Why do we need zoos in the 21st century?

debating europe

A familiar question came across my news feed twice on the same day, but from widely different sources. One was from the discussion board on a website called Debating Europe and the other source was an opinion piece entitled Don’t move the Sacramento Zoo. Close it. Give the animals a break in the Sacramento California newspaper. They came to me as I was considering whether to respond to another negative zoo story out of New York City about a “lonely’ elephant at the Bronx zoo.

The arguments, both in Europe and in North America, are familiar. With today’s technology, we can observe animals in their natural environment with ultra-high definition cameras. With wildlife documentaries giving us unprecedented views of animals in their natural habitats even at night, underwater, and from high flying drones, why do we need zoos? Perhaps the author of the Sacramento newspaper article unknowingly answered his own question. He describes a visit to the zoo with his children when he found himself face to face with a tiger through the glass of its enclosure. When a child darted by:


The tiger suddenly tensed up and assumed an aggressive posture, its muscles coiling in one ominous movement. Its face and eyes were instantly alive. I caught a glimpse of natural instinct – of the tiger’s very nature – rising above the lethargy of captivity. I actually felt scared for a moment until remembering the big glass enclosure was there separating me from the tiger.


His memory is a sad one—of an animal that is caged and not allowed to live-out  its instincts—but the emotional connection from that experience remained long after any other memories. No television show can provide that connection. For those of us who truly love animals, perhaps a better argument than that of closing all zoos is to figure out what zoos should become? I explore this topic in my soon-to-be-published book, In Search of Eden.

Book cover

“Social institutions of all kinds evolve,” said Michael Robinson in his Forward to the book New Worlds, New Animals. “This is true of political, legal, and administrative entities, as well as cultural, educational, and scientific bodies.” Robinson was director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo for sixteen years in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Zoos are social institutions that began as and continued to be, what Robinson describes as “places of spectacle and entertainment”. “Research, education, and conservation”, he continued, “are functions which, in the last one hundred years or so, have been grafted onto the recreational rootstock of zoos.” Robinson also correctly noted that “During the age of exploration and European colonization of the world, museums of natural history were established under the same impetus as zoos” – a desire for scientific knowledge but, in the case of zoos, with the added, and unstated, goal of entertainment.

Perhaps Robinson’s greatest contribution to the field was his advocacy for the concept of the BioPark, a place that would “combine elements of existing zoos, aquariums, natural history museums, botanical gardens, arboretums, and ethnological and anthropological museums to create a holistic form of bioexhibitry. Creating the BioPark means ending a series of unnatural separations.”

Another advocate for change in zoos has been David Hancocks, author, zoo director, and vocal critic of the status quo in zoos. Hancocks optimistically asserts that “of all the natural history-based institutions that we have invented – museums of geology, paleontology, zoology, and natural history; botanical gardens; arboretums; aquariums; and wild animal parks – it is zoos, I believe, that have the greatest capacity to adapt, absorb new functions, and amalgamate the content of other institutions.


I don’t pretend to know what the future zoo / aquarium might look like. Entire books have been written about the subject. I do, however, think some zoos may already be previewing some concepts of the future. Philadelphia has developed what it calls Zoo360, which is a campus-wide network of see-through mesh trails that allow animals to roam around and above Zoo grounds. Zoo360 currently consists of a half dozen trail systems that link existing animal habitats, so animals with similar habitat requirements can use one another’s spaces in a time-sharing system and take advantage of more room to roam. At the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC, the elephants are provided a similar experience. Elephant Trails, as the name implies, consists of a series of outdoor exercise experiences linked by a path that winds it way through a wooded section of the zoo. The animals have access to four different pools as well as a facility called the Elephant Community Center.

David Hancocks proposes that weuninvent zoos as we know them and create captive situations in which wild animals can enjoy a life that is more comfortable, healthier, safer, and longer than they typically have in the wild”. But no matter what form is taken by future zoos, I firmly believe that if people are going to accept live animals in zoos and aquariums in any form, they must feel animals are well cared for. Welfare is more important than ever and zoos ignore it at their own peril—but that is the subject of another blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: