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Costa Rica's ban on zoos this summer coinciding with the centennial of the death of Karl Haggenbeck, one of the greatest entrepreneurs in the history of museology and zoology (and show business in the tradition of Barnum and Bailey?...), would be an excellent occasion to raise an important question relevant to animal rights, science and education, and to the issue of the representation of nature:
Zoos: Who Needs Them?
by Alan Aftonfalker and Yaroslav Rovenskikh. All photos by Alan Aftonfalker except when otherwise indicated. Alan Aftonfalker was a teacher at the Parsons School of Design and is now a free-lance photographer and writer; Yaroslav Rovenskikh graduated from Parsons School of Design,and is now a painter, garage rocker, dj and is involved with music management.
"When I was a kid", writes Michelle Carr of The National Museum of Animals & Society, "I went to the zoo all the time with my family. I loved pandas as a kid (still do!), and I thought being able to see them in person would be neat. But once I saw them 'up close and personal', I realized that the animals were miserable. It instantly became very clear to me that the animals imprisoned in zoos are sad and don't want to be kept in artificial environments, have people gawk at them, listen to children who bang on the windows of their enclosures, or have cameras flashing in their faces. To put it simply, zoos are imprisoning animals who want to be free.". Michelle Carr's article ,"The Reality of Zoos", published on the website of PETA, the vocal animal-rights organization, reflects a growing hostility towards zoological collections. Could it be one of the causes of disaffection with some famous zoos? In 1968, the Zoological Park in Vincennes, a suburb of Paris, once a popular landmark for the French, counted 1.5 million visitors. In 2005, they were only 300,000 (see Jean-Charles Battenbaum, "Rénovation du Parc Zoologique de Paris"). Other signs of disaffection are visible in many other zoos worldwide. Is this the end of the era of zoological parks and should we applaud it? Or should we support those zoos, like Vienna’s Schönbrunn Tiergarten, one of the first zoos in history, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which defends on its website that “modern zoos”, have become educational centers”, showcases for teaching and research, “and valuable partners for many nature and species conservation projects”?
Collections of wild animals have served many different purposes throughout the centuries since they first came into existence. While most modern zoos claim that their vocation today is above all to serve science, education, conservation and animal welfare, others, mainly animal rights activists, would prefer to ban the entire institution. In fact, the Ministry of Environment of Costa Rica, considered by many specialists as a model of environment-friendly policies and sustainable development, has just announced, as a first measure of a campaign to shut down all zoos in the country, that its famous Simon Bolivar Zoo will no longer hold captive animals. In addition, it has only recently come to the attention of a handful of scholars—not zoologists, but rather specialists in the social sciences—that zoos carry an ideological tradition that raises serious ethical questions as to how they represent not only nature but the human condition itself.
From private menagerie to museum: the growing educational, scientific and environmentalist ambition of zookeepers
Tiergarten Schönbrunn (above) in the imperial palace gardens of Vienna, is considered as the first public zoo in history. Visited by privileged guests since 1752, opened its menagerie to the general public in 1779 in the context of the Enlightenment which was concerned with science, knowledge and the democratization of education.
“What is the role of a zoo?” once asked the author on one now defunct pages of Bioparco Roma, the old zoo of Rome founded in 1911. “In recent years,” he or she answers, “the concept of zoos has changed. Zoos today are not ‘museums of exotic animals’ but structures that focus on: - conservation of endangered species by joining international reproduction in captivity programs - environmental education by planning environment-related activities, conventions, exhibitions, educational routes for schools and so on.” But how true are such assertions? Have zoo owners truly become environmentalists, as they seem when we read most of their websites, or is this “greenwashing”—a façade of words for the sake of political correctness?
From Menagerie to Educational Centers
Exotic animals, in Antiquity and in the Middle-Ages had been, in essence, a sign of status. Possessing a collection of live exotic creatures was not just a demonstration of influence and wealth, but a testimony to exceptional power—the power of the greatest rulers. Traveling to the remote places where lived such creatures like the (rhinos, elephants, camels, great cats or any other alien beasts) and bringing them back alive represented an investment and an achievement comparable, in our own times, to creating a large museum of minerals from the Moon or Mars. Peackocks held captive in parcs but often free to roam around in this artificial landscape, like here in the Bagatelle Garden on the outskirts of Paris (left), were believed to have been brought from the mysterious Caucausus, land of the Golden Fleece. Peacocks are part of the representations of the universe in many religions including christianity.
Collecting animals is a practice already recorded in ancient Assyria, Persia, China and Egypt. Captive animals were gifts or trophies and embellished rulers’courts, even giving them, at times, mystical value.
Traveling to the remote places where lived such creatures (rhinos, elephants, camels, great cats or any other exotic beasts) and bringing them back alive represented an investment and an
achievement comparable, in our own times, to creating a large museum of minerals from the Moon or Mars. So animals or human prisoners brought from far away to die in Rome's Coliseum or the parrots and African servants entertaining guests in a 17th century palace symbolized exceptional power as much as a palace or a collection of unpublished maps. But there was more. In China, the famous “Garden of Intelligence” was conceived as a representation of the divine by the Chinese monarch Wen-Wang as early as the 9th century B.C.E. Throughout Chinese Western and Islamic history, maps and geographic knowledge (which included information on zoology and botany) were highly strategic. In a profoundly religious culture the one who demonstrates knowledge of creatures unheard of (white bears in the Far North, tigers in the Orient, etc.) has a world view that few humans can even dream of. Only the Creator of the Universe or an exceptionally wise human being with special powers could have a bird's eye view of the full immensity and richness of the Cosmos. Hence the success of geographic scholarly books or simply travel literature for centuries before and during the age of printing. Furthermore, actually owning a population of live animals gives a potentate a symbolic power as a reenactment of Noah thering the animals in his Ark, for example.
