect them.'”

Founded to educate

Most major zoos, within the U.S., originated from the same
19th century enthusiasm for public education that created public
school systems, state universities, museums, parks, libraries,
athletic fields, botanical gardens, and even some humane societies.
Few of the founders appear to have ever heard of Akbar the Great.
European models were most often cited when they made their arguments
for public funding–especially the London Zoo, opened in 1832. Yet
from the first, U.S. zoos much more resembled Akbar’s zoos than
anything in Europe, including the London Zoo. Most of the oldest
began as animal exhibits in parks, set up with at least the pretext
of teaching the public about natural history and science.
Over time, the park exhibits often expanded to take over
much or all of the park space. The San Francisco Zoo grew from a
single cage in a park holding Monarch, reputedly the last
California golden bear, certainly the last one captured alive. The
San Diego and St. Louis Zoos were park zoos that grew to fill
hundreds of acres, adjacent to museums. The Woodland Park Zoo in
Seattle exemplifies how many zoos eventually devoured the parks for
which they were named. The Oakland Zoo is an example of a park zoo
that was moved to the edge of the city so that downtown residents
could reclaim their park space.
The common denominator is that major U.S. zoos pretended from
the beginning to have a higher purpose than mere entertainment, and
as park occupants had a family orientation, in distinct contrast to
the violent origins of many zoos abroad, at which baiting and
tormenting the animals was historically part of the show, liquor was
sold on the premises, and feeding live prey to carnivores was a
featured attraction–as it often still is in places, notably at
Chinese tiger farms.
During the Great Depression, when funds were especially
tight, and during the childhood years of the post-World War II “baby
boomers,” many U.S. zoos moved toward entertainment, introducing
animal acts, wandering clowns, and even closing-time fireworks.
They also expanded their menageries, often by dividing already
cramped cages. Attention to either animal welfare or conservation
was probably more superficial than at any time before or since, yet
everything was quite carefully packaged and promoted as
“educational.” Zoo exhibits taught small children their numbers,
phonetic reading, and geography. Docents were trained not to teach
about animals so much as to reinforce schoolwork.
And that was not entirely the wrong approach. Indeed, it
served the times and the zoos well. The children of that era grew up
to attend and fund zoos more than ever before, even though
opportunities to see animals in the wild have never been more
accessible, and opportunities to see them on screen are ubiquitous.
Zoos actually are quite effective at many aspects of
educating the public, but mostly not at the aspects that they
purport to be good at. Zoos’ own audience research has established,
to the chagrin of the zoo community, that most zoo-goers learn
relatively little about ecology, because most zoos do not portray
functional ecology. Most zoo-goers also learn almost nothing about
the natural lives of animals. There are usually no shortage of signs
and interactive exhibits at zoos to teach the lessons that they want
to emphasize, but these are mostly not the lessons that zoo-goers go
to zoos to study.
Zoo-goers tend to learn less about the behavior of the
animals they watch than the learn from the behavior they see,
including the behavior of the human animals who are watching with
them. The major lesson that zoos teach is how humans should interact
with other species: whether with consideration, or in strictly a
utilitarian manner, or in a balance of concerns. This lesson is
imparted chiefly to children, often through the medium of adult
response to the animal exhibits. Zoos are essentially an
acculturating institution.
What ANIMAL PEOPLE looks for at a zoo, first of all, is
whether the animals are behaviorally frustrated by captivity. Space,
per se, is usually not the issue. Most animals live their entire
lives within relatively closely confined habitat, delineated by
natural barriers, scent markings, and other natural warnings that
keep them from venturing farther.
These conditions can be met, for most exhibited species,
within the limits of zoos– if the zoos are designed to provide
genuinely species-specific appropriate habitat, part of which should
be the chance for animals to see and scent other species who matter
to them in the wild. Predators need to stalk; prey species need the
challenge of being alert.
Zebras, giraffes, and antelopes should be allowed to watch
lions, as they would in the wild, especially in proximity to a
shared water source (split by a secure fence), as well as being able
to move away from the lions at other times.
