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

  • by David Hancocks (Author)
  • January 2003
  • First Edition
  • Paperback
    $32.95,  £28.00
  • Title Details

    Rights: Available worldwide
    Pages: 301
    ISBN: 9780520236769
    Trim Size: 6 x 9
    Illustrations: 37 b/w photographs, 1 line illustration

Read the Preface


Growing up in the Welsh border country, in a world in which television existed but was unheard of by me, I could safely explore ancient oak woodlands, heathlands and marshes and quiet narrow lanes, searching the internet of the more than seven hundred thousand miles of Britain's hedgerows, thick with wildflowers, that existed half a century ago. There were things to find in any season, familiar and rare: always rabbits, often a hedgehog snuffling for slugs, occasionally a bank vole or wood mouse, sometimes the soft blue eggs of a robin nestled in a cup of grasses in the deep shade of a hedge, their clarity of form and perfect smoothness contrasting with the tangled shelter of hawthorn and hazel. In springtime, there were newts with fire-red bellies and the magic of frog's spawn in clear shallow waters, lizards on dry-stone walls and grass snakes under the summer bracken, red-admiral butterflies and yellow-banded snails, exquisitely handsome, feeding on bramble bushes on misty autumn afternoons. Once a year, on a trip to the seaside, I gathered seaweed, scrabbled for sideways-scuttling crabs, and dared to place a finger inside the sea anemones in the salty rock pools.

I had no knowledge of exotic creatures, not even the wolves and bears that once roamed Britain. Each day, however, I did gain an object lesson in ecology. My country-village home was an idyllic playground of fields and woodlands rich in wildlife. The town where I went to school, just a few miles northeast, lay in a region so blighted, so blanketed in industrial soot, it was called the Black Country. It had been the birthplace of the world's Industrial Revolution and was soured with chemical effluents and two centuries of grime and ash.

Once, the Black Country had been as green and as placid as any other part of rural England, but then its farms, hamlets, and villages were replaced with serried ranks of slum housing crammed into the gaps between iron mills, canals, collieries, blast furnaces, slag heaps, and railway lines. Wildlife had been extirpated, although rats, pigeons, thistles, sparrows, dandelions, and feral cats were abundant. Trees and children were stunted by lack of sunlight. Rivers and streams stank and steamed. The Black Country was, in microcosm, a harbinger of what we have been doing to the world ever since the Industrial Revolution quickened the pace of economic progress and introduced mass production and rapid exhaustion of natural resources, measuring success only in terms of financial profits. There was another omen, too. In the heart of the Black Country, a melange of exotic beasts lived in the Dudley Zoo: tigers, elephants, seals, baboons, monkeys, and bears, the jetsam of wild places from around the world trapped inside a high-walled enclave surrounded by a blasted and blackened land. I didn't go there as a child; I was a country kid. Zoos, like Dudley's factory rats and street pigeons, are an essentially urban phenomenon.

It wasn't until I was a university student, studying architecture that I made a visit to London Zoo. There I saw exotic creatures for the first time: crocodiles, giraffes, mandrills, cassowaries, tropical fishes, and sea lions made a special impact on me. I cannot recall what I was expecting from the zoo, though I remember being curious and eager. I was not, however, anticipating the shock of seeing a gorilla. It wasn't his huge form that astonished me so much as the intelligence in his eyes. That, and the bitterly small size of his barren cage. This extraordinary animal, with his regal air, survived in a space no bigger than a garden shed. He was called Guy, and he sat on a concrete floor, soiled with his own excrement, looking out through bars and a glass window at a million people who shuffled past each year to gawk at him in his silent and solitary confinement. I walked away from London Zoo that day, as I have many others since, feeling confused and depressed.

It has been posited sometimes that if zoos did not exist, they would have to be invented as places to save endangered species from extinction. Conversely, some people believe that no animal should be kept captive for any reason and that all zoos should be closed. Both of these extreme positions represent wishful thinking. Zoos are not the best places for holding and breeding rare species. Such an activity is better undertaken on large tracts of land where sufficient numbers of animals can be maintained for best genetic control, away from people, and in conditions conducive to their eventual release. As for abolishing zoos, the very strong roots of zoos as cultural attractions in our society make their forced closure an impossible goal. Sadly, even the worst examples of roadside atrocities attract paying customers. The implication in each extremist view, however, is correct: we should not accept zoos as they currently are.

