If you are an animal-lover, environmentalist and/or conservationist, then you have probably heard the full gamut of zoo criticism. Yes, animals belong in the wild…But what happens when “the wild” disappears?
First, let’s step back a bit and start with a brief history of zoos…They have come a long way from the menageries of the Victorian era, which were designed first for the scientific study of animals, then quickly took off as a form of mass public entertainment:
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the idea of creating a space for the needs of animals was developed into a reality. Up until that point, the Modernist movement had influenced the design of zoos, meaning that they were designed to be functional. On her website, desigingzoos.com, Zoological Planner Stacey Ludlum writes: “This belief, along with the advances in medicine and desire for sterilization, created zoo exhibits that were easily hosed down and cleaned regularly. This meant concrete everywhere.” 1
It took Architect-turned-Zoo Director David Hancocks to revolutionize animal enclosures. By redesigning the gorilla cages into habitat-inspired enclosures, he not only changed the philosophy of the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, but inadvertently designed a new model for modern zoos everywhere…But, as he explains, change did not come easily: “If a traditional Zoo Director had seen or heard what we were doing he would have stopped it” he says, “I had Zoo Directors tell me it was stupid, irresponsible and unnecessary…If the gorillas climbed they would fall and break their necks…We were putting their health at risk.” Despite the criticism, the team at the Woodland Park Zoo pushed ahead, and soon “landscape immersion” was born. This coincided nicely with the building animal rights movement. (You can hear the rest of David Hancocks’ interview here.)
Just as larger societal movements influenced zoo design of the past, so too do they influence zoo design of the present and future. Currently, with our focus on “the brain” (MRI technology etc) we are now designing zoos that reflect that focus.
Currently, Zoos are trying to create opportunities for animals to use their brains as they would in the wild–even if those opportunities don’t look like “the wild”. A good example of this is the Philadelphia Zoo’s new trail system, Zoo360, which allows animals to explore the Zoo above visitor’s heads. This campus-wide network of see-through mesh trails links similar animal habitats, so animals can use one another’s spaces in a time-sharing system. 2
Andy Baker, the Chief Operating Officer at the Philadelphia Zoo, says “this really came out of our goal of creating best experiences for animals, and I truly think this reinvents the way animals experience our zoo…We’re not truly trying to recreate the wild. We’re trying to create environmental opportunities, so the opportunities for new sensory input, exploration, freedom of locomotion…The same functional needs and opportunities that animals have in the wild, without having to recreate the natural habitat.”3
But moving further into the future, we may see a model that is truly inspired by nature, and doesn’t just mimic the landscape or the activities that animals do in the wild.
“Zootopia” is a concept that flips the modern zoo on its head. The Givskud Zoo and Safari Park in Denmark is working with an architectural firm to create a zoo in which the animals roam free and the humans are in cages–or at least, in more confined spaces (safe from the animals). Architect Bjarke Ingels says “What we’ve tried to do is eliminate all traces of human architecture.” NPR reports that buildings are to be “masked as rolling hills and hidden barriers in waterways [that] replace visible fences and barricades”.4 The model is inspired by the rapid collision of nature and cities, or as Ingels gently puts it “the distinction between the city and nature … is blurring more and more…It becomes more relevant to make sure that the other life forms can actually cohabit successfully with us.”
Cohabitation is a very important point. Because, up until recently, humans and wild animals have been able to maintain separate lives…But as cities and the human population grow, animals are having a harder time to find space to live. In fact, many don’t.
Currently, we are polluting rivers, clear cutting forests and acidifying the ocean faster than our environment–and most animals–can keep up. The latest edition of the WWF’s Living Planet Report is devastating: Since 1970, 52% of all wildlife on Earth has been wiped out.
Let me repeat that: In the past 40 years, half of the Earth’s wildlife has gone extinct.
When The Guardian interviewed the Zoological Society of London’s Director about this report, he said, “If half the animals died in London zoo next week it would be front page news…But [this extinction] is happening in the great outdoors.”
The implication here is that the vast scale of what we have done to the planet is too hard for most people to fathom–perhaps they don’t even know…But in a smaller, controlled environment, such as the local Zoo, people care. Julia Phillips, a Toronto Zoo employee explains, “When people see a live animal, they have a desire and a passion to protect that animal.” Zoos inspire us to do more to help the animals we see.
What many people may not know however, as Phillips explains, is that “Zoos play a really important role in terms of protecting species and acting as assurance populations for species [whose] habitat is no longer there for them in the wild…We can eventually bring them back to life, it’s sort of a Noah’s Ark in a way.” In her TED Talk, the Toronto Zoo’s Gabriela Mastromonaco also uses “the arc” analogy for today’s modern zoos, making the case that Zoos are ensuring the survival of endangered species that can be released into the wild after their habitat stabilizes.
In a video released this summer, The Toronto Zoo shows that they have a storage facility of genetic material (e.g. animal sperm, eggs, embryos etc) in tanks of liquid nitrogen, in which “there are herds of bison, prides of lion, and all sorts of wildlife that we don’t have enough space for in the Zoo itself, however these specimens fit perfectly well in the frozen Zoo, and are waiting to help repopulate species as needed. We are dedicated to conducting groundbreaking scientific research that will ultimately save many species that would otherwise disappear from our planet forever.”
Going forward, the public-facing exhibits of Zoos and the way we interact with the animals may change, but the role of zoos in the conservation of animals and valuable ecosystems must continue, and indeed, accelerate. Hopefully, we can all play a role in the protection and conservation of what is left of “the wild”.
PS You can read more about the Toronto Zoo’s conservation efforts in their Strategic Plan.