by Merritt Clifton
The demise of the bughouse at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. is of symbolic importance signifying much more than the chance to make puns. Closed at the June 2014 summer solstice, the National Zoo bughouse was just that, a bug exhibit opened in 1987, toward the end of the epoch in which zoos were organized by principles of taxonomy instead of ecology. But the term “bughouse” to most people calls to mind an insane asylum, not a zoo exhibit in literal terms. Conversely, insane asylums are also sometimes called “zoos,” a metaphor mingled with history.
Zoos and mental institutions evolved side by side, in economic competition, for more than seven centuries. The Tower Menagerie and Bedlam, slang for Bethlehem Hospital, originated in the 13th and 14th centuries, respectively, rivaling each other as the cultural apexes of London mass entertainment for nearly 300 years. While the less affluent could only attend bull-and-bear baiting contests and public executions, those who could afford the admission fees trekked to the Tower Menagerie and Bedlam.
Even after William Shakespeare and the Globe Theatre introduced an entertainment alternative remaining acceptable today, the Tower Menagerie and Bedlam drew bigger crowds until early Victorian times.
To this day many zoos are still bughouses and Bedlam for cage-crazed animals, as hopelessly locked into feces-flinging and stereotypical head-nodding and pacing as the chained Bedlam inmates. But many are not.
Trying to talk to animal advocates about good zoos, when most have seen only bad zoos, is often 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. As recently as 1987, 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. Today, for instance, some researchers suspect that the elephants at the San Francisco Zoo and the Oakland Zoo might have been communicating with each other for decades, across San Francisco Bay. Such a notion would have been dismissed as outlandish at first mention until well into the 21st century, and it still boggles the mind, yet serious people have begun at least discussing how to research it.
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 exist.
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 for.
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.
Even well away from the influence of the Tower Menagerie and Bedlam, 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 London.
“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. “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.'”
Akbar was not unequivocally a good example in current context. He personally trained war elephants, for example, using brutal traditional methods. But he was well ahead of his time in his perspective on zoo management, and actively investigated ways to improve.
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 they 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 I look 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 and other 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 stimulating.
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 wild.
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.
I don’t favor shutting down all zoos, even all bad zoos. I 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 environmentalists.
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 abandoned.
Yet the positive roles and potential of zoos should also not be abandoned. AZA-accredited zoos attracted more than 181 million visitors in 2013, 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 Alaska Zoo, Calgary Zoo, Detroit Zoo, Los Angeles Zoo, Philadelphia Zoo, San Francisco Zoo, and Toronto Zoo, among others, have recently transferred elephants to sanctuaries, though not all of them completely divested of elephants. The Bronx Zoo has announced a plan to end elephant exhibition after the deaths of its current elephants.
Books and popular press articles about rethinking zoos in recent years have appeared at a frequency not seen since the 1980s––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 ressurrect 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.”