This mystical elitist attitude changed during the Enlightenment. This is when begins the real history of modern zoos. Still located on the grounds of the Schönbrunn Palace, home of the emperors of Austria, “Tiergarten Schönbrunn”, is considered by historians and museologists as the oldest zoo still in operation. The first animals were collected and kept there as early as the 1500s. An imperial menagerie existed as early as 1540 serving all the purposes mentioned above. But in 1752, the Schönbrunn Palace’s menagerie became a genuine animal museum, first, for a limited number of privileged visitors, then, in 1779, for the general public. Later, animal rides, sporting events and even ballroom dancing were held on zoo grounds in an era when visiting a zoo often meant a day-long journey outside of the city limits. The name of the Schönbrunn menagerie, “Tiergarten”, —animal garden—coined the word that remains to this day the German word for “zoo”.
Buffon (above) was instrumental in transforming the Jardin du Roi (King's Garden) into a major research center and museum, with teaching facilities and acquiring new botanical and zoological specimens. During the Revolution. Lamarck (below) was instrumental in the reorganization of the center into a public museum and a zoo. A breeding ground for ideas on evolution, the center grew into the impressive campus and park enjoyed today by all Parisians.
Whatever their name, animal exhibitions began opening to the general public in cities all over the Western world. The first after Schönbrunn was the Jardin des Plantes (Garden of Plants) in Paris. A botanical garden and a research center since 1626, it was reorganized as the Museum of Natural History in 1793, during the French Revolution. The next year, after persistent lobbying by naturalists Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu and Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, the revolutionary government let the Museum appropriate the royal menagerie of the abandoned Versailles palace. The menagerie soon opened to the public as a zoo. The Museum has grown to become one of France’s principal academic institutions. Soon after Paris, in 1806, a scientific zoological and botanical permanent exhibition was created near the banks of the Volga river, in the far East of European Russia in today’s Tatarstan on the grounds of the young university of Kazan’, by an enthusiastic and charismatic professor of German origin , Karl Fuchs. The collection, a little known fact, has been open to the public ever since. The Zoological Society of London’s collection opened to the public in Regent Park in 1828. After that, zoos appeared in over 40 different locations across Europe, Asia and Latin America in the next 70 years. In North America, By the end of the 19th century, twenty-one major cities had their own zoo. The democratization of culture through cheaper printing materials (illustrated newspapers, books and engravings) boosted demand for animal exhibitions.
The Grand Amphitheater of the Jardin des Plantes(left), built by Edme Verniquet in 1787-1788 is one of the teaching facilities planned during the long administration of Buffon (1739 to 1788, the year of the great encyclopedist's death). The building marks the educational and scientific ambitions of the Enlightenment and a turning point in the history of zoos.
Large-scale dioramas first adopted by Karl Hagenbeck for his private zoo in Stellingen , a peripheral area of Hamburg (above) would influence menageries' architecture for decades. The lion's den where Haggenbeck is photographed (below, bottom photo) is typical. Such changes created a sensation still remembered as "the Hagenbeck Revolution".
"The green oasis in the middle of Hamburg is a popular destination for visitors of all ages, whatever the weather" proudly announces the home page of Hamburg's famous zoo, created by entrepreneur Carl Hagenbeck. Another page of the same website is an excellent summary of the Hagenbeck experience... or ideology: "Its landscapes and enclosures are world famous. More than 1,850 animals from all continents live here (...) Carl Hagenbeck's panoramas, listed as landmarks, characterize zoo architecture of the 20th Century to the present. In 1907 he fulfilled his dream: he opened his Stellingen zoo, just outside Hamburg. For the first time, a flow of visitors were able to go through the famous Art Nouveau entrance into other worlds and marvel at predators in gridless leisure facilities and panoramic views."
A portrait of Carl Hagenbeck (1844-1913 - right): zoologist or showman? Watch recent videos below his portrait. The first is from the zoo he created just outside Hamburg the Tierpark Hagenbeck. The second is from a local Hamburg magazine (with comments in German).
Even today, exotism remains a trademark of the Haggenbeck tradition, as explicitely mentionned on the zoo's website: "In over 150-year of Hagenbeck family history, there were always contacts with foreign and exotic peoples. Originating from Asia bronzes and buildings in the park witness these encounters. But the view was not only the East, but also to the west. Two original totem poles are witnessing the culture of Tlinkit Indians of the Northwest Coast of North America."
When Hagenbeck, created his private zoo in the periphery of Hamburg, he was the first to formulate a revolutionary idea: “I desired, above all things, to give the animals the maximum of liberty. I wished to exhibit them not as captives; confined within narrow spaces, and looked at between bars, but as free to wander from place to place within as large limits as possible; and with no bars to obstruct the view and serve as a reminder of captivity. I wished also to show what would be accomplished in the way of acclimatization. I desired to refute the prevailing notion that luxurious and expensive houses with complicated heating apparatus were necessary for keeping wild animals alive and healthy. I hoped to show that far better results could be obtained when they were kept in the fresh air and allowed to grow accustomed to the climate. I wished my new park to be a great and enduring example of the benefits that can be wrought by giving the animals as much freedom and placing them in as natural an environment as ppossible.” Animals shown in pens designed in the shape of a rock formation meant to represent a crag in the African bush, a cliff in the Arctic or a pond in South Eastern Asia, became a landmark of the “Hagenbeck revolution”at the turn of the century.
The Helsinki zoo's artificial mountain, (below and center) a typical example of the "Haggenbeck Revolution" in zoo architecture is home to Northwest American mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus)
An artificial rock formation (above) and another typical example of the "Haggenbeck revolution" at the Jardin d'Acclimatation, second oldest zoo in Paris
But can reality be represented accurately and still convey objectivity; and, therefore, how can the educational effort be true to reality? Acclaimed animal and nature photographer Fritz Pölking (1916-2007) warned that he could not guarantee absolute reality when presenting his images. Because it is acknowledged that photographic images often hide or transform the reality that they portray, the animals can only be objectively perceived in their own environment, and only with your own eyes. On the other hand, one may ask where would you see or even know how an extremely rare wild animal, such as a snow leopard, looks like, if not from a photograph or a zoo. On the other hand, the kind of stages or giant dioramas that Hagenbeck invented to expose animals are no more than an illusion of “wilderness”, simulacra. Isn’t then the ethical discourse an alibi? An early example of “greenwashing” as we call it today ?
