Zoos have been in existence since 3500BC, the oldest being discovered in Egypt, as an exotic collection for a king. What began as small menageries that symbolized power and wealth, morphed into a display for educational benefit by the early 19th century.
They’ve come a long way since, with currently over 1,000 zoos in existence worldwide. They exist as zoological “gardens”, “animal theme parks”, “safari parks”, and “aquariums”.
The question is – Are zoos a necessity? In 2014, is there a place for them?
At Their Finest
Some animals, like the Sumatran rhino, are difficult to study in the wild. With a consistent environment and the ability to closely monitor and study their habits, preferences and behavior, scientists are able to put conservation efforts in place, through breeding programs.
With organized communication outlets like the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums), they are able to monitor joint efforts through a listing of all initiatives, findings, and management of all zoo species.
The Cincinnati Zoo is well-known for their aid in the conservation of the Sumatran Rhino. Through close scientific study and the use of endocrinology and ultrasonography, they were able to help produce the first captive born Sumatran in 2001. As part of their role in attempting to sustain the Sumatran population, the zoo is partnered with the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary in Indonesia and support Rhino Protection Units (RPUs) to prevent poaching.
The Chester Zoo in the UK, plays an active role in fundraising for conservation, with its Aid for Wildlife campaign. So far, they have managed to raise money and awareness for eight wildlife projects from China to Nigeria.
“Zoos have evolved over the last century and the modern zoo’s mission is biodiversity conservation. To achieve this we must work inside and outside of the zoo—protecting species and habitats directly in the field,” said Catherine Barton, Assistant Conservation Officer with Chester Zoo
At Their Worst
The Surabaya Zoo, also known as the “Zoo of Death”, has gained notoriety for animal neglect and premature deaths. Just five days ago, a Komodo dragon perished, the second one within the last 3 months. 100 animals have perished since last summer, including a lion who hung himself in his enclosure from an errant piece of metal, and a giraffe who had consumed 40 lbs of plastic. The remaining animals suffer from lack of food and nutrients, skin conditions, tumors, joint problems, and depression.
Critics worldwide have been calling for the closure of this zoo. See: Petition to close the Surabaya Zoo
Earlier this year, the Copenhagen Zoo also generated global outrage. They not only euthanized an adolescent giraffe as a means to population control within the zoo, but fed the carcass to its lions within public view.
Zoos like Cincinnati serve as ambassadors for conservation. They bridge the gap by showcasing the animal kingdom, a world many would never see outside of tv or computers. For some, it is their first introduction to animals. Education and conservation is critical. But are animal welfare and education prioritized or animals simply being “put on display” in a monotonous lifetime of confinement?
In an Interview with David Hancocks, zoo architect and retired zoo director, he makes observations about the dilemna with the modern zoo.
If zoos started their planning and design processes by asking such questions how they could illustrate and celebrate bio-diversity, or help people understand the interconnectedness of all living things, or demonstrate interdependence, or help people understand how healthy eco-systems operate and are maintained, instead of just asking such simplistic questions as “where shall we build the new bear exhibit?” then we could begin to see some important developments in zoos. (see more in A Critical Look at the Future of Zoos)