Zoos: Changing Faces

Tiny Teacher

I’ve almost always lived near a good zoo.  I grew up in Washington, D.C.  which hosts the National Zoo.  My dad took us there frequently when we were small.  These were the days when you were still encouraged to feed the elephants peanuts, so my first memories of those magnificent creatures includes looking up into questing trunks while my feet crunched on peanut shells.  We also always made a point to go visit Smokey the Bear.  My dad would hoot at the howler monkeys and they would hoot back at him.

For the longest time, I treasured a memory of patting a white tiger kitten that had been let run around in an enclosure that was little more than a chain-link fence surrounding a grassy area.  I squeezed through the towering adults, hunkered down, and pushed my hand through to pat the big kitten.

As I grew older, I decided that I had probably imagined that incident.  Then, when I was a freshman at Fordham University, I went to the Bronx Zoo, which was an easy walk from campus.  There, in the building that housed the big cats, I read on a sign how the magnificent white tiger lounging on the other side of the bars had been born at that National Zoo at just the right time to match my memory.

What do you know?  I probably did pat that tiger.

As much as I treasure those memories, one of the things I am happiest about zoos is how I’ve seen them change.  When I was a child, many animals were kept in iron-barred, concrete-floored cages.  The exception to this were hoof stock.  They at least had dirt-surfaced or grassy holding areas.

The change started when I was a kid.  Signs began to include the little antelope head emblem that indicated an endangered or threatened species.  Holding areas began to include toys or play areas.   The message that the older style “zoological garden” had sent was “Here are animals for you to look at, just as you might go to a flower garden to look at flowers.”  Now the message was, “Here are rare creatures.  Treasure them.  They might not be around much longer.”

Change was a slow process and one that didn’t happen overnight.  My first visit to the Bronx Zoo was definitely a mixed experience.  While I delighted in finding my childhood dream had been a childhood reality, I also teared up when I saw that many of the big cats were being held in cages of the sort that had long vanished from the National Zoo.   However, during my eight years in the area (I stayed for graduate school), I saw exhibits change.  By the time I left, the concrete-floored cages were either empty – their occupants moved to much nicer areas – or the cages were being used to house much smaller creatures.  Enclosures had also been adapted so that vertical as well as horizontal space was useable.

Jim tells me that the Rio Grande Zoo – now part of the Albuquerque BioPark – has undergone a similar transformation during the years he’s been going there.  I’ve certainly seen changes during my twenty or so years as a visitor.  Many of the larger animals are housed in exhibits that are lower than the walkway, giving the animal room and privacy, freeing them from being encased within four walls and a ceiling.  Even those animals that live in more traditional “cages” often have access to more than one exhibit area.  Best of all, they can take themselves off exhibit if necessary.

I’ve heard some older people complain about how these changes make it harder for “the kids” to see the animals.  Funny, but I don’t see “the kids” doing much complaining.  In fact, they seem delighted with the need to search for the animals.  What used to be a shuffle from cage to cage is now closer to a treasure hunt.

During our visit to the building that housed reptiles and amphibians, we were right behind a trio of energetic kids – probably eight or nine years old.   They paused at every exhibit, no matter how small, searching for the snake or lizard or turtle or frog.  Every discovery was crowed over, the cleverness of the creature’s natural camouflage a never-ending delight.  Often they paused to read the sign, exclaiming over what the creature ate or some other neat fact.

There’s also a greater emphasis on preservation and breeding programs.  No longer are we just warned that a creature is endangered, we’re given a chance to be part of saving that species.  Recently, the Albuquerque BioPark has hosted events encouraging responsible purchasing, recycling, providing education about renewable resources, and similar topics.

In addition to giving humans a chance to see living representatives of exotic animals (as opposed to the taxidermy displays that were common in museums when I was young), zoos also provide homes for representatives of the local ecosystem.  On our last visit, Jim and I had a very nice visit with a Western screech owl who – because of a damaged eye that meant she couldn’t be safely released into the wild – is now a member of the education staff.  Several avian exhibits housed injured roadrunners along with the more exotic birds.  On another visit, we met the education team’s porcupine.

Zoos are no longer gardens for viewing animals; they’re places that seek to educate humans about the vast biosphere in which we live.  It’s a change I really enjoy, and one reason that – even though I usually don’t have time to visit the zoo more than a couple times a year – I have a membership that costs me more than the price of admission would.  It’s my way of saying I appreciate what they’re trying to do.

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6 Responses to “Zoos: Changing Faces”

  1. James Mendur Says:

    The Beijing Zoo, which I visited in 2015, was (is?) still very much of the old style of zoo. They, too, are slowly getting better, but I saw jackals and wolves in enclosed areas which couldn’t possible have afforded them any mental stimulation or sense of security. Some of the bears were exhibiting mental distress behaviors (repetitive pacing, tossing their heads, etc.). But it was starting to improve. The Red Pandas had a new, huge environment to explore, with platforms, logs to imitate tree branches, etc.

    On a side note, for several zoo-goers, I was an even more exotic animal than the ones in the cages. A little kid watched me with big eyes as we were leaving the zoo at about the same time. And while I was introducing myself to one of the wolves (via a ventilation panel which allowed the wolf to sniff my hand but not bite me) I saw another zoo patron watching me and not the wolf. (insert Coyote and Roadrunner style fake-Latin designation: Touristus Americanus.)

    I really need to check out the local zoos in Dallas and Fort Worth, to see how they are. I’ll add them to the list of “things I should have seen already, so what the heck have I been doing with my time”?.

    Speaking of museums, something I saw more in China but am starting to see in the USA is museums with replica displays rather than actual items, especially when it comes to bones and such. I’m not sure what I think about going to see a museum which has as many as a quarter of its displays being reproductions and replicas. When I see a triceratops skeleton, I want to see a triceratops skeleton, not an artificial reproduction of one. If you’re gonna have reproductions, you might as well show us one as if it were alive, rather than duplicating an actual item you don’t have. What do you think about that?

    • janelindskold Says:

      I agree with you about museums and repros, but if they’re going to use them, I’d like them to be more clearly labeled as such. Of course, for a long time, many dino skeletons have only been part fossil material, but the better museum displays (IMO) clearly showed which was which.

  2. King Ben's Grandma Says:

    Growing up in the San Diego area, I saw very few of the old style cages and enclosures.
    Trips out to the Wild Animal Park (now called Safari Park) was like a trip to Africa. At least it was to me.
    We humans owe it to our endangered animal friends to try to repair the damage we’ve caused through trophy hunting and environment damage.
    I’m glad zoos are changing from unnatural displays to educational, more realistic ones.

  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    Have you read Gerald Durrell? Aside from being by far the most interesting of his family, A Zoo in My Luggage recounts the founding of the first of the ‘modern’ zoos, on Jersey. Mind you, even Durrell is criticised in some quarters these days, although some of what i’ve seen seems to me to be in the vein of trying to prove the ‘superiority’ of practice that is simply different [occasionally just so as to be different]

  4. Debby Barker Says:

    I loved all the Gerry Durrell books and have been to the Jersey Zoo. There is a jungle gym set in front of the gorilla exhibit. The sign says something like this: Please let your children play on the gym — the gorillas seem to enjoy watching them.

    • janelindskold Says:

      That’s great! I need to put the Gerry Durrell books on my TBR list.

      The Albuquerque Zoo had a tiger who was restless until they let her see into the area where they did Educational Presentations. Then she relaxed and enjoyed the view!

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