“She was born free and she has the right to live free”!
The zoo in Saint Petersburg, Russia, (above and below) presents some of the worse examples of conditions of captivity of wild animals. Several factors could explain such conditions. First of all treatment of animals may reflect the political culture of a regime where humans themselves were treated brutally. After the liberalization of Russian society, reconstructing communities ravaged by conflict, economic failure, corruption and mismanagement has only recently started to improve the habitat of humans in Russian cities. Animals must still wait. Yet, there are important signs of progress even in a shabby looking environment such as this one. (See more photos from the St Petersburg zoo below)
Notable exceptions to the Hagenbeck principles can still be found. The Leipzig zoo detains animals in an unentertaining abstract environment, all in the same cubic cages and without much trees, stones, or any other natural decorations. While the Jardin des Plantes of Paris has made efforts for animal comfort, large cats, apes and a few other residents remain locked in the same kind of small cells in which their predecessors were held in the early-mid 19th century. And there is worse: from a purely humanistic perspective, the history of zoos is tainted by a history of colonialism and even racism.
Alan Aftonfalker, co-author of this article, remembers his first visit in the 1990s to the zoo built in the Villa Borghese in Rome, which is considered as one of Haggenbeck’s masterpieces. “The impression was appalling. Many infrastructures, supposed to imitate a natural landscape, were crumbling. Other animals seemed miserable in their pens. Across a high cement wall, in an enclosure without the slightest element of vegetation, a lonely Indian elephant, obviously seeking some company, was caressing the back of another solitary elephant of the African species. The most pathetic scene was an adult gorilla sitting in a minuscule cage near the entrance. ‘Do not feed’ ordered the sign on the cage. But the minute we approached, the gorilla stuck out its large hand in an obvious gesture. When it became clear that we had no food to give out, it opened and closed its fingers insistingly. Begging from visitors seemed to be one of its only distractions….”
Some zoos consistently fail to achieve the criteria necessary to succeed at their task of maintaining viable groups of animals in order to repopulate their natural habitat. Instead they keep solitary, or unnaturally small groups of misplaced animals in substandard artificial habitats, permanently on show, thousands of miles from where these animals belong. Also, in the wild, species build immunity to naturally occurring diseases, but in a zoo, animals might not develop resistance to the most commonplace of ailments. On the other hand, they may be challenged by viruses from a species that they would never otherwise meet. Surplus animals could create a problem for zoos as well. In some cases, zoo animals are bred simply to attract visitors, and pressure on space and resources means that some animals are then disposed of or killed at the end of the season. For example, some zoos and safari parks have supplied animals for experiments. Certain species are 'recycled', in other words, fed to other animals. A few zoos have supplied animals like bison and ostrich to exotic meat farms. While zoos might argue that raising animals for their carnivores is logical, supplying the exotic meat trade for humans is clearly questionable. It has been observed and well-documented that animals behave drastically different once taken away from their natural environment. "There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary confinement" once declared Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Indeed, animals become noticeably sad and depressed and experience lack of sexuality, which in turn complicates the reproduction.
Watch the video on abnormal behavior in zoo animals from the Born Free Channel ->
Frustration and boredom are commonplace amongst zoo animals and can lead to obsessive and repetitive behaviors in the form of pacing and swaying. Abnormal behavior in reptiles may manifest itself as climbing or scratching at their glass tanks because they do not understand why they can't get out. Other reptiles may become completely sedentary, seemingly sleeping their lives away behind a
rock, as the animal may be trying to wait out the environment in which it is trapped, but the wait usually never ends. Birds are virtually stripped of their most precious gift, flight, often able to do little more than flutter their wings. Birds of prey do not fly, but sit around, waiting for the keepers to bring them food. Consequently, captive birds like vultures and pelicans are prone to bone diseases. In the wild, animals react to their surroundings, avoiding predators, seeking food and interacting with others of their species, in other words, doing what they have evolved for. Consequently, even what might seem larger or better areas may be impoverished in terms of the animal's real needs. Some zoo enclosures prevent the animals from being able to enjoy their most basic range of behavioral patterns including social interaction, exercise, and bathing. The disappointment in the environmentalist standard-setting initiatives so often proclaimed in the official discourse of zoo administrators was recently expressed during a conference by Daniel Turner, spokesperson for ENDCAP, a coalition of NGOs lobbying European institutions where data has been gathered from over 20 countries: “ENDCAP’s evidence, clearly demonstrates that despite the European Zoos Directive, the welfare of hundreds of thousands – possibly millions of wild animals remains at risk. Quite frankly, the conditions in some European zoos are appalling.”
Virginia McKenna is the actress who played Joy Adamson in the movie version of her best-selling autobiographical account Born Free—the story of Elsa the lioness, one of the icons of the conservation movement as perceived by the public in the mid-1960s. The story was about how Joy and her husband George, who operated a private game reserve in Kenya, adopt an orphaned baby lioness, Elsa, and then refuse to give her to a zoo. Instead, they train her successfully to return to the wild. “She was born free and she has the right to live free!” shouted by Virginia McKenna in one of the most dramatic scenes of the screen version viewed by millions. A few years later, the actress and her late husband Bill Travers, who played George Adamson in the film, abandonned a great part of their acting careers and took over George Adamsons’ private lion sanctuary after he and Joy were killed by poachers. In 1991, with their son Will, they founded the Born Free foundation, now one of the world’s highly reputable conservation societies. One of its main targets are zoos and Mrs. McKenna is very outspoken about their hypothetical usefulness for science and conservation : “We can learn as much about lions by studying them in their captivity as we can about men by studying them in their prison cells".
