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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Zoo Futures

March 8, 2013

Caught between circuses, theme parks, museums, and menageries, zoos are struggling to be leaders in the conservation world. Getting there may mean letting some animals go.

By Jon Cohen

When the San Diego Zoo opened its gates in 1923, no one could have guessed that the outlandish project of local surgeon Harry Wegeforth would become a cornerstone of the city’s now-massive tourism industry, a pioneering force in the research and display of captive animals, and a contributor to global conservation efforts. It started with animals displayed in prison-like cages at the 1915̅–1916 Panama-California Exhibition. The zoo soon acquired a pet bear from a U.S. Navy ship, a rheumy hyena from a menagerie in town that had gone broke, a pet alligator that Wegeforth stole one night from a backyard pool, and seals that he captured with the help of a navy tugboat.

Adults entered for 10 cents, and children got in for free. The zoo hired a seal trainer who put on shows six days a week. Zoogoers could ride an elephant—or watch local “bathing beauties” ride one bareback. People lined up to gawk at a line of men that held Diablo, a 23-foot python, and force-fed him by shoving a meat-covered bamboo pole down his throat. Snooky, a chimpanzee that had a stint in the movies, loved smoking cigarettes.

If this has the whiff of circus, consider that Wegeforth joined a traveling show as a tightrope walker under the big tent before he turned 16. One of his first hires at his new zoo was a keeper named “Army,” a one-armed man who, Wegeforth wrote, had “an inordinate fondness for hard liquor.” Wegeforth hunted animals all over the world, bringing back to San Diego orangutans and gibbons from Southeast Asia, jaguars from the Amazon, and white pelicans from the Salton Sea. He regularly bought and traded animals with circus folk.

The zoo’s first director was Frank Buck, a renowned animal collector who could compete with the Dos Equis hombre for the title of “Most Interesting Man in the World.” While still a teen, Buck worked as a carny, married a woman nearly 30 years his senior, and journeyed to Brazil to fetch rare birds. Buck published several books—including Bring ’Em Back Alive, Wild Cargo, and On Jungle Trails—and acted in, directed, wrote, and produced such big-screen attractions as “Fang and Claw” and “Africa Screams.” Buck, who immediately clashed with Wegeforth, lasted all of three months at the zoo. He went on to work for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey as their star attraction.

Python feeding at the zoo (1928). Courtesy of the San Diego History Center

The line that divides circus from zoo has been murky. From the proto-zoo days when royalty invited the public to enjoy their menageries, a tension has existed between education and entertainment. Unlike circuses, zoos have the sheen of science, academia, and high culture. Captive animals provide a natural history lesson, and early zoos—San Diego included—sought ever more diverse collections, which they displayed in taxonomic groupings.

Zoos steadily moved away from their circus trappings in the latter half of the twentieth century, doing away with the chimpanzees in tutus pedaling bicycles and the Galápagos tortoises that children could ride. They also began hiring keepers with academic training in zoology or the like and creating more humane and “natural” habitats. They invested heavily in improving their breeding programs, and they worked together to sustain species. Conservation programs at home and abroad became staples of zoos, which distanced themselves from the Frank Bucks who bagged animals without concern for the damage they did.

If Harry Wegeforth came back from the grave today and visited the San Diego Zoo—which has appended “Global” to the end of its name as a sign of its conservation bent—his head would spin. But then, what would we find at the zoo 90 years from now?

Many smaller zoos, roadside attractions, and menageries surely won’t survive. The larger zoos will increasingly face difficult trade-offs between the zoo as a theme park and the zoo as an education/research center. Rather than spend more and more money chasing after freakish hybrid models, some may decide to exchange grandeur and diversity for elegance and simplicity. In other words, they will accept that there are limited gene pools for many captive animals—and they will gradually shrink the number of species on display. But what happens to attendance when elephants, chimpanzees, rhinos, and other charismatic megafauna are no longer in a collection? And how will the paying public react to exhibits that increasingly place education over entertainment?

With all this in mind, I spoke with prominent zoo luminaries about their visions for the future. I also visited the 124-acre San Diego Zoo Global with a former employee, Pascal Gagneux, to imagine how it might change over the coming decades and, by extension, to imagine what other leading zoos could look like. Gagneux, an evolutionary biologist at the nearby University of California, San Diego, has studied chimpanzees in the wild, helps run a center on human origins, and has played a central role in designing some of the most progressive exhibits at the zoo today. He would be my guide and seer.

The ticket sign at the front gate makes clear that the original attraction of the San Diego Zoo as a cheap way to spend the day with the family has gone the way of the dodo. Entry costs $34 for children aged three to 11 and $44 for “adults.” If it seems like lunacy to consider a 12-year-old an adult, that’s just the beginning of the fiscal madness. For those with fatter wallets, “Special Experiences” offers a guide who will drive you around on a cart for an hour ($42), a behind-the-scenes look at the cat collection ($69), a backstage pass that includes a chance to feed and touch a rhino ($99), or a personally designed VIP tour ($599 for five hours or $950 for eight hours). A $79 twofer buys both entrance to the zoo and a ride on the Africa Tram at the zoo’s spinoff, Safari Park—an 1,800-acre enclosure with free-ranging animals. Safari Park, which began as a breeding facility for the zoo and opened to the public in 1972, also offers more expensive special “safaris” that include “Flightline Safari” (a two-thirds-mile zipline ride) and “Roar & Snore” (sleeping in tents on the grounds).

Even if a family of four sticks to the zoo and buys lunch, it will require great discipline to leave for less than $200.

One aspect that has changed little since opening day is the intense effort that Wegeforth and all his successors have put into controlling publicity and the zoo’s image. Like many city zoos, San Diego’s depends on local government largesse, leasing the prime real estate it occupies in Balboa Park for $1 per year. But it is run by a private, nonprofit society that tightly monitors employee interactions with the media. I had hoped that after our tour, Gagneux and I could meet with the zoo’s architect and its exhibit expert to discuss how zoos might evolve. “We appreciate your interest, but we are not comfortable with a piece that invites an outside entity to tour and comment on our facilities in the way that you described,” the head of public relations replied. This is in stark contrast to academic institutions, especially publicly funded ones, which likely would have welcomed a similar discussion. And in the future, I suspect that the public increasingly will become sharply critical of zoos that avoid engaging with outside entities about their design, purpose, and goals.

Gagneux, who originally is from Switzerland, is an ideal outside entity to explore San Diego Zoo Global. “Visiting zoos is what motivated me to become a biologist,” says Gagneux, whose lab focuses on genetics and the sugars that stud cell surfaces. An employee of a research arm of the zoo from 2003 to 2006, Gagneux is familiar with all the exhibits. He also once worked as a guide at the Basel Zoo and knows the common, as well as the genus/species, name of almost every animal and plant he sees. We passionately argued different points of view when we met in London a dozen years ago at a Royal Society conference about the origin of the AIDS epidemic, and we since have become close friends.

Pascal Gagneux, an evolutionary biologist at University of California, San Diego, studied chimpanzