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university of wisconsin-milwaukee
Nigel Rothfels
Savages and Beasts

Reviews of Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2002.

Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum
Nov30-Dec 1, 2002

Animal Magnetism
People love to look at wildlife, but is that reason enough to keep it captive?

MARGIE BORSCHKE looks at whether zoos can escape their own history.

N.B. This is from an email from Margie Borschke which may slightly differ from the print version.


Just west of Melbourne, as the cityscape gives way to oil refineries and distribution yards, where lettuce fields and sheep paddocks are abutted by the growing creep of commuter suburbs, David Hancocks, director of Victoria's Open Range Zoo, is worried about the legless lizard.

"There's no dramatic wildlife [native to this area]," explains Hancocks, who took the helm here in Werribee, Australia four years ago. "But there are all sorts of odd little creatures like the striped legless lizard." Pencil thin, the grassy-coloured lizard is marked by black lateral stripes and is distinguishable from a snake only by its tongue. There's one in the Discovery Centre, Hancocks tells me, but its habitat, the once abundant kangaroo grass, is now rare and while the zoo is home to endangered rhinos from Africa, no local legless lizards roam the two-hundred Hectare grounds.

Hancocks will be the first to tell you that zoos today are in a bit of a bind. "Zoos evolved in peculiar ways and not for very sound or healthy reasons," he says sitting in his office, not far from the Safari Shuttle Shelter where toddlers wait with grandmothers to board the bus. Zoos remain foremost in our minds a good place to take the kids, a pleasant afternoon outing. But is that reason enough to keep wild animals captive?

"We need to look at these institutions and ask ourselves if we really want them," Hancocks says. An architect and zoo director for 30 years, Hancocks' is the author of an ambitious book A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future (University of California Press, paperback 2002)- at once a sweeping history of zoos, a manifesto about their design and a careful consideration of their future.

Radically, Hancocks calls for zoos to "uninvent" themselves. "People no longer need to visit a zoo to see what a camel or a leopard looks like,'' he writes, ``so much as to gain a better understanding of the dynamic systems of Nature and the interconnections within ecosystems, and most especially how to help conserve biodiversity on the planet."

Considered one of the zoo world's most creative and revolutionary thinkers, Hancocks' helped Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo blaze new trails in the mid-70s in exhibit design and radically shifted the institution's priorities. "We were the first zoo to say we're going to put the needs of animals first," he says, a mandate that is now commonplace worldwide.

Witness the redevelopment underway at other Australian zoos such as the Taronga and Western Plains Zoos where a 12-year regeneration plan is committed to teaching about ecosystems through immersion exhibits like Taronga's the "Creatures of the Wollemi. " There, visitors enter a lush habitat where members from 200 species live almost as they would in the wild. "I find it mystifying why zoos completely ignored animal needs for so long and why some still do so," continues the Welsh-born 60-year-old.

"One of my biggest frustrations is that not only do we accept zoos as they are, but we accept with them an eighteenth century view of the world. We don't like the untidiness of nature and we don't seem to recognize our dependence on it so we subdivide it into unnatural composites. We put animals in this park over here, plants in another and fish somewhere else again." Can zoos overcome their history?


Humans have captured and kept wild beasts since ancient times: Egyptian kings collected thousands and Nero was among the many ancient Romans who owned lions. But zoos, as we know them, are an invention of the mid-nineteenth century, a public institution that was the product of an increasingly urban culture, one whose population was becoming cut off from the natural world.

The first public zoological garden opened in 1793 in France, but more familiar and perhaps more influential in terms of its layout and attendant culture was the London Zoological Gardens, opened to the public in 1847 in Regents Park. At once a respite from an industrialized world and quintessentially urban, zoos provided an acceptable kind of recreation - in keeping with Victorian middle-class values of self-improvement - in a landscape that sought to both celebrate and control nature. Zoos set as their mission education, recreation, the advancement of science and (in some cases) conservation - goals contemporary zoos continue to espouse.

"This doesn't mean that zoos today are the same as they were 150 years ago," says Nigel Rothfels, an American historian and author of Savages and Beasts: the Birth of the Modern Zoo (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002) "There are a lot of differences but they aren't usually talked about within the zoo community, most of whom see the history of zoos as a long progression from some sort of horrible captivity to their more enlightened vision. What's actually changed is the way we talk about and imagine animal captivity."

American historian of science Elizabeth Hanson agrees. "It's not that people then didn't care about animals, they did," says Hanson whose book Animal Attractions: Nature on Display in American Zoos (Princeton University Press, 2002), digs deep into story of the modern zoo. "It's that they had different ideas about what, for example, a natural setting was." Hence, early zoo architects built monuments to the human cultures with which animals were associated-Hindu temples for elephants, Egyptian ones for giraffes. To mimic natural habitats would have been uncivilized, even cruel. Besides, in most cases they didn't have a clue about how the animals lived and behaved in the wild. (Animals often subsisted on outrageous diets: Hancocks reports that elephants at a French zoo dined daily on 8 lbs. bread, two buckets of gruel and 12 pints of wine; fruit was thought unsuitable for monkeys.)