Watch evidence of animal suffering in zoos from the Born Free Foundation's channel (below, left), then listen to Virginia McKenna, co-founder of the Born Free Foundation (below, right)
Simulacra vs. reality
Regardless of Hagenbeck's sincere sympathy for his animals, the new enclosures that appeared after the reform he inspired became a bit larger, but remained small and the animals continued to be locked up between four walls at night (a practice still current today in hundreds of zoos worldwide). The giant dioramas, vaguely symbolizing what “wilderness” means to visitors rather than reconstituting a real ecosystem, thus belongs more to the history of show business than to the history of conservation. So what does an institution tell about itself when its policies favor the fake versus the real? Could it be that spectacle is more important than science, or that entertainment is more important than education? This leads to the next disturbing question: is nature what we even think it is? What do we mean by “wilderness” and “civilization”.
"The snake charmer" (left), aka "The Nubian dancer" (by Charles-Arthur Bourgeois, 1862) is one of several sculptures decorating the Paris Museum of Natural History menagerie (the Jardin des Plantes). It is typical of a Western taste for exotism, an essentialist representation of "non-civilized" societies as static and undeveloped. Although "natural man's" closeness to nature has first been perceived by the Enlightenment as a superior mode of existence--living in harmony with nature and thus free from the corruption of society--such representations, in the nineteenth century, evolved into a view allowing to contrast the “noble savage” with a view of the West as flexible, developed and therefore superior. The animal world exhibited in zoos thus becomes a portal into the world of "primitive".
When we exhibit animals or look at them in captivity is it not, at least in our subconscious, to affirm our power over them—our power over the wild, the triumph of technology, the victory of civilization over nature? The question is further complicated because numerous ideologies tried to address it, from the philosophers of the Enlightenment fantasizing about the “noble savage” living in harmony with nature and thus free from the corruption of society, to the racist ideologues who exhibited not only zoological specimens from their colonies but humans as well.
In the "the bear cub hunter" (left), an 1885 sculpture by Emmanuel Frémiet the theme of violence between man and beast is not a strange choice for the decorators of the the Jardin des Plantes if we remember that the industrial age exalted the conquest and submission of nature to "civilization". It is therfore to be suspected, that the function of zoos in the heyday of the industrial age was not only to educate or simply to entertain, but also, to convey representations of nature consistent with the vision of competition, conflict and conquest that permeated industrial-age ideologies.
Education or cheap frills?
The animals in zoos were not only curiosities but trophies in that struggle against nature.In those years, the public craved for exoticism and zoos provided plenty of it. It was nothing new. Peter the Great of Russia, for example, had once created entertainment chambers to amuse and horrify his guests by presenting them abnormal animals or humans, including his own legendary giant dog, as well as humans with various degrees of deformities, or put more simply, “freaks”. Interestingly, what used to be those
entertainment chambers has become the Natural History museum of the city of St. Petersburg.
The case of the famous “Elephant Man” is only one of the most notorious examples of such show business cruelty. Curious crowds came to view “freak shows”: the suffering of living beings behind cages, including humans—physically handicapped or mentally ill people such as “geeks” (yes, that it is where the word originated) and “wild men”, i.e., alcoholics having fits of delirium tremens, or other manifestations of hysteria and dementia. The morbid nature of the public's curiosity is revealed here: observing captive living beings considered as inferior, indulges a person's or a group's sense of superiority. It is a form of sadism. The vision of the beast or of the wild man conquered and put behind bars constructs the viewers' own identity of conquerors, which is gratifying for the ruling classes—the great industrialists and merchants who invested in the colonial economy—but particularly for the middle classes and the uprooted popular masses, the main clients of zoos— i.e. the mediocre or the disenfranchised, observing creatures less fortunate than oneself and enjoying the illusion of belonging to the elite. The feeling provided an “opiate of the people”, a compensation for their own miseries or frustrations. The participants in such violent orgies as public executions or racist rallies, deny their cruelty through philosophical rationalizations (“the criminal is evil and deserved it”). In the case of zoos, the alibi is scientific and educational. Can it even take on the disguise of conservation?
The Emperor Wilhelm II visits a "human zoo" in 1909 (below) accompanied by Haggenbeck (on his left in top hat). (Federal archives of Germany, with permission)
One of the most powerful arguments in the defense of animal rights is that a society tolerating cruelty to non-human living beings is at risk to sooner or later tolerate cruelty towards humans as well. There is probably no stronger evidence to support this accusation than the historic experience of zoological exhibits in one of its ugliest aspects: the phenomenon of the human zoo. The expression is neither a sarcasm nor a label recently coined by historians. From the mid 1800s, entire groups of individuals were seduced into leaving their tribal villages and coming to large European cities to be exhibited. These exhibits were often held in zoos. They were presented next to the animals and “human zoo” are the exact words used in some of the official advertisements. Groups of inhabitants from colonies were shown to the public in their national clothes, often, on a stage with reconstructed houses and artifacts of their native land. The case of the “Hottentot Venus”, a slave exhibited as monster for her anthropomorphic features so different from the European representation of the human body (particularly her very large buttocks) is another sinister example of how exhibitions of the “wilderness” and its “natural inhabitants”" were far from innocent. Once again, Alan Aftonfalker remembers. "Children visiting the Paris Museum of Anthropology at the Trocadero Square (a division of the Museum of Natural History mentioned earlier) would laugh at this mummified naked body (not always realizing that this was an actual cadaver, not a wax statue) exhibited in a glass display case. I have seen this as late as 1971!" Thus not only zoos or circuses participated in this unsavory form of spectacle. A respected educational institution, no less than New York’s American Museum of Natural History, has committed even far worse in the way it represented animals and people “from the wild”. The story of the six indigenous Greenlandic companions of Polar explorer Peary is the sad evidence. The future great discoverer of the North Pole had convinced to come with him to New York. Neglected by Peary who abandoned the group in poor quarters, weakened by a long trip, cultural shock and consequent disorientation, suffering from the unusual climatic conditions and the polluted air of an early 20th century industrial urban environment, the travellers from the Arctic withered and died, except for one little boy, Minik. The body of Minik’s father was then stripped of its flesh and his skeleton was put on display in the Museum (see the PBS documentary "Minik, the Lost Eskimo"). Here, the line between an ethnographic educational project and a circus freak show becomes extremely blurry, especially in the mind of an uneducated public for whom making fun of a geek expressing alcoholic rage in his cage in a carnival was socially acceptable. The stage upon which the Natives of the colonies were displayed were either actual zoos or special events like Paris colonial world fair of 1931. Among the entrepreneurs of such spectacles was no other than Hagenbeck himself.
