It’s zoo-logical

Zoos, over time, have become a trigger for conservation causes and repositories of knowledge. But they’ve also been accused of animal cruelty. Is there a need for them now?
Last Updated 30 March 2019, 20:38 IST

My son stared at the crocodiles in fascination. They were snoozing in the sun, three of them, in their small enclosure in the tiny zoo at Horsley Hills. Their teeth poked out crookedly from under their snouts, while their size made them look deceptively slow. “Crocodiles are cute!” he declared. “They look so silly.”

I started talking about how crocodiles lay in wait for deer and other animals at the river’s edge. How their tails are a weapon of destruction. How fast they can snap at unsuspecting prey. Finally, I talked about the little birds that safely eat the leftover food from their jaws. “That’s called symbiosis,” I explained. He had trouble pronouncing the word (He’s only five years old, after all), but he’d never look at a river the same way again.

Then we walked over to the turtles. I’d probably have to come up with another story to give him context there, too.

In one form or another, similar interactions happen every time parents take their kids to the zoo. It’s an easy way of expanding children’s horizons and making them aware of the natural world. As for us jaded adults, it’s also good for us to be reminded that we aren’t the only ones on the planet. Many of these creatures were on earth before we came, and helping them survive is the means to our own survival.

But zoos are a lot more than animals in cages. Over time, they have become repositories of knowledge about animals, sometimes havens for endangered species, sometimes a trigger for conservation causes. And sometimes, they’ve been accused of propagating cruelty to the very creatures they house.

First enclosure

The beginnings of zoos were simple: as a demonstration of power by kings, and as a controlled venue for hunting. Excavations in Egypt reveal a rudimentary zoo dating back to 3500 BC, with remains of hippos, elephants and wild cats. In China, too, Gardens of Intelligence was constructed starting 1000 BC by the kings, with cages for animals. The name was because of their educational value.

In Europe, kings and noblemen began keeping menageries of animals for their amusement. Probably the most famous of these is the Tower of London’s menagerie, which has been maintained since medieval times. But all these were off limits to commoners, and reserved for the owners and their special guests. And the intent was not to help animals in any way — rather, being able to keep them alive, and in their control, was a symbol of power for the royalty.

It was in the 19th century that the focus of menageries began to shift in two ways. The first was the need for a scientific study of animals. Accordingly, the London Zoo was begun in 1828 by the recently formed Zoological Society of London. In France’s botanical garden, a zoo had been established in 1795. Similar institutions began to spring up all over the western world.

But the enthusiasm for this field was not limited to scientists alone, and rapid urbanisation was increasing the curiosity about the wild and its inhabitants. The average city-dweller had heard of lions and elephants, never seen one, and was willing to pay for the privilege. Accordingly, the second shift: opening of these animal exhibitions to the general public. The London Zoo was opened to the public in 1847. Six years later, this same zoo opened the world’s first public aquarium. Public zoos began in other countries over the next few decades: in Australia, in mainland Europe, in the Americas.

All these zoos were more or less based on the architecture of the London Zoo: cages for animals, entry tickets, garden-like settings and some refreshments for visitors, a central location in the city — in other words, a fun outing for the family in the controlled company of nature. As you can imagine, this was fun for the visitors but torture for the animals. In response to the reduced lifespan of animals in cages, the paradigm of zoos began to shift again by the 20th century. 1907 marked the opening of a new type of zoo near Hamburg, run by a German entrepreneur named Carl Hagenbeck. In this zoo, the enclosures were modelled after the natural habitat of the displayed animals, instead of keeping them in tiny rectangular cages. Most zoos today try to emulate this design in their enclosures.

Zoos today are often large, requiring a full day to see all the animals — the Toronto Zoo, for example, stretches a whopping 710 acres, housing over 500 species of animals. Several of them are modelled after the so-called ‘safari’ model — huge open spaces for animals that humans visit in enclosed vehicles — i.e., people are in cages while animals run free.

India has not been far behind in this journey. The Thiruvananthapuram Zoo, established by the King of Travancore in 1857, is one of the oldest zoos in Asia. It’s spread over 55 acres, and has evolved from the original animals-in-cages aesthetic to the landscaped enclosures prevalent today. The largest zoos in India, however, are the Chennai (1,490 acres, including multiple, free range areas and a lake) and the Bhubaneshwar (990 acres) zoos. Overall, there are close to 200 zoos in India, covering nearly all the major cities. Many of these are safari zoos — for example, the Bannerghatta National Park in Bengaluru is a cross between a zoo and a protected forest. Today we have a government organisation, the Central Zoo Authority of India, which co-ordinates and manages these zoos, taking them away from the personal ownership models of yore.

The cultural impact of zoos has been huge. A lot of our stereotypes around animals come from what we see in zoos — monkeys loving bananas, for example, or the misconception that hippos are cute, slow beasts.