The public had other ideas about why to keep animals captive and few were compatible with the institutions' stated aims and goals. Hunters backed the Bronx Zoo's program to save the Bison if only to keep their sport alive; naturalists fancied a collection of living animals would teach them about animal behaviour (a folly when monkeys were regularly dressed for tea); exotic animal collectors had live wares to flog; circuses had problem elephants to shed.

"Directors were saying zoos were one thing," says Hanson, "but from the letters people wrote and their donations it's clear they had different ideas. It's still true: zoos today may focus on conservation and science but their enduring popularity is the appeal of the real thing-- people like to look at animals."

Such conflicts continue to shape our expectations even when they fly in the face of what we say we want zoos to do. Early decisions about what to display were often driven more by popular sentiment and colonial trade routes than they were by scientific principles. Elephants became must-haves not only because they were the largest land mammal but because they were available-dealers stocked them for circuses.

"People are going to start to say maybe some animals should not be in a zoo or if it is maybe in a highly specialized zoos," says Rothfels, who says few zoos commit enough resources to keeping Elephants physically and mentally healthy. "The idea that every zoo should have certain kinds of animals is pretty strange."

Stranger still is the persistent notion that humane treatment is simply a tale of before bars and after. The image of depressed apes grasping heavy iron bars endures as an example of our cruelty to animals, but as a design innovation, barless exhibits are an early invention. They were pioneered in 1907 by the famous German exotic animal dealer Carl Hagenbeck, who constructed a naturalistic landscape in which animals were separated from each other and the public by a series of hidden moats and obstacles; his 'Tierpark' was an overwhelming success.

"[Hagenbeck] didn't get rid of bars because people wanted to free the animals or because they wanted to give them a certain kind of life," says Rothfels. "It was built because that's what people wanted to see."

Counter to the company's interpretation that compassion for animals alone prompted this innovation, Rothfels claims Hagenbeck was motivated as much by moving the merchandise as being moved by it. That is, he was a smart businessperson, one who realized popular zoos that were cheap to run would buy more animals.

Critics charged that Hagenbeck was "threatening the taxonomic scientific approach", an approach that did as little then to inspire or educate about animals lives as it does today. (Hancocks' shift to bioclimatic zoning and landscape immersion at the Woodland Zoo was similarly criticized.) Regardless, Hagenbeck's business boomed, as did the careers of other famous collectors such as the American Frank Buck.

The loss of life on an expedition was astounding. Hanson recounts that in 1922 Buck, though aware the rhinoceros was 'practically extinct', killed 21 in order to procure two specimens for US zoos. The stamp-collector mentality of many directors contributed to the decline of the very species they sought to preserve. In the name of science, zoos even set out on their own collecting expeditions in the '30s but, Hanson argues, these journeys were more publicity than science.

Scientific inquiry has continually been used to justify and lend credibility to zoos despite the fact that not much of it has ever gone on. "It's one of the great myths," admits Hancocks. When the basic needs of animals were not met and creatures lived stressful existences, as most zoo inhabitants did until recent years, little could be learned from animals behaving unnaturally.

It is estimated that 5400 animals species are in danger of extinction today and the planet is losing plants at an even more rapid rate. Our biggest conservation problem, according to the United Nations Environmental Program, is the loss of biological diversity. Yet we remain unalarmed, certain that someone, somewhere is on the case. Will zoos be a latter-day Noah's Ark?

Many believe that the breeding of endangered animals is the raison d'être of the modern zoo. Captive breeding programs began in the '70s as conservation laws and public outrage put exotic animal dealers out of business. Most efforts were haphazard until the '80s when coordinated species survival plans were established (these help maintain genetic diversity and prevent inbreeding.) There are now global breeding programs for around 180 species, a mere fraction of the species in peril. And critics charge that the species bred are often more important to the self-preservation of zoos than they are to the conservation of biodiversity.

"[People like to think zoos are saving species because it's] such a huge problem, and it's depressing," says Hancocks, who points out that only seven species have ever been saved by captive breeding. "But a lot of zoos will say 'Don't worry. We're going to save the endangered wildlife for you.' There's no substance to it."

Besides, more of a particular species in captivity does nothing to save a wild population and the ecosystem of which it is a part. And reintroduction (a task at which Australian zoos are particularly active) only works if there is a wild place to return to.

"The zoo world seems to be dividing into those who recognize we're not saving the world's wildlife; that it's false and misleading to claim we are and those who get irate when you say so," says Hancocks, who has even heard colleagues claim to contribute to conservation by displaying endangered animals. "It's nonsense. The only real honest justification for zoos today is education - helping develop communities that are knowledgeable, sympathetic and caring about [the natural world.] It's an important role but not a particularly glamorous one."

So where does that leave our day at the zoo? Hancocks may believe in environmental education but he's no wowser. "The zoo does not have to become a gloomy place of great seriousness," he says. "But it does have to be a little bit challenging, enlightening and mind opening. It's much easier to just deal in the fluff and historically zoos were balloons and candy floss. But we have to engage in a more intellectual and deeper debate" The legless lizard is depending on it.

Last updated by ntr:
November 2, 2009