In the conclusion to their history of zoos, Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier (see our bibliography at the end) summarize what was, according to their research, the fundamental social role in Western societies of keeping and exhibiting captive animals. It was “to treat them as proof of the existence of the Other, as hostages from a conquered world, as survivors of the universe on the road to extinction. Until the 20th century, zoos clearly reflected the will of a triumphant Europe to classify and dominate.” This does not mean that there was no real educational and scientific value. But as noted by the authors, the animals offered for observation “were more often virtual than natural”. Later, “torn between the persistent drive to exploit and the genuine desire to preserve and respect”, Western societies transformed views “into an ersatz of natural, open space.” The illusion of nature, disguised the reality: that Western societies were not liberal and benevolent as they viewed themselves. They preferred to “transplant, then limit, cultivate and arrange nature however and wherever it liked, rather than leave places truly free of human influence. Here again a parallel is to be drawn with the processes of the colonization and neo-colonialism which expressed, and continues to express the same dialectic between sentiment and reality.”
Education or cheap exotism? Asian elephant trainers on display (above) in a turn-of-the-century Parisian zoo: where the lines separating zoological and ethnographic education, from exotism, circus performance and white supremacist ideology become extremely blurry.
The pavillion at the entrance the 1931 Colonial World's fair (above) which was the occasion for the inauguration of the zoo of Vincennes. Exhibiting animals served the purpose of demonstrating political and military power. The representation of the wilderness, with its wild inhabitants—animals as well as people—was part of an exotism that, in this fourth decade of the 20th century, communicated more positive values than the morbid freak shows and exhibitions of “wild men” and “missing links” of earlier generations: although trophies they were, the exotic animals and human beings were nevertheless seen as treasures, a national treasure to be valued. But this kind of paternalism may have been more harmful to the advance of true humanistic values than the vulgar racism of the 19th century. No less than Three million Frenchmen visited the "Expo Coloniale". Today, all historians who studied this festival agree with the numbers that were circulated eighty years ago to measure its success as a public relations operation to win public support for colonialism: before the exhibit, the majority of Frenchmen were either opposed or indifferent to exploiting a French colonial empire, after the exhibit closed, the majority of the French supported colonial expansion. The exhibition of beautiful animals was part of this great campaign machine.
Why we may need zoos after all
Protecting an American symbol, Lowry Park zoo provides safe haven to an injured female bald eagle (above) incapable of returning to the wild in its large habitat areas near Tampa, Florida.
"Basically, we don't like zoos". The affirmation shouldn't be surprising if it had been pronounced by anyone else than Michel Bondu, Director of communications of the Zoo of Doué founded in 1961 in France's Loire Valley. In an interview by N&C, Mister Bondu expresses such strong words without hesitation. He hopes that they will be understood as a sign of a profoundly changing attitude by zoo keepers. Millions have been invested by the Doué zoo (which its executives prefer to call "biopark") for animal welfare inside its gates but also in the wild.
A chinese leopard at the Paris Botanical garden (Jardin des Plantes, left) may be safer behind its glass-protected cage than in the wild where the risk of falling victim to poachers or environmental destruction is very high.
When one of our Nature & Cultures reporters attended a lecture by Born Free Society founder Virginia McKenna, he was sitting next to one of the board members of the historic ZSL, the Zoological Society of London, that founded the
zoo in London’s Regent Park in the 1820s. How did he explain his presence at Virginia McKenna’s talk and his applauding her while obviously knowing her frequent attacks against menageries? “Oh, Ginny and I get along very well”, he confided to our reporter, “she has to make these kind of statements publicly because a lot of abuse has been inflicted upon animals and it’s her job to put an end to it…” If we started dismantling zoos, wouldn't we be throwing away the baby with the bathwater? What would we do with hundreds of thousands of animals born in zoos and incapable of surviving in the wild? Where could zoologists conduct research essential to our knowledge and to the animals' welfare and that can only be observed in captivity? What would happen to almost extinct species for which the zoo is a last haven from poachers?
Few know even about the existence of a creature such as the Sichuan Takin also known as the Tibetan Takin (Budorcas taxicolor tibetana - above). Collecting rare and almost unknown species is seen as valuable not only for zoological research and for the education of the public. It also provides protection for specimens living in extremely limited areas and suffering from habitat reduction.
More and more simulation of reality: are zoo animals becoming “happy”?
Animals roam in a quasi-free range territory in the Thoiry animal reserve, a near Paris
After World War II, yet a new revolution transformed the mentalities of zoo administrators and the architecture of zoological parks. Monkey Jungle in Florida is a good example. In 1933, animal behaviorist Joseph DuMond released a troop of Java monkeys into his private reserve to study them in an environment resembling their natural habitat. Soon afterward, to finance his research, DuMond let the first visitors enter his reserve. More species were added to the collection and the place became a new kind of zoo: a menagerie where the visitors are enclosed in long corridors of meshed wire while monkeys roam free in a floridian jungle. Monkey Jungle has thrived ever since. There is an enclosure around the compound of each species, but Monkey Jungle personel explained to us that the monkeys "enjoy two to three times more space than they would usually occupy in the wild”".
Also, research activities also continue under the auspices of DuMond Conservancy, a non-profit scientific organization. “The warm climate,”, assures its staff, “allows us to keep our primates outdoors year round, either free ranging in lush, multi-acre forested habitats or in large enclosures planted with natural vegetation and situated in secluded woods.” Still a family-owned institution, DuMond Conservancy continues to earn its reputation by conducting scientific research useful to our understanding of the ecology of primates, particularly its research on owl monkeys.
