On One Hand

April 19, 2009

What’s Wrong with Zoos

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 2:03 pm
Tags: ,

I’ve slowly come to the realization that I don’t think zoos are ethical. We treat the process of trapping and caging large animals like some progressive fountain of civic utility and ecological awareness – but instead zoos are weirdly voyersistic housings, where animals are kept in an artificial vegetative state by small enclosures and unnatural settings.

If a tiger is used to a range of over 25,000 acres, putting him in a pen the size of a living room seems downright barbaric. It would be like keeping a human being inside a bathtub forever. Would anyone expect an animal to behave “naturally” under those circumstances? It should be no wonder that zoo animals tend to appear antsy, lethargic or neruotic as they pace back and forth in the enclosed area. If a psychiatrist peered into that animal’s psyche, he would probably find anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors and clinical depression.

I’m not saying “down with zoos,” I’m saying zoos need to change. I’m for drastically reorganizing the physical layout of zoos in an intelligent way to maximize the benefit to the animals and also, hopefully, enhance the educational experience.

Every zoo of sufficient size could be ancored by ONE habitat for megafauna based on a single natural ecosystem, which would take up at least half of the total area in the zoo. By “megafauna” I mean any animal larger than a dog. Zoos should network with other zoos to choose who gets which exhibit and trade animals to fit the pieces together. One can use half of its property to construct a large Savannah habitat for zebras, warthogs and hippos. The organization will give its camels to another zoo that can construct a large Desert habitat for camels and goats and desert foxes. The habitat doesn’t have to be perfectly round or square shaped – it should wind and weave and be stretched out so that most of it is near the viewing area – but the animals’ living area should be at least one and a half square miles in size, which is about half the size of a large zoo and means there won’t be more than one exhibit in an urban zoo.

By trading animals, Association of Zoos and Aquariums can hang on to all its animals it keeps for “conservation” purposes, but give them a life that is of some semblance to what they get in the wild. The visitor’s experience with the zoo is not as broad, but instead goes in-depth into the particular ecosystem it focuses on most. Then tourists have an incentive to visit the other zoos when they vacation in other cities, and the entire association can benefit.

Living areas of a square mile or more would be an improvement for any large animal, but still aren’t big enough for every kind of animal. Zoos bill thesmeslves as scientific places so I think it’s appropriate for science to play a role in what stays and what goes – ecologists can determine if an animal’s natural range is comparable to 1.5 square miles. An elephant’s range is hundreds of square miles, so it’s clear that 1.5 isn’t big enough and they wouldn’t be kept in any standard zoo.

If the zoo’s space is not conducive to the needs of the animal, the animal shouldn’t be kept there. Sadly, that means that many animals we typically associate with zoos will have vto go: elephants, tigers, wolves and others – especially most predators – can’t be kept in urban zoos anymore.

But perhaps a hippopotamus and an ostrich could be comfortable in a space of under 2 square miles, and zookeepers can determine which species get along with each other well enough to go into the exhibit. They don’t necessarily have to be from exactly the same geographical region, as long as zookeepers can be sure they won’t attack each other.

Meanwhile, zoos can have other exhibits outside their main anchor exhibit. Smaller habitats can house snakes, lizards, turtles and rodents that don’t need a large range. Even some monkeys could live in a smaller caged space granted there is plenty of intellectual and environmental stimulation there, as well as natural light.

I forsee futuristic zoos where the animals roam free in their habitat and the humans are in the small spaces. A pathway, completely enclosed in glass, could snake through a large network of greenhouses – housing a manmade rainforest – where New World monkeys and parakeets and taipirs mingle together. Insect populations living there give the animals natural feeding habbits, and also add to the fauna for viewers to appreciate. The monkeys have plenty of full-grown trees to play around on giving them a multi-dementional and naturalistic home. The key is for the animals to share a large space rather than being separated, so that they have more mobility and can interact with a wide variety of peers and plants.

That way people pass through the confined tube and the animals get some freedom. In some cases the pathway doesn’t even have to be in glass – if the animals are small, shy or tame enough, and you can be certain people will behave and stay on the trail, a fence is sufficient barrier.

