an article from The St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2013
Collecting and displaying live animals, often from exotic locales and faraway continents, has been part of human life for at least 4,500 years. Originally featured in royal or imperial parks and pleasure gardens, upon the rise of bourgeois culture such animal collections opened to the public and became known as zoological gardens, or zoos, where visitors could contemplate "the wild" and its relationship to human civilization. By the end of the twentieth century a zoo visit had become one of the rituals of modern life, particularly during childhood; according to a study by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, 98 percent of all American and Canadian adults had been to a zoo by 1987, and one-third of them had paid a visit in the last year.
Around the same time, the legitimacy of collecting and displaying animals became hotly debated, with some people arguing that putting animals in any kind of cage or enclosure was inhumane, and others pointing out that zoos and captive breeding programs offered many species their only hope of survival. In any event, by the turn of the millennium modern zoos seemed to be focusing (somewhat desperately) on animal welfare and conservation, combined with human education, rather than on entertaining visitors at the expense of inmates.
Human Mastery, Animal Functionality, and Living Conditions
Zoos have traditionally been dispersal points for information about the relationship between humanity and nature—information deliberately shaped by the owners and/or caretakers of the animals, whose decisions have in turn been guided (at least in the last hundred years) by what research shows the zoogoers want to see. In any collection, the animals have been essentially packaged, made into products filtered by human minds and placed in surroundings that say something about the beauty of Creation, the dominance of humankind over nature, or the need for environmental economy and sensitivity. Whether enclosed in cages or moated "environments," the collected creatures usually seem to do no work (unlike farm animals), earning their keep simply by being and being looked at—only passively conveying their controllers' subliminal messages to viewers.
For most of the zoo's history, this perceived limited utilitarian function resulted in cramped quarters, poor diets, depression, and early death for the animals. In an era when animals' value was measured by the physical work they did or the food they produced, perhaps it was reasoned that if the animals served a merely decorative function—as most zoo owners and visitors seemed to have felt they did—they were not entitled to comfortable environments and interesting daily activities.
In the twentieth century, studies proved again and again that for most animals a caged life was a short and unhappy one.To begin with, for many species (including Homo sapiens), a stare is received as a threat. Bored and depressed animals might fill the hours with repetitive behaviors known as stereotypy: masturbating to a danger point, pacing their paws raw, or—like many chained elephants—swaying endlessly from side to side. Some chimpanzees developed bulimia, and scientists documented psychosis in a baboon kept on Cyprus. While some people were concerned about these conditions over the years, few took it upon themselves to do much more than decry them; the zoos were not there for the animals but for the people who might have emotional reactions to them.
Symbols of Power
Over the years, animal collections and their subliminal significance evolved from the huge local-antelope assemblages in Sakkarah, Egypt, through signs of imperial power in ancient China and Rome, to the living museums of the current century. In ancient times, a large collection of exotics made a fine testament to royal or imperial power, demonstrating a warrior's ability to bring natural (and, by extension, human) populations under control.Egyptian, Greek, and Persian rulers were avid collectors, and the Hebrew Bible attributes a substantial menagerie to King Solomon in the tenth century b.c.e. In the early Common Era, Roman emperors kept lions, tigers, crocodiles, elephants, and other impressive animals; the public could view these exotics in between triumphal imperial processions and spectacular gladiatorial exhibitions in which the animals were, by and massacred—occasionally by the thousand.
Medieval European nobles and monarchs assembled private menageries that then testified to the owners' social position; they often exchanged exotic animals as gifts and tokens of esteem. Lions and leopards were considered particularly valuable; indeed, from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, Europeans were more interested in the animals of Africa and the Far East than in those of the New World. Meanwhile, European voyagers were discovering the same passion for exotic animals in other cultures: In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo marveled at Chinese emperor Kublai Khan's extensive menagerie, including leopards, tigers, elephants, and hunting birds, while in 1519 Hernando Cortés reported that Aztec emperor Montezuma employed hundreds of gardeners and animal keepers for his collections (three hundred worked in the aviaries alone).