“Just as we don’t often hear much about owl monkeys, we don’t always hear enough about the less-famous organizations,” says Barbara J. King about Dumond Conservancy and Monkey Jungle. Dr. King is the author of Being with Animals, Why We Are Obsessed With the Furry, Scaly, Feathered Creatures Who Populate Our World (Doubleday: N.Y., 2010) and is Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William & Mary. These are places, she insists, “where fiercely dedicated people work (with strained resources) to make animals’ lives better in captivity and in the wild. The DuMond Conservancy is a small place that packs a big punch.”
Large wild animals in an almost free-ranging environment (left) in Thoiry , made this private zoo in the park and forest of an eccentric aristocrat's domain, in the countryside west of Paris, a model of new approaches to collecting animals.
By 1989, Nancy Gibbs from Time Magazine (see bibliography) could exclaim that “just about every aspect of America's zoos has
dramatically changed—and improved—from what viewers saw a generation ago. Gone are the sour cages full of frantic cats and the concrete tubs of thawing penguins. Instead the terrain is uncannily authentic, and animals are free to behave like, well, animals, not inmates.” These changes have affected numerous zoos in the world.
An international régime of animal welfare in zoos and aquariums.
Strongly refusing to be qualified as a “zoo”, Big Cat Rescue, in the Tampa Bay (above): not only a sanctuary where felines receive treatment and enjoy a safe haven from abusive detention and cruelty the association greets visitors for purposes of education and fund-raising.
Many zoos also follow a code of animal welfare now being enforced by over thirty national zoo associations and internationally by nearly a dozen regional organizations and by global federations, the most important of which is the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). WAZA enforces a strict code of ethics for its members. Today, being excluded from WAZA or not being admitted into one of the regional or national associations for not respecting the modern standards of animal welfare could be a death sentence to a zoo in terms of credibility and public image.
Injured animals or threatend animals find refuge and allow researchers to learn about their species and enrich gene pools by using the individual for reproduction. This male dolphin (left) found at a young age with a severely injured dorsal fin could not be returned to the wild. He spends his days stimulated by play and vigourous physical and intellectual exercise with others of his kind in very wide pools the size of a small lake at the Dolphin Research Center at Marathon in the Florida Keys. The center, where the film and TV series "Flipper", filmed in extremely questionnable conditions, is an example of the most recent evolution of menagerie managers now committed to non-profit zoological research, conservation, animal welfare, and education.
between the IUCN - the International Union for Conservation of Nature - and zoos throughout the world. The S.E.C.A.S. - Société d'Encouragement pour la Conservation des Animaux Sauvages (Society for the Encouragement of Wild Animals Conservation), is the NGOs supporting the zoo work of France's Museum d'Histoire Naturelle. It provides more interesting details about the history of international networking for conservation. In 1973 was created a network called ISIS -International Species Information System. It is a computer database identifying, on a voluntary basis, zoo animals with their origin and genealogy. The goal is to collect information necessary for the creation of herd books (studbooks) by species, allowing the initiation of coordinated breeding programs. Based in the Minnesota Zoo, ISIS maintains a list of approximately 550 participating zoos, over 1,3 million animals, including more than 350,000 6,000 species and subspecies. In 1980, the Association of Zoos North American (AZA) organized the first breeding programs involving captive animals called SSP (Species Survival Plan). In 1982, the UK implemented its own programs: JMSP (Joint Management Species Program). In 1985, the European Community created the European Endangered Species Programme.
Snow leopard (left; panthera uncia or uncia uncia) at the Jardin des Plantes, Paris (photo by Teri Worsham)
Breeding and reintroduction of endangered species is one of the main achievements of certain modern zoos and it is difficult to find arguments agains such programs. One of the earliest examples of the benefits of zoos for conservation was the survival of the last bisons of Europe. After excessive hunting in their last wild habitat, the Białowieża forest on the border of Poland and Belarus, and the chaos of World War I and the wars between Bolsheviks and their
White Army and nationalist Polish opponents, the species had become completely extinct. Less than 60 individuals survivied in zoos. It is thanks to them that the species is now back in Białowieża. A good recent example was the reintroduction into the steppes of Asia of the Przewalski horse. By the 1980s, this living fossil of prehistoric times had been reduced to quasi-extinction in the wild. Without the zoos where individuals had been preserved, the 300 horses living today in national parks in China and Mongolia would not have existed.
In a May 27, 2010 interview for 30 Millions d’Amis (“30 Million Friends”) , one of France’s longest running TV shows entirely devoted to the subject of pets, Gilles de Turckheim, director of the “Montagne des Singes” (Monkey Mountain), a zoological park hosting one of largest populations of Barbary macaques outside of their natural habitat in Northern Africa, defended the usefulness of his institution: “the monkeys have maintained the exact behaviour they display in the wild, except that they no longer fear humans. Here in Kintsheim”, he continued “more than one thousand of these individuals belonging to the Macaca sylvanus species roam freely amidst the lush pine forest of the French Vosges mountains, near the German border.” This new hyper-realism is one of the standards that oganizations such as WAZA are attempting to enforce. Apparently, even artificial environments in zoos can keep animals “happy” (or at least no less miserable than in the wild). One of the results of research on animal behavior in zoos is that interaction seems to be the main key to that goal. For most animals to “rest” is a severe punishment; in their natural habitat they would hunt, or run wild and play. So not only the surroundings must be carefully planned, but also, the accessories that will be included in these surroundings. For example, a penguin or a walrus in the zoo will potentially be happier if supplied live fish in their pool, so that they could hunt it. The same goes for other animals; even the ones that do not hunt need some toys and objects that would replace the ones involved in their natural activities.