My proposal is to uninvent zoos as we know them and to create a new type of institution, one that praises wild things, that engenders respect for all animals, and that interprets a holistic view of Nature. It is possible to create captive situations in which wild animals can enjoy a life that is more comfortable, healthier, safer, and longer than they typically have in the wild. Moreover, though it is rarely achieved, we can present those animals in ways that reflect the splendor and wonderment of the wild. With a few changes we can design zoos that convey the richness of the natural world and that carry vital messages about our need to love, care for, and protect its diversity. Now almost totally separated from daily contact with Nature, people are quickly losing awareness of the importance of sharing the planet with a multiformity of living and essentially wild things. Zoos have the capacity to help us refocus our views of wild animals and wild places. They can encourage a new understanding of Nature.

But, sadly, when I lift images of zoos to mind, I find a jumble of unpleasant sights and sounds. Bored animals in small and sterile spaces, popcorn and ice-cream wrappers littering asphalt sidewalks, balloons, plastic snakes, panda keychains, hot dogs, artificially flavored drinks, chain-link fences, trees made of epoxy resin. I hear the echoes of clanging steel doors as lions and tigers and bears are locked away for the night and the reverberating screams of chimpanzees ricocheting off bare walls. I too easily find memories of small birds in impoverished cages, snakes coiled on gravel, living in a green-painted box with only a dish of water and a plastic vine, never able to stretch their body's length. Images come too readily of dusty enclosures, littered with steel feeding dishes, degraded with sawed-off tree stumps and rubber tires hanging on chains, bounded with endless lumps of fake rock walls. Plants seem to be relegated to the sidelines, except when gaudy splashes of color fill the flowerbeds in the ubiquitous municipal style of landscaping. The intensity of these semblances varies from place to place, but unintelligent design is commonplace. A casual review of the new zoo exhibits published each month in the design section of the American Zoo Association's newsletter, Communiqué, reveals a depressing eagerness to show off examples the crudeness of which should generate only embarrassment. All too often, zoos provide confused images of an artificial world, with their disjointed exhibits, second-rate food services, and wild animals held in ugly conditions unable to carry out the repertoire of their natural behaviors. Too many zoos are clumsy monuments to mediocrity. They enclose and confine the most exquisite masterpieces of evolutionary design in ugly and sometimes ludicrous environments, displaying and dishonoring beautiful creatures against backdrops of soiled brickwork and concrete.

But scattered among these memories are startling exceptions. The delight and astonishment of being close enough to hear the soft whiffling of a snow leopard, to watch the shuffling bulk of elephants rolling in a mud wallow, study a weaverbird busily interlacing grasses into his spherical nest, marvel at the crazy mating dance of cranes. I have seen groups of wild gazelles on the savannas of Zambia only at a distance, but at a few good zoos, I have found similar groups grazing on grassy plains and have gained extra pleasure from the knowledge that the zoo gazelles are unaffected by the scourges of parasites and will not suffer the agony of being chased down and eaten alive. On zoo visits I have seen people shed their irrational fears and discover by touching a snake for the first time that it is not slimy but smooth as silk and then come to recognize it as a wondrous example of biological engineering. I recall the delight in watching rehabilitated golden eagles soaring back into the skies after months of careful nursing by zookeepers and veterinarians. The surprisingly delicate slow-motion movements of hippos underwater, the deep whirring of a hummingbird's wings, the mesmerizing ballet of jellyfish, the flash of iridescent blue from the wings of a tropical butterfly that sat on my arm--these are personal experiences I would never have enjoyed without visits to a zoo. I have watched with pleasure as a docent convinced someone that tarantulas are worth welcoming rather than squashing. These glimpses of evidence that zoos can truly be places of wonder, bridges to paradise, sustain my often sinking opinion and soften my ambivalence.

With such a dichotomy of experiences, however, I find zoos a terrible challenge. They reveal the best and the worst in us and are stark portrayals of our confused relationship with the other animals with which we share this planet. It is illuminating, then, to examine our zoos, to untangle their muddled histories, and to ask whether they remain relevant. After thirty years in zoo design and management, I have formed some heretical opinions. Zoos are routinely justified by the four pillars of recreation, research, conservation, and education. Are these adequate?

The recreational aspect of zoos is surely suspect. Studies of zoo visitors have repeatedly shown that a substantial number attend simply as a family day out. Such indulgence is difficult to defend. Keeping wild animals in captivity warrants stronger justification than the setting for a social gathering.

