Zoos Essay

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The historical predecessors of modern zoos were primarily showcases of empire or poorlymaintained public spectacles, but zoos now promote themselves as institutions dedicated to conservation and education. Animal rights advocates and conservationists today debate the implications of zoos for threatened wildlife species and the ethics of animal captivity. Royal menageries in ancient China, Egypt, and Rome, and their counterparts in early modern Europe, Central America, and South Asia, symbolized the monarch’s power to command an extensive and exotic empire. In the 18th and 19th centuries, menageries grew into larger zoological gardens associated with royal scientific societies. These institutions added a layer of scholarly legitimacy to the royal menageries, but they remained a part of the imperial project. With growing popular interest in science, zoos such as the London Zoological Gardens attracted an increasingly broad public, though some were open only to dues-paying members.

Beginning in the late 18th century, animal collections became more accessible to the public. Some impresarios operated traveling zoos, transporting animals from town to town for display in the public square, and later Phineas T. Barnum led the establishment of early circuses in large cities. Public institutions such as New York’s Central Park and Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park attempted to create more educational exhibits in the 1860s, and though they were extremely popular with urban residents, they lacked the funding to maintain animals safely or to rise above the status of humble entertainment.

Beginning with the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., in 1889, and the New York Zoological Park in the Bronx (later known as the Bronx Zoo and now the Wildlife Conservation Park) in 1898, zoos began to take on a conservation mission. Early wildlife advocates such as William Hornaday hoped to use these zoos as arks for disappearing species, most notably bison, from across the American continent, and as stages from which to deliver a conservation message to the public. With public and private funding, they were able to display more species and to construct more spacious, outdoor enclosures to simulate wild habitats and encourage “natural” animal behavior.

Much as in history, animal collections in existence today range from modest petting zoos to the private collections of wealthy and ostentatious individuals. The question remains whether they are sites of spectacle, science, power, conservation, or all of the above. Of the 1,700 animal exhibits in the United States, however, fewer than 200 are accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), a group that promotes zoos as a means to advance wildlife conservation and education. These include most major city zoos.

In the 1970s, two new challenges came together to force these zoos to consider their role in the conservation of wild species. One was the passage of the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1973, which restricted zoos from taking members of listed species, and the other was the growing recognition that zoo collections were becoming inbred. Without taking in new animals, zoos could only expect to see the inbreeding problem worsen. In 1976, striving to become more progressive, AZA adopted a code of ethics governing the treatment and use of zoo animals.

In 1981, the organization began to coordinate Species Survival Plans (SSPs) among its members in order to produce healthier captive populations, rely more on captive breeding rather than capturing new free-ranging animals, and, ideally, benefit the genetic stock of threatened wild populations. American zoos have since integrated their efforts with those of zoo associations around the world, and have created an international database to optimize breeding arrangements. With increasing commitment to the genetic side of conservation, zoos are adding sperm bank to their list of cultural and environmental roles. Zoos now organize breeding exchanges, managing increased reproduction of threatened species with an eye toward introducing zoo-bred individuals back into wild populations. Captive breeding programs have brought a number of species back from the brink of extinction, for example the California condor. SSPs, however, cannot solve the biological difficulties of breeding for many species, and breeding may produce “surplus” offspring that raise another set of ethical issues.

Ethicists concerned about animal rights and conservation also question whether zoos’ contributions are adequate for them to truly deserve the label of conservation institutions, and to justify keeping animals captive. They ask, for example, whether zoos adequately integrate their own activities with conservation needs outside the zoo gates-that is, into what conditions will zoo-bred animals be introduced? If wild habitats are depleted or wild populations unhealthy, zoos’ breeding efforts may be wasted. Besides, some argue that very few individuals are ever actually integrated into wild habitats. In the meantime, however, zoo advocates say that they at least maintain an ark of genetic diversity that will last until the time viable wild populations can be supported. They point out that so-called wild populations are actually highly manipulated in a world where reserves must be set aside and managed; therefore, they suggest that to regard zoos as artificial, and zoo animals as wrongly captive, is to overstate the “natural-ness” of the rest of the world.

Zoo advocates also contend that keeping those animals captive is justified because seeing animals in zoos and participating in zoo education programs will ultimately increase public sympathy for conservation causes and thereby benefit animals in the wild. Some say that this is the true contribution of zoos, given the limited effect of SSPs. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a nonprofit organization based in New York City, is a leading proponent of this view. WCS manages several zoos, including the Bronx’s Wildlife Conservation Park, and promotes the use of zoos for education and conservation. WCS facilities deliver carefully designed educational programs to the public, and staff work to support wildlife reserves worldwide.

Meanwhile, ecocritics-scholars of the cultural studies of nature-argue that zoos may reinforce broad cultural conceptions that humans are separate from and superior to nature, rather than encourage concern for nature as zoo advocates claim. Specifically, seeing wild animals contained within enclosures, no matter how naturalistic, gives the impression that nature can be subsumed into an anthropocentric world view.


  1. Vicki Croke, The Modern Ark (Scribner, 1997);
  2. J. Hoage and William A. Deiss, New Worlds, New Animals (Johns Hopkins, 1996);
  3. Randy Malamud, Reading Zoos (New York University Press, 1998);
  4. Bryan Norton, Michael Hutchins, Elizabeth F. Stevens, and Terry L. Maple, Ethics on the Ark (Smithsonian, 1995);
  5. Yi-Fu Tuan, Dominance and Affection (Yale, 1984);
  6. World Zoo Organization, The World Zoo Conservation Strategy (World Conservation Union, 1993).

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