Public Fascination and Entertainment
As cities developed in the modernizing world, zoos became increasingly attractive and accessible to the public. Humankind was moving away from daily contact with nature, and even locally occurring animals were exoticized by urban living ....
Conservation and Cryogenics: The Future of the Zoo
Hand in hand with redesign came an interest in conservation, most of it dependent on highly developed technologies. In fact, zoos already had a long history as breeding-grounds for scientific discovery and research: In the eighteenth century, visits to the Swedish royal menagerie inspired Carl von Linné (Linnaeus) to develop the latinate system of binomial nomenclature by which animals and plants have been classified ever since, and post-Industrial Revolution zoos were considered valuable resources for natural historians and taxidermists.
In the mid-twentieth century, as human concern for the environment mounted, zoo animals took on a new function, as agents of global salvation.
By means of captive breeding programs, including cryogenically frozen eggs and sperm, zoos set out to become latter-day arks, saving species from what many people saw as inevitable extinction due to expanding industrialism and consequent environmental catastrophe. There was also a concern with preserving not just an animal's body, but its natural behaviors (including mating, predation, foraging, and leisure activities) as well. These new interests, like the surge in redesign, were perhaps the indirect result of the technology used in TV's nature programs and cinema's special effects: Zoos had to become more "authentic," too.This emphasis on conservation was seen by some as ironic, given the depredations that had taken place as industrial-era zoos were first stocked.
Until the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, famous animal suppliers such as Frank Buck regularly ventured into the wild to slaughter adult animals and bring the babies back alive. But by the turn of the millennium there seemed to be little doubt that preservation of individuals and conservation of species, as well as enrichment of captive lives, were high priorities.
Accredited zoos joined a worldwide breeding network; under the SSPs, or Species Survival Plans, sperm and eggs were frozen, live animals shipped from one end of the globe to the other in order to mate. Some embryos of rare animals, such as zebras, were gestated inside more common species, such as domestic horses.
Yet even with their best efforts and most sophisticated technology, zoo administrators estimated that they could save only about 900 of the 2,000 vertebrate species expected to go extinct by the year 2000. The current success rate is impossible to determine—but most admit that, for example, the African elephant will almost certainly be extinct by the year 2020, with just a few elderly specimens languishing in zoos that cannot provide the conditions in which they might reproduce successfully.
With the cryogenic zoo, humankind has become more than ever the race that has mastered all others. Even as most zoological gardens attempt to educate visitors about the beauty and importance of wild animals and plants, other workers behind the scenes are manipulating nature with their test tubes and psychotropic medications. Zoos are thus a combination of television-era entertainment, lite news, and science fiction.
It must be emphasized that most of those scientists and keepers—and many fee-paying visitors—are indeed motivated by high ideals such as respect for other species, rather than the appetite for self-aggrandizement that marked the owners of older zoos. But the desire to rescue those species nonetheless may be said to stem from the old impulse to control nature and make use of it as something both antithetical and complementary to human civilization.
In New Worlds, New Animals, Michael H. Robinson, onetime director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological Park, placed the drive to collect living things and "alter [… ] them for our benefit" at the origin of civilization. As the twenty-first century advances, the contemporary zoo, like its predecessors, is a living (though increasingly frozen) embodiment of that drive.
By way of preface: I love wild animals. One of my impossible dreams has been to be an elephant keeper or at least to travel in Africa and see herds of elephants, giraffes, and gazelles roaming freely. For now, I make do with the deer and birds and rodents in my woodsy backyard.
Of course, many of the charismatic exotics can't survive in the wild anymore, and the one hope of repopulation is preservation in a zoo. Zoos have changed over the centuries from symbols of power to (at the good ones, at least) modern-day genetic arks, the only hope for preserving some species and reintroducing them to the wild. Here is an excerpt from an article I wrote about zoos for The St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture--click on the picture of me with the giraffe to read the full text.