Research provides a more contentious thesis. The proximity of zoo animals allows studies of their physiology and behaviors that would be dangerous and difficult in the wild. Behavioral research in zoos is the dominant activity, but is inherently problematic. The differences in their milieu make precarious any extrapolations with or comparisons between the behaviors of animals in wild habitats and those in zoos. And in any case, zoo staff rarely conduct research in the wild. There are, moreover, few trained scientists at most zoos, and data collection is usually for the purpose of solving captive-animal management problems, rather than contributing to the scientific literature. The matter of ethical research on zoo animals is also omnipresent. Invasive procedures are not warranted. It would seem that veterinary studies leading to improved physical care of the animals are the most valuable purpose for zoo research: which then raises the question of why the research is needed in the first place.

Conservation, in the form of breeding programs for zoo animals, is also a rather flimsy platform to support the continued existence of zoological parks. Fewer than five species have been saved from extinction by zoos, and some of them more by providence than prudence. Zoos are not, and for many reasons cannot be, sanctuaries for saving the world's wildlife: they deal with too few species and too little space for it.

This leaves education, which, in the original definition as a justification for zoos, probably meant a pedagogical approach. Monkeys have traditionally been represented in rows of cages, for example, so that people could make comparative observations of the physical form of different species. It is within a wider definition of education that the best and most viable reason for the continuing existence of zoos can be found. They have enormous potential to shape public opinion, to encourage sympathetic attitudes toward wildlife, and to educate the public about ecology, evolution, and wild animals. Zoos can open windows to a world of Nature that people could otherwise experience only via technology.

This potential role for zoos, however, is largely neglected. There is far more lip service than there are quantifiable results, more cant than can do. Of the millions of zoo visits that occur each year, few result in people exiting the zoo with better understanding of the inhabitants or more willing to make changes for the sake of wildlife. Indeed, some disturbing studies by Yale psychologist Stephen Kellert and Julie Dunlap of the Humane Society of the United States (1989) reveal that attitudes are more negative after a visit to some zoos. After people see animals in cages or in zoo exhibits that are highly artificial, they depart with "a significantly greater negativistic and dominionistic attitude to animals." That is why it is necessary to ask for more than improved aesthetics, better customer service, or healthier food and more sophisticated souvenirs. It is also essential to reach the point where the only zoos allowed by law are those that aim to create respect for wildlife and a desire to save wildlife habitat, by making animal welfare their first priority, by adopting conservation strategies as a central tenet of their operational, budgeting, and marketing decisions, and by injecting passion and daring into their interaction with visitors. I am confident that the public wants these challenges and wishes their zoos to have a strong voice and would welcome the leadership of zoos in wildlife and natural resources conservation. If these changes do not occur, then zoos must surely become increasingly meaningless.

There are stories strange and wonderful in the history of zoos, but perhaps their most extraordinary days are just unfolding. As an ever more ecologically hazardous future unfolds, our society needs institutions that can not only remind people of what losses are risked by reckless actions, but can also inspire compassion for other animals and reveal ways to live in better harmony with Nature.

The history of zoos is replete with contradictions. People have set up zoos because they wanted to control big strong animals and sought reflected power from being able to own savage beasts. But there are also zoo professionals who seek to inspire love and gentleness toward animals. And in recent years there are increasing numbers of people who want to work in zoos because they are passionate about wildlife conservation. Herein lies a critical aspect of the future for zoos. My ambivalence about zoos does not distract me from recognizing that we urgently need urban-based institutions that will carry not just the images but also fervent messages about the unnecessary and massive loss of wildlife habitats around the world, which is unsustainable and is an evil thing. We have no right and no need to destroy other life forms.

Of all the natural history-based institutions that we have invented--museums of geology, paleontology, zoology, and natural history; botanical gardens; arboretums; aquariums; and wild animal parks--it is zoos, I believe, that have the greatest capacity to adapt, absorb new functions, and amalgamate the content of other institutions. In this way, they can effectively carry the messages of conservation and wise stewardship. Zoos have the potential to present holistic philosophies with greater veracity and impact than any other type of natural-history institution because they can present and interpret all parts of the story. Therefore, their historic focus on animals alone must shift and widen. The time is ripe for the zoo's metamorphosis.

More zoos are becoming habitat based, explaining ecosystems rather than only reciting facts about animals. Some zoos are beginning to develop exhibits that deal with concepts and ideas. Instead of seeing themselves simply as exhibitors of wild animals, a few zoos are learning to become storytellers. More will become involved in stories of deep history and of the interactions between human cultures and wild places. Sadly, there are zoos unworthy of the name that seek only profit and exploitation. Others are unfortunately limited to poor standards and have not shown themselves worthy of the magic and splendor of the animals in their care. They will not survive and do not deserve to. In this book, I examine the failures and the successes of zoos throughout their strangely checkered history, but more importantly I explore their amazing potential.