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Shaping Nature's Unnatural Homes

September 14, 2002

Shaping Nature's Unnatural Homes


WILLIE B. did not have a lucky start in life. In 1961, this silverback gorilla was captured in Africa and delivered to the zoo in Atlanta, where he grew fat, bored and lonely in his 20-by-40-foot cage.

It took 27 years before he roamed outdoors again. That was when the zoo was renovated and a newly "naturalistic" Zoo Atlanta was created, with a space designed to resemble an African rain forest. Other gorillas were introduced into Willie's space, and he eventually became a father of five. In 2000, at age 41, Willie died, presumably happy, with more than 7,000 people attending his memorial service.

Willie's life story parallels the evolution of American zoos in the last 40 years and hints at the questions about their future amid growing awareness of animal rights and ecology.

The now-familiar debate about zoos — from their design to the rationale for their very existence — is decades old. As many have observed, zoos are caught in an inherent contradiction: visitors go to experience nature in unnatural places. To what degree do zoos exist for the animals as opposed to the visitors? Is there something fundamentally wrong about using any animal for display and entertainment, or should zoos be seen as extensions of conservation efforts, much-needed protectors of vulnerable wildlife?

Most reputable modern zoos around the world today subscribe to a four-pronged mission of conservation, research, education and recreation, but a number of new books argue that there is still controversy over how well zoos have achieved those goals and how they should operate in the future.

Elizabeth Hanson, a science historian, opens her forthcoming book, "Animal Attractions: Nature on Display in America's Zoos" (Princeton University Press), with Willie's life story. She explains that while the first American zoo opened in 1874, it was only in Willie's lifetime that children's zoos and farm-in-the-zoo exhibits gained popularity and that zoos stopped collecting animals in the wild and began breeding them. They also began arranging displays according to animal behavior and incorporating ideas about the ecological relationship between animals and their habitats.

By the 1970's, Ms. Hanson says, zoos began hiring full-time veterinarians and research scientists, charging admission fees and raising money for captive breeding programs. She notes that while Willie B. was always popular, the zoo managers were once so inept they tried to cure his loneliness by placing a television set in his cage.

Most modern zoos certainly stand in contrast to the well-documented and now-familiar past accounts of brutal animal capture and transportation from the wild to filthy, unnatural conditions. But as historians of zoos point out, in any institution there is both good and bad, with zoos attracting their share of hucksters and public relations gimmicks.

"You have all these zoos claiming entertainment, education and science and then conservation in the 20th century," said Nigel Rothfels, a historian, whose book "Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo," (Johns Hopkins University Press) is due out in September, "but they never really solved the central problem: people worry about having animals in captivity. So they keep coming up with these new things."

The beginning of the modern zoo, with the kind of open, landscaped spaces where Willie B. thrived, can be traced to the German animal impresario Carl Hagenbeck, according to Mr. Rothfels's book. In 1907, Hagenbeck opened Hagenbeck Animal Park in a village near Hamburg.

Hagenbeck's zoo featured not only wild animals in spaces that resembled natural habitats but also "primitive" people from places like Africa and the Pacific islands, who eventually grew tired of playing savages.

While it was good public relations for Hagenbeck to be photographed with loving animals, Mr. Rothfels writes, he downplayed how animals were transported under crowded conditions and how baby animals were taken from their brutally slaughtered mothers.

"The real revolution of Hagenbeck and the modern zoo was he figured out a way to hide the fact of captivity," Mr. Rothfels said. "The thing to remember is that the exhibit was not created for the animal. It makes people feel good about what they are seeing."

In his book "A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future" (University of California Press, 2001), David Hancocks, an architect and director of Victoria's Open Range Zoo in Melbourne, Australia, points out that zoos have an uneven record. He looked at zoo design and history around the world, dating the first zoo to the city of Ur, in Sumeria, about 4,300 years ago.

Mr. Hancocks writes that zoos have done a poor job of conservation and contends that they have saved fewer than five species from extinction; that using animals for entertainment is an indulgence difficult to defend; and that behavioral research is problematic because zoo animals are not in their natural environments. He believes the greatest future role for zoos is in educating the public about animals and nature.

But for now, when he thinks of zoos, he says a jumble of unpleasant sights and sounds comes to mind: "Bored animals in small and sterile spaces, popcorn and ice-cream wrappers littering asphalt sidewalks, balloons, plastic snakes."

It was that central contradiction between nature and unnatural displays of animals that fascinated Ms. Hanson.

American zoos, she said, were created during the nation's transition from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one and reflected an effort by city planners to stay close to nature.

There were always traveling menageries that put animals on display, but between 1874, when the Philadelphia Zoo opened, and 1940, more than 100 zoos were built in America. In her book, Ms. Hanson examines how zoos were influenced by their placement in large parks.

"In the U.S., zoos almost all started as something in a city park that got municipal funding," Ms. Hanson said in an interview. "It was a way to get people to do activities that were associated with middle-class self-improvement. Zoos were morally acceptable in a way that sitting in a beer garden or dancing the polka wasn't to 19th-century park planners. It didn't have anything to do with animals, really."

For Ms. Hanson, zoos are a way "to force conflicts about the relationships between humans and wildlife into public debate." She believes that zoos largely adhere to their four-pronged mission but make strange detours.

She writes, for instance, that exhibits of animals can't help but objectify the natural world. And she claims that although zoos want to educate visitors about authentic animal behavior, zoo advertisements make them seem too much like humans, with announcements of zoo births featuring, for example, giraffe-length baby booties or a cradle toy made of bananas.

Still, she declares that zoos provide an alternative to other, more destructive interactions with wildlife, like private game hunting.

Zoos, Mr. Rothfels said, walk an often-thin line between entertainment and education, rationalizing the morality of one species dominating another; Ms. Hanson calls them "an emblem of imperialism."

One way for zoos to better ensure the happiness of animals, in Mr. Rothfels's view, is by providing better programs of research and education.

"The Bronx Zoo, for instance, does a great job at animal conservation, giving money to animal programs in situ, like in Africa," he said. Currently, 1,353 animal species are endangered, 3,157 are considered "vulnerable" and another 925 are called "critical," according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Given those kinds of numbers, zoos are needed for conservation and education, Mr. Hancocks said, despite their terrible history, their slow progress and the inevitable charlatanism in the business.

"This might not all be so terrible if the public did not seem to be so gullible and accept awful things being done to animals for the sake of someone's vanity," he said. Still, he concluded, "no other institution has the ability to make such strong emotional connections with wildlife."

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