See the big cats play on these videos from Big Cat Rescue and find out more about what a menagerie can accomplish for animal welfare
True, not everything is perfect. “Scientists wanted to acquaint their rare golden lion tamarins with a facsimile of their natural habitat, a lowland Brazilian forest. But the coddled, zoo-happy monkeys lacked some basic skills—how, for instance, to peel a banana. Instead, they fell out of the trees and got lost in the woods,” reports the Time Magazine article mentioned above. It also laughs at the famous San Diego zoo and its attempt, for the benefit of five adolescent Malayan sun bears, to recreate a natural habitat which included a moat, a cover of sod, a waterfall, real trees, and a fiber-glass version with an electric honey dispenser. “Zoogoers loved it. So did the bears. They shredded the trees, rolled up the sod, plugged the moat—and then one attempted a fast break over the wall. Spectators went scrambling for a zookeeper, who propped up a plywood barrier while another clanged some pots and pans to intimidate the beasts and herd them into a locked closure.” Yet, “like almost everything else that goes wrong these days,” firmly declares Time's Nancy Gibbs, it “is a signal that America's zoos are doing something very right”.
The zoo as “a modern ark”
World famous zoologist and animal activist Jane Gooddall discusses the role of zoos
EAZA, The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, defends its activities
Yann Arthus Bertrand is one of today’s most notorious wildlife photographers and spokesmen for environmental causes. Little is it known that he began his career as a director of an animal park. In his first ever televised interview in 1969, he explained how one of the main goals of his zoo was to provide a safe house and veterinary facilities for injured animals. This is one of the main rationales of the new institutions after the second zoo revolution.
New signs of change in mentalities are obvious in the zoo of Saint Petersburg, Russia. The presence of an important conservation organization presenting its program to the public (left) shows that local zoo management sees its purpose no longer as a form of entertainment but as a platform for education and conservationist lobbying. The LPP helps restore the population of Lake Ladoga's seals, mammals dwelling in Saint Petersburg's natural sweet water-reservoir and largest lake in Europe.
Big Cat Rescue in the suburbs of Tampa in Florida, does not even see itself as a zoo at all. The volunteers of this non-profit organization insist on being called a “sanctuary” and frankly explain to visitors that their presence is only needed to bring in funds. It grew out of spontaneous responses to emergency situations by people who just happened to be in the right place at the right time to respond to the immediate needs of injured wild animals found by the road (cats indigenous to Florida, like panthers) or pets, circus animals, or zoo animals abandoned by irresponsible owners or confiscated by the authorities from animal traffickers or criminals. It was either that or letting the cats just be euthanized. One rescue operation leading to another… and Big Cat Rescue was born. Dozens of lions, tigers, panthers and smaller felines live in rather large enclosures in a secluded patch of woods not far from Tampa. The place does looks like a zoo, but the managers see it only as a lesser evil, the only place where wild felines, those that can no longer be returned to the wild, can end their lives in a relatively comfortable although somewhat unnatural habitat. The volunteers are very militant in their efforts to educate their visitors about animal rights.
Conservation by zoos can be vital for markhors (Capra falconeri -right), the national animal of Pakistan, threatened not only because it is valued as a precious trophy, but because its protection is made impossible due to a large portion of its habitat coinciding with war zones in Afghanistan. According to the famous IUCN Red List of Endangered Species only 2500 mature individuals remained in the wild in 2008, a population which has been declining until then at a rate of 20 percent per year. This specimen, living in the Paris Botanical Garden zoo, serves science, education and maintaining the diversity of its species genetic pool in exchange for protection from anarchic hunting in the conditons of political upheaval.
Providing protection against exterior threats combined with advocacy is another of the policies a majority of zoos are adopting. Whether it results from public pressure or out of sincere conviction, the benefits of such policies would be too dangerous to neglect.When she was present at the inauguration of the Edinburgh Zoo enclosure, the famous primatologist Jane Goodall, generally no great fan of menageries, declared: “In an ideal world chimpanzees and monkeys would be out in the wild as they were intended to be. But in the real world, there are not so many places
like that and they are getting smaller all the time. The choice is between living in wonderful facilities like these where they are probably better off or living in the wild in an area like Budongo, where one in six gets caught in a wire snare, and countries like Congo, where chimpanzees, monkeys and gorillas are shot for food commercially. If I were a chimpanzee, I know what I would choose,” added Dr. Goodall (see Mark Wade's article in our bibliography).
The zoo keeper as conservation champion
The Oceanographic Museum in Monaco (left) : not only one of the world's most reputable aquariums and marine life research institutions,but also, a support for popularizing conservation: it was the Museum that funded its director's Captain Cousteau's expeditions which gained exceptional global popularity through the famous TV exposure. Cousteau's now classic documentaries used this exposure to promote a powerful environmentalist agenda, contributing to make conservation part of the political culture as we know it today and that we often take for granted.
In fact, the mounting awareness in public opinion over conservation issues was fueled by scientists closely associated with zoos.
First among these were the Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz, famous for his studies on human and animal aggression and on geese (proven to accept as their mother the first living creature they see as they hatch) and Swiss zoologist Heini Hediger, director of the zoos of Berne, Basel, and then Zürich. They were among the pioneers of the new zoo with wider living space for the animals and with reproduction, rather than museology, as a priority.
Are these animals even aware that they are in captivity? The aquarium section of the of zoo of Basel, Switzerland (right, top) shows an example of how animals can live in a confined space, seemingly without displaying abnormal behavior.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s 1956 The Silent World was to be the first in a long series of oceanographic documentaries with an openly militant environmentalist message which, during four decades, made him a global media star and one of the great icons of the conservation movement. In 1957, Cousteau became the director of Monaco’s Oceanographic Institute, an institution known by the public mainly for… its aquarium! As director of the Museum, Cousteau never objected to operating such a detention facility for marine wildlife. The Institute sponsored Cousteau’s expeditions and also, the upkeep of very rich collections of fish which have yielded treasures in terms of our knowledge of marine ecology and how to better protect it.