Lions, conversely, should be allowed to try to sneak as
close to zebras, giraffe, and antelopes as possible, by a variety
of different routes through foliage andother obstacles. Much as
house cats are psychologically and physically fitter if they can
watch birds through a window, lions who can stalk are healthier,
even if they never get a chance to pounce.
Large wandering animals like elephants, who may need
thousands of acres in which to roam, are extreme exceptions to the
rule that living space need not be expansive if it is varied and
Second, we look to see if the animals are aware of being observed.
Large animals with few predators generally don’t mind being
watched. African lions are perhaps the most evident example of this
phenomenon. African lions, in the wild, are watched constantly by
every hooved animal on the savannah, and by every scavenger too.
There are often at least a hundred eyes staring at a wild African
lion, and African lions have evolved to accept the attention with
regal disdain. While many other cats don’t even like to be seen at a
distance, African lions will often let anyone watch them do anything.
Naturally gregarious species such as meerkats and baboons
also generally don’t mind being watched, and welcome the chance to
visit, even perform. But many other species should never be housed
where they feel constantly under observation, especially from closer
than the safety zones they prefer to keep around themselves in the
What a really good zoo does, most of all, is show the
public how to treat animals with respect and consideration. If it
does that, it is teaching an attitude of respect and consideration
toward all animals. If it does not, it is a bad zoo, no matter how
successful it is at captive breeding, producing scientific papers,
attracting crowds, raising funds, and doing all of the other
things that zoos measure themselves by.
ANIMAL PEOPLE does not favor of shutting down all zoos, even
all bad zoos. We favor turning bad zoos into good zoos, which
would include largely abandoning the notion of captive breeding as
the ultimate test of success, and instead using zoos to fulfill the
roles now filled by hundreds of small, badly funded sanctuaries–many
of which, as noted, actually function more as roadside zoos.
There are quite enough exotic and unusual animals in need of
help, due to wildlife trafficking and exotic petkeeping, and quite
enough native species who need to be taken into custody after
wandering into cities or becoming ill or injured, for every zoo to
maintain a varied collection without ever having to breed or capture
animals for exhibit.
Such a collection might not have “conservation value,” but
reality is that most zoo collections have little conservation value
anyway. Focusing on keeping token specimens of vanishing species is a
rationale for zoos, not a working purpose. Changing human attitudes
toward animals would have far more authentic conservation value, in
the long run, than managing any so-called Species Survival Plan.
Yet zoos could still have several extremely valuable
conservation missions. As the Bronx Zoo long ago realized in
evolving into the Wildlife Conservation Society, zoos are potential
fundraising engines for habitat conservation abroad. Many of the
best and most ambitious are already fulfilling this role to some
extent. Zoo tours of wild & semi-wild habitat are an encouraging
step in the right direction.
Zoos could also provide extensive semi-wild habitat exhibits,
on a scale far beyond anything achieved by Northwest Trek, Fossil
Rim, the San Diego Wild Animal Park, and The Wilds, which are the
largest zoos at present.
For example, zoos could partner with land conservancies, to
make watching wildlife more accessible, yet less intrusive. Zoos
could also acquire suitable property within which to create
“lifeboat” environments for species at extreme risk in their native
habitat. Thousands of acres might offer viewing and photo
opportunities from hundreds of camouflaged “hides,” connected by
tunnels or overhead walkways, without the animals ever becoming
aware of the human presence.
Exhibiting elephants humanely in landlocked urban zoos may
not be possible, but if the Elephant Sanctuary at Hohenwald,
Tennessee and the Performing Animal Welfare Society can give former
circus elephants good lives on converted farmland, operating with
budgets of comparative peanuts, consortiums of major zoos should be
able to figure out how to keep herds of elephants in similar spaces.
Despite frequent excesses of activist rhetoric, there is no
compelling reason, even within the context of most animal rights
philosophy, to dismantle and abandon either zoos or the zoo concept.
