Why zoos are being radically redesigned

By michael j. renner 5 minute Learn

In 1980, I visited the zoo in a significant U.S. metropolis and located row after row of naked concrete packing containers with jailhouse-style bars occupied by animals from world wide. The animals seemed to be in good bodily situation, however many have been staring into area or pacing restlessly across the edges of their tiny quarters. It was miserable. I’m not naming the zoo, since you may have seen the identical factor at most U.S. zoos in that period.

Extra not too long ago, guests to many zoos and aquariums see animals in environment that resemble their native habitat, behaving in ways in which are typical for his or her species. What has modified?

Within the intervening years, the skilled zoo and aquarium group has essentially altered the best way it views the duty of caring for the animals in its collections. As a substitute of specializing in animal care, the trade is now requiring that zoos meet the next commonplace—animal welfare. It is a new metric, and it represents an enormous change in how zoos and aquariums qualify for accreditation.


I’m a scientist who studies animal behavior, each in captivity and within the wild. This latest improvement within the zoo world is the results of an evolution in the scientific understanding of animals’ lives and welfare. It additionally displays zoos’ and aquariums’ increasing focus on conservation.

From trophy case to conservation message

Because the first animal menageries in ancient Egypt, zoos and aquariums have taken a development of types.

The British Royal Menagerie, which was housed in the Tower of London from the early thirteenth century till 1835, served as an animated trophy case. In Europe, unique animal collections have been typically displayed in backyard settings for the amusement of the gentry, and by the late 18th century, for the general public as well. These locations typically functioned as stationary circuses, sensationalizing the strangeness of animals from afar.

“The palace of the pachyderms” on the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, circa 1900 [ND/Contributor/Roger Viollet via Getty Images]In Victorian England, zoos have been recast as edifying entertainments. This was additionally true within the U.S., the place the first zoo opened to the public in Philadelphia in 1874.

Early zoos weren’t superb at protecting animals alive. Within the first half of the twentieth century, although, zoos started to deal with animals’ bodily well being. This ushered within the “rest room” period in zoo design, with an emphasis on surfaces that could be steam-sterilized, similar to ceramic tile.

Over the previous 50 years, a landscape-immersion mannequin of zoo design has risen to prominence, as establishments have developed into conservation and schooling organizations. By displaying animals in settings resembling their pure habitat—and setting the scene for guests to think about themselves in that habitat—the hope is to instill in guests who may by no means see a lion in its factor a ardour for its preservation.


Altering requirements

Accreditation is a mechanism for sustaining and pioneering finest practices. Being accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is the best degree {of professional} recognition for North American zoos and aquariums. Fewer than 250 out of approximately 2,800 animal exhibitors licensed by the U.S. Division of Agriculture are AZA accredited.

To earn that accreditation, a zoo or aquarium should show alignment with its mission, a sound enterprise operation, and vital exercise within the areas of schooling, conservation, and analysis. However the centerpiece of accreditation is demonstrating high quality of life for animals below human care.

A marine mammal coach brushes the tooth of a seal on the New England Aquarium in Boston. [Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images]For many years, the main target was on practices that correlate with animal well being, like absence of sickness, profitable copy, and longevity. The AZA has printed goal requirements for what it means to supply correct take care of a tapir, a tiger, or a Japanese spider crab—for instance, necessities specifying sure quantities of bodily area, environmental temperature ranges, and cleansing routines. These extensive and detailed standards have been devised by working teams of consultants in numerous species from throughout the zoo and aquarium group and primarily based on the most effective accessible scientific proof.

A latest revision to accreditation requirements in 2018, nevertheless, supersedes this mannequin in favor of a brand new objective: {that a} zoo or aquarium show it has achieved animal welfare. Not solely should animals be wholesome however they need to additionally show conduct typical of their species. Climbers should climb, diggers should dig, and runners should run.

Understanding the lives of animals is central

Over the previous 60 years, scientific understanding of animals’ cognitive talents has exploded. A big physique of scientific work has proven {that a} comparatively wealthy or impoverished environment has effects on both brain and behavior. Such consciousness has led the zoo and aquarium group to formally embrace the next commonplace of care.

Zoo or aquarium personnel can present such behavioral alternatives provided that they know what’s regular for that species within the wild. So optimizing animal welfare requires a information base that’s each broad and deep. For instance, a zoo should perceive what’s regular conduct for a pygmy marmoset earlier than it could actually know what behavioral alternatives to supply.

Many zoos and aquariums home a whole lot of animal species. Every species exists as a result of it occupies a singular area of interest within the ecosystem, so the situations that produce best welfare for one species will not be the identical as these for a distinct species.

Creating welfare requirements for the large variety of zoo species will take time and fairly a little bit of analysis. Though AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums contribute more than $200 million per year to research in additional than 100 international locations world wide, the necessity for conservation analysis all the time far outstrips the accessible funding.

How previous is an jap black rhinoceros earlier than it begins to go on adventures away from its mom? If a flamingo chick has a medical problem that’s efficiently resolved, how can keepers inform if its improvement has been affected? How can keepers consider whether or not objects launched into the enclosure of a troop of Japanese macaque monkeys, meant to counterpoint their setting, are truly serving that function? Realizing the solutions to those questions, and a mess of different related ones, will assist the zoo group actually optimize the welfare of animals below their care.

One other main issue behind the AZA’s new commonplace is its position in species conservation. Captive animals sometimes outlive their wild counterparts. Zoos and aquariums are the figurative lifeboat for an increasing number of species that are extinct in the wild. Merely protecting an animal alive is now not sufficient. Zoo-based efforts to avoid wasting endangered species will succeed provided that understanding of the animals’ lives is totally built-in with husbandry requirements.