I like how the Denver Zoo lets peacocks wander free in public areas, which means they have a relatively boundless range. Wild geese land and raise young in the park and eventually lose their fear of humans. That’s the kind of thing I’d like to see happening in zoos more often, where animals are interacting with human beings but still have roaming freedom. Animal rights activists might complain this human-animal mixing is still “unnatural” but I think it represents a fair balance that focuses on the animal’s interest. I’m not a nature-supremacist who thinks any human alteration of the wilderness is bad, but I’m concerned with the interests of the animal as well as the scientific accuracy of how they are presented.

So the zoo of the future I am envisioning looks like this:

The visitor enters the zoo and in one direction is an enormous “ecosystem” where animals selected for co-habitability will mix and mingle. Trails that people can walk on will surround the ecosystem and bridge over it, allowing visitors to walk into the heart of it and look down from a safe distance. Part of the housing area – where animals can get shelter when the weather is bad – will be accessible from the path as well.

In the other direction will be 2-3 smaller “ecosystems” for small animals, similar to the large one but without megafauna. Most zoos already have these, but they often keep large animals in them when those animals need more space.

Beyond that will be single-species habitats for small animals that don’t need large spaces; insects, snakes, turtles and fish can fit in there. There will be no birds in small habitats since birds should have room to fly long distances.

Near the entrance area will be an educational center – something most zoos already have – with a theatre with videos of animals that don’t fit in the zoo, so the visitor can learn about elephants and cheetahs and jaguars and everything that was lost. If I were the designer I’d also have an exhibit explaining old inhumane zoos where animals were kept in cells behind bars, and the exhibit would explain how the new scenario is better.

Some zoos are already trying to achieve what I am saying, and I’m fairly confident that 50 years from now this is how they will all work. The only thing I am suggesting beyond where most zoos are now is that they have one large ecosystem for medium-sized animals and that they get rid of most large animals altogether.



  1. Absolutely, completely agreed … as to your positions, at least. I’m less optimistic that zoos as a whole will follow that path, though, since the visitors might not approve, and that would mean a loss of revenue.

    Comment by kishenehn — April 19, 2009 @ 9:28 pm | Reply

    • Well zoos in progressive urban areas (where I think most of them are) could easily jump on board since most of the people in the region would at least tolerate the change on ethical ground. Many municipal zoos are publicly funded and are not 100% revenue-oriented.

      As for private zoos, I think it will be much longer before we see change there.

      Comment by ononehand — April 19, 2009 @ 9:55 pm | Reply

  2. Economic Feasibility

    This was somewhat addressed in the other comment. But my main concern when reading the above is the economic feasibility. I don’t know the economics of zoo (you mentioned that many are publicly funded, which certainly does change the dynamics of zoo planning/organization).

    One potential problem in either funding scenario is the bundling aspect of zoos. It could be the case – again, I don’t know much about zoos – that most visitors are attracted to the park because of the diversity of animals and especially the very different, yet currently traditional zoo animals like tigers and giraffes.

    Under your plan, you’re going to lose some of this (you mentioned the exclusion of some traditional predators, etc) and that could put some serious pressure on the zoos. Obviously this applies if the zoo relies heavily on ticket revenues for any portion of their operating funds. But, again this could apply strongly in the public funding case as a zoo with less foot traffic might lose its foothold on state or local funds.

    None of this addresses the ethical considerations. I’m just pointing out what I think are some reasonable obstacles that your above vision might run into. At the end of the day, a zoo has to have viable market appeal or political sway.

    Comment by sleepyreaderz — April 20, 2009 @ 2:02 am | Reply

  3. You should read “Life of Pi”, if you haven’t yet.

    Comment by swtfxofaddrm — April 20, 2009 @ 1:46 pm | Reply

  4. the san diego wild animal park (or something like that) is similar to the first part of your vision. i agree that zoos should be more educational.

    Comment by volatile_freq — April 21, 2009 @ 6:37 am | Reply

  5. I’m gonna throw you in a zoo!

    Comment by timberwolves — April 21, 2009 @ 2:20 pm | Reply

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