History Of Zoos

Zoology – a word comprised from the ancient Greek words ‘Zoo’ meaning ‘animal; living being’ and ‘ology’ meaning ‘knowledge’ or ‘study’ is origin of  the term Zoo.  And zoos are popular all over the entire world; a city destination that  enables us to explore far flung corners of the world, to see strange and exotic animals on display from from the furthest reaches of wild planet.

But modern zoos have had to completely transforms their missions. The notion of imprisoning wild animals for public entertainment sits uncomfortably alongside their new agendas to preserve and protect wild environments and zoos understand that their study of the natural world, the very science of zoology is dependent upon upon the continual flow of dollars to their coffers and the way to maximise this income is to educate, inform and most importantly entertain. Many zoos have fallen into the entertainment industry and have been hugely criticised for the ‘Disneyfication’ of the wild world.

And Zoos haven’t traditionally had the best reputations for the care of their animals. Their history has been peppered with serious cases of neglect, though well intentioned, and ignorance about how to look after their wild animals.

The first zoo to open its doors was the Zoological Society of London or ZSL which was founded in April 1826. Initially the zoo was based on the concept of a living museum, whereby animals could be collected and study at the leisure of human scientists and it was at first only open to members, but as the 20th century progressed it became clear that the relatively small plot of ZSL in inner city London was not sufficient for the study of large animals and Whipsnade Zoo was opened in 1931, in the countryside 70 miles outside of London.

The maintenance costs of operating ZSL meant that it also had to open its doors to the paying public. And they came in their droves. Remember at this period in history there was no television or film. So animals like elephants, giraffes and tigers were unbelievably exotic. People were in total awe that such animals could exists.

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Animal Care

Unfortunately knowledge about how to care for these animals was also pretty basic. In one fantastical true life story, Jumbo the Elephant became a world wide superstar, entertaining millions of people around the globe and, drinking himself drunk, courtesy of his alcoholic keeps.  

From elephants to humans, ZSL has been the home for some gargantuan figures of of the Natural World. Its where Charles Darwin was inspired by the Great Apes to consider how evolution was at work.

It is also where David Attenborough, nearly a century later, began his career in Natural Conservation by working for a programme called Zoo Quest between 1954 and 1963. Attenborough would travel around the world with a team from ZSL, capturing wildlife to bring back to the Zoo, and filming local people and their customs.

The idea of capturing wild animals for our study and entertainment now seems abhorrent to us. But we must remember issues around conservation were not so high up the agenda in the 1800s.

When European peoples first started traversing the continent in the 16th and 17th centuries they encountered huge populations of wildlife and people. And the subsequent histories are not pretty for either.

This map alone shows the spread of the African Lion prior to Western colonisaton.

Map created by Tommyknocker via Wikimedia

Since these earlier primitive days of wildlife acquisition, under the mounting pressure and the devastation to the natural environment, zoos have gradually evolved shifting their focus to conservation work.

In European zoos the concrete, brutalist enclaves have been replaced with cage free exhibits that mimic the natural world of each species as closely as possible. However, critics have argued that this ‘green-washing’ still bears little resemblance to the natural world, or the freedom that animals have within it.

Polar bears, for instance, are capable of travelling up to 30km per day and potentially have a range of up to 1,100km per year. In enclosed spaces they might understandably be constricted but this also varies depending on the species habitat and their natural instincts. In the case of the Polar Bear It would be akin to us spending our entire lives in our bathrooms.

Zoos are not ecosystems and they never can be, which raises the dilemma; if the zoo’s intention is not to entertain but to conserve how can they do this in a way that meets the needs of its captive wildlife, whilst also informing and educating its public visitors.

This is a tension that most zoos grapple with. And some are better than others.

Some activists believe the answer is to shut down zoos completely, whilst others argue that they provide a species reservoir enabling us to repopulate wild areas once they are protected from human encroachment.

But this is also a complicated and thorny issue. It’s a sad fact that there are now more tigers in American backyards then there are in the wild and both of these approaches overlook the extinction risks to wild animals and our rapidly vanishing wild spaces.

And zoos recognise these many and varied challenges.

Conservation Priorities

ZSL is leading the way in it’s conservation work, balancing the educational profile of its zoo, against its conservation priorities. And some elements of its work could be classed as entertainment. Penguin, Seal or Raptor shows are delivered on a daily basis with all the militaristic timing of a marching band. But with operations in over 50 countries it uses the proceeds of its London based Zoo to fund and coordinate this vital conservation work.   

As a previous volunteer at ZSL I can attest to the passion and commitment of its staff. We’ll always have mixed feelings about caging wildlife (whether it looks like a cage or not) but, if its done right, as as right as possible, then zoos can play a crucial role in the conservation work required to protect our remaining habitats and endangered wild species.

Zootopia? The Future of Zoos

What does the future for zoos hold? As attitudes have changed and people have become more aware of the need for conservation of our wild places, so too zoos have redefined their roles.

The goal of restoring wildlife and flora and fauna to areas as they originally once were, prior to large scale human habitation, has taken on a new urgency.

San Diego zoo, considered a leader in this area, has established it’s very own Institute for Conservation with its clear and well defined mission:

We generate, share, and apply scientific knowledge vital to the conservation of animals, plants, and habitats worldwide. We help shape the vision of San Diego Zoo Global to lead the fight against extinction.

By focusing on 8 strategic areas their goal is to fulfil this mission in the places in which they work:

Conservation Genetics
Sustaining and restoring genetic diversity through bioresource banking and research.

Reproductive Sciences
Applying innovative science and technology to enhance reproduction.

Population Sustainability
Integrating behavior and ecology to ensure population viability.

Disease Investigations
Removing disease as a roadblock to conservation.

Plant Conservation
Working across scientific disciplines to save rare plants.

Recovery Ecology
Adaptively managing and restoring species to the wild.

Community Engagement
Driving conservation action through science education and community collaborations.

Global Partnerships
Building collaborations with key partners to achieve shared conservation goals.

So it is possible for zoos to change the way they operate, but it is difficult. The core tension lies in the need to attract ticket buying members of the public who expect to be entertained, which is also where the work needs to happen.

Once public perception has completely shifted to the importance of zoos and their conservation work then their conservation work, supported by the public, can be at the top of their agenda. And zoos have an important role to play in this perception shift.

There are plans in Denmark to develop a cage free zoo called Zootopia, a 300 hundred acre site that allows animals to roam free whilst humans peep at them from mirrored pods suspended in the park, or buried into the ground.

One thing is for certain zoos must adapt or, like many of the species they aim to protect, they will become extinct, resigned to the scrapheap of outdated 18th century ideas.

I for one think that they are up to the challenge. With the world facing its 6th Extinction challenge, the Holocene the role of progressive, forward thinking zoos is as vital as ever. Through collective organisations like the Association of Zoos and Aqauriums zoos can share best practice and use their combined power to boost conservation work around the world.