Fully respecting the rights of most species to be themselves could be
done within zoos, if zoos accepted this as part of their
mission–and much has now been done by the best zoos, bit by bit,
in that direction, despite the huge funding influence of pro-hunting
organizations, animal-using scientific institutions, and mainstream
Much more could be done, especially if the zoo and activist
communities rethink their longtime antagonism, which animal-use
advocates have quite successfully exploited.
Early in both the 19th century humane movement and the late
20th century animal rights movement, activists hit on zoos as a
protest target. The first big success of the London Humane Society,
ancestor of the Royal SPCA, was winning the 1832 closure of the
Tower Menagerie. Comparably, one of the first actions of the Fund
for Animals, the proto-animal rights group founded in 1968 by the
late Cleveland Amory, was issuing a list of the alleged worst zoos
in the U.S.
In both times and places, hitting zoos first was logical
because what was wrong at those zoos could be seen by any visitor.
Demonstrating outside a zoo was therefore an obvious way for young
organizations to build support.
Zoos themselves were among the beneficiaries. The Tower Zoo
animals were moved to the newly opened London Zoo, while each of the
“worst zoos” that Amory named received new funding, including from
the passage of bond issues approved by voters.
In hindsight, what zoos could and should have done as the
animal rights movement gained momentum was welcome activist tabling
(as some did), take the opportunity to better inform activists about
zoo operations, and accept activist demands to end such abuses as
deliberately breeding surplus animals so as to always have babies on
display, while selling some of the excess to hunting ranches.
What happened instead was that animal advocacy and management
at most zoos became lastingly polarized, even as the American Zoo
Association in 1986 and 1991 incorporated most of the major activist
criticisms into revisions of the AZA code of ethics. There was
resistance, of course, and some non-compliance with the code of
ethics has occasionally come to light. Overall, however, no other
institutions or industry moved more rapidly than zoos to try to
comply with expectations elevated by the animal rights movement about
how animals should be treated. The animal rights movement stimulated
a revolution in zoo architecture, for instance, more than a decade
before a similar design revolution began to transform mainstream
humane societies.
Monitoring zoos, critiquing them, and at times protesting
against mistakes by zoo management are all necessary roles of animal
advocates. Though these roles should be tempered by deeper knowledge
about zoos than activists have sometimes shown, they are not to be
Yet the positive roles and potential of zoos should also not
be abandoned. AZA-accredited zoos attracted more than 143 million
visitors in 2006, more than 20 times the sum of visits to humane
societies and probably 10 times the sum of children reached in
classroom visits by humane educators.
Zoos offer a vast array of infrastructure, veterinary and
behavioral expertise, fundraising and publicity apparatus, and
cumulative stock of goodwill and credibility, all of which could
help to accomplish far more for animals.
Zoos have also shown unparalleled willingness to reinvent
themselves: more than half rebuild at least one major exhibit each
and every year.
After nearly 35 years of emphasis on conservation breeding,
there are hints that as zoo management approaches a generational
transition, a change of philosophy is underway as well. Phasing out
elephant exhibits, for example, unthinkable a decade ago, is now
an accelerating trend. The Los Angeles Zoo, Detroit Zoo, and San
Francisco Zoo, have each recently transferred elephants to
sanctuaries, while the Philadelphia Zoo is trying to close the
oldest elephant exhibit in the U.S. and is having trouble placing the
three current residents.
Books and popular press articles about rethinking zoos are
appearing at a frequency not seen in about 20 years– since the last
major round of discussion and debate about what zoos are, what they
should be, and how they might evolve.
Most zoos are not soon likely to become humane societies for
wildlife, sanctuaries, or ideologically aligned with longterm,
broad-front animal advocacy goals–not now. That may happen later,
reflecting public expectation. In that regard, it is worth noting
that the public tends to expect institutions such as zoos, humane
societies, schools, and churches to exemplify higher moral and
ethical standards than is expected of ordinary citizens.
Meanwhile, this is an appropriate time to ressurect the role
of zoos as educational institutions, and ask them to again emphasize
Akbar’s message: “Meet your brothers. Take them to your hearts,
and respect them.”

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