Any number of movies, from Baby’s Day Out to Aankhon Dekhi, feature zoos. In a time before David Attenborough and YouTube, zoos were the only way to connect with the wild.

And with the evolving awareness of the general public, zoos are setting up events and celebrations around their animals. The Berlin Zoo, in 2006, announced the rescue and care of an orphaned polar bear cub named Knut — the first time a cub had survived in captivity. Knut went on to become a huge draw for visitors to the zoo — inspiring stamps, songs, the logo of an anti-global warming campaign, and proposals for movies.

Polo, the only gorilla in India, housed in Mysore Zoo, was a star attraction. He made news when he died in 2014. As of this writing, videos are circulating of Olivia a baby spider monkey who injured her leg in a fall in Colombia Zoo. No doubt, she too will lure visitors to the zoo as she grows.

Polo, the only gorilla in India, was housed in Mysore Zoo.
Polo, the only gorilla in India, was housed in Mysore Zoo.

These ‘zoo stars’ highlight the technical aspects of zoo-keeping — the veterinarians who work behind the scenes to provide the right diet and environment to the wildly (sorry) different animals in their care. Breeding species in captivity has long been a complicated topic.

Giant pandas, for example, are notoriously difficult to breed, and there are very few success stories. But publicity of this fact, and the attention the success stories receive, help people understand the endangered status of this animal. In the case of the giant panda, animal lovers celebrated recently when these creatures were taken off the ‘Endangered’ list due to increasing numbers.

Some zoos have taken up specialisations over the years — focusing on specific climates, for example, or focusing on specific genus of animals. The Darjeeling Zoo has rare animals like the red panda, the Himalayan wolf, and the snow leopard which are endemic to high altitudes and not to be seen anywhere else. It has been doing pioneering work in the breeding of these animals.

At the other end of the country, the Chennai Snake Park has done much to spread awareness of venomous and harmless species of reptiles in India. It’s also focused on breeding programmes for endangered pythons. Elsewhere, we have aquariums and deer parks that focus on a very small subset of species.

It has been argued that the idea of zoos is an archaic, human-centric one. According to this notion, zoos are an inhuman way to keep animals captive for the pleasure of their audience, scarcely better than circuses, and they should be closed down to allow animals to live freely in the wild. There was even a backlash when Knut was rescued — some activists insisted he should have been left to die as in the wild. Maybe in the 19th century, zoos were useful to allow humans to know about the wild, but in today’s age of YouTube and easier travel, we shouldn’t have to cage up animals just to get a better look at them.

Embedded in these criticisms is the notion that Mother Nature knows best, and natural selection should not be meddled with.

On the other side of this debate are those who point out the conservation role that zoos play — captive breeding programmes, adoption of endangered species, and advancement of veterinary science. Humans have already changed the ecological balance, they argue, and the least they could do is to devote time and effort to protect animals. Zoos are an important part of that effort.

The debate came to India and to Indian social media recently, when Byculla Zoo, Mumbai, published a plan to import and display seven Humboldt penguins. These would have been the first time penguins were brought to India.
Naysayers argued that the Mumbai climate, or worse, the incompetence of zookeepers in Mumbai, spelt a death sentence for the penguins. However, the interest in the general public prevailed (not to mention the prospect of increased ticket revenue), and the penguins arrived and were exhibited to the public from March last year.

My family was one of those that went to visit. The place was crowded, with excited children pushing each other to get to the prized penguin display, and nonplussed staff dealing with the rush. None of the people visiting had ever seen real penguins before — only in cartoons and on TV.

The very reaction of the visitors showed that zoos are not obsolete by any means. There is still a real interest in animals, and there is a need for the city-dweller to know what his actions mean to the world around him. Hopefully, many of those kids will go on to read up more about the environment, and they’ll react more strongly when they hear about habitat loss, global warming, pollution — because they’ve seen, and love, penguins.

What is the future for zoos? Notwithstanding the response of the public to those penguins, it’s being recognised that we need to make conditions for animals better.
Zoos are moving away from even simulated-natural enclosures, towards legitimate wildlife sanctuaries, where animals are actually in their natural habitat. Soon, the focus of zoos could shift entirely towards conservation of the wild environments, along with rescue and care of injured animals in-house.

Society in general will make peace with the idea of travelling to the sanctuaries to see animals instead of going to the town centre, ice cream cone in hand. But as William Gibson says, the future is here but not evenly distributed. In India and other developing countries, it may take some time for that awareness to spread, maybe an extra generation before we can say a fond farewell to zoos. Until then, let us celebrate the role they have played over the centuries. And show our children how the peacocks dance and how loud the tigers roar.

(Published 30 March 2019, 19:30 IST)

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