Rare indigenous animals in the zoo of Saint Petersburg, Russia, are protected from poaching as as the sturgeons of its aquarium (right, center) a species which will be extinct if overfishing, mainly due to poaching continues at present rates (it is estimated that 90% of Russian caviar sold in legitimate stores worldwide is produced by poachers). Depriving Przhevalsky horses (right, bottom) of their natural grasslands in Central Asia, although appalling for the individual animal may be, for the species a lesser-of-two-evils solution against its lack of genetic diversity or against poaching.
But it is probably in Germany that a zoo director had the greatest impact on the public’s awareness of environmental issues. "Serengeti Will Not Die" hit the
photo by American University of Paris graduate student Erin Crooks, on assignment
screens in 1959 and won the 1960 Oscar for best documentary. For Germany, where more than elsewhere, environmentalism was to rise as a major global political force, this powerful documentary, one of the first to denounce modernity's fatal threat to wildlife, became a landmark in the long love story between the media, the public and conservation activists. Serengeti Darf Nicht Sterben, (its original title), was the creation of the Bernhard and Michael Grzimek, a father-and-son team. Young Michael, the cinematographer lost his life during filming when his bush plane crashed. Bernhard, the writer, producer and director was no other than the head of the Frankfurt zoo. In 1945, he had assumed responsibility for the Tiergarten, immediately after the bombings of the last weeks of the war had reduced its infrastructures to rubble and killed almost all of its animals. But courageously, the new director (a former Wermacht veterinarian who had helped Jews during the war) restored the park within weeks, brought back several animals and created festive events that attracted an important public as early as July 1945. The need to rebuild a major zoo from scratch allowed Bernhard Grzimek to apply the new philosophy of zoo management: large, comfortable quarters for the animals with the best possible rendition of their natural habitat, protection of endangered species, breeding programs and exchange of specimens with other zoo. Also, the exhibition of animals was now seen only as a pretext—a means for raising funds (by charging entrance) and a platform for conservation propaganda. But in that domain—public relations—Bernhard Grzimek demonstrated no less talent than a Barnum or a Hagenbeck. His philosophy on animal-human relations was going to profit from his showmanship and growing celebrity.
In 1956, Bernhard Grzimek had already written scores of books and made a documentary when he began hosting a talk show on animals—Ein Platz für Tieren (A place for animals)— which became one of German television's most popular productions. It was on the air until 1980. It featured popular science, appeals to the public's environmental conscience, and news from the zoo in Frankfurt with live animals as special guests of the studio.
A recognizable host, animal stars, news reels from the field and environmentalist comments—it would be very interesting for students specializing in environmental studies or communications to investigate (for a term paper or a presentation) just how much Grzimek's show became a model for comparable broadcasts in other parts of the world such as those of other stars like François and Marylise de la Grange or Christian Zuber in France, Cousteau (the most famous worldwide), Marlin Perkins in the United States (yet another zoo director), and in the UK, David Attenborough and Gerald Durrell.
Durrell yet another zoo director, championed the same philosophy as Grzimek. The difference was that Durell's involvement in zoo management resulted from his media fame and not the other way around. A brother of the great novelist Lawrence Durrell, Gerald was himself a best-selling author and documentary maker on animal subjects; in 1958, with gains from his books, he founded on the island of Jersey a remarkable menagerie often cited as a model of the zoo as a “new ark”. As a matter of fact, Gerald Durrell coined the term by giving to his book discussing the problems of zoo management the title “The Stationary Ark”. Safeguarding endangered species, keeping them comfortable, breeding them, then releasing them back into their native habitat, plus providing education, and facilitating training and the creation of conservation facilities in different parts of the world was often highly successful over the years and confirmed the usefulness of the zoos of this second revolution.
The zoo of Doué, says its representative Michel Bondu, has reintroduced Tamarind lions in Brazil and vultures into the mountains of france and the Balkans. The zoo has helped red-crowned cranes to hatch eggs and then raise their chicks in the wild. However, our interviewee insists that these are exceptional programs. Few animals in its collection could be succesfully returned to the wild...
As Jane Goodall may have put it, in an ideal world we should have no need for zoos. We may learn one day to protect nature in such a way that we will be able to enjoy the easily accessible spectacle of great populations of animals roaming freely in the wild, as they can only be seen today in natural parks. If this dream ever comes true, today's zoos may be remembered, some day in the future, with contempt, in the same way that we look back at Haggenbeck’s fake animal “habitat”. Or maybe we will look back at 21st century zoos as a halfway solution, one of the causes that would have made possible the return of the great populations of animals in the wild?
Find out more about the Durrells and there zoo by exploring the video above and the two below.
A terrifying roar sounding like a powerful motor attracts N&C staff members to the scene of a fight about to take place between large male aligators. They warn Silver Springs theme park personnel who arrive just in time to break up the extremely violent confrontation just when the largest of the two males is trying to rip off his opponent's limb (both photos above). A few days earlier, a baby macaque could not be saved on time (below) when a fierce battle between factions became extremely violent in "Monkey Jungle" nature reserve. Our N&C staff member turned his camera towards the terrible shrieks, he could only witness a mother trying to revive her baby killed by a rival. This may be the price to pay when animals are left to themselves in a habitat resembling the wild.
In or out? A great egret (Ardea alba) living in the wild is attracted to Lowry Park zoo near Tampa, Florida (below), whether by the presence of captive birds of the same species or food left over imprudently by visitors. Whatever brings this beautiful ainged animal to such an unnatural place as a zoo, it poses the problem of our human behavior reshaping animal behavior for better or for worse.
Watch six half-hour episodes from "Zoo Quest", the classic BBC TV series that brought images of exotic places and rare wildlife into the homes of 1950s Britain, in partnership with London Zoo. First go to the link here and view a "making of" interview of David Attenborough, then view the episodes by clicking on the links on the right hand side of the page.
On the ethical issues concerning the landscape, consult: the California Academy of Sciences Naturalist Center on "responsible collecting" (search for relevant links from that page) and "Why we collect"
In Issue 2 (Fall 2014): the Ukraine, Russian geography, conflicts over water and many, many more features. To receive notification of its release, go to N&C's Facebook page and sign up (Issue 1 will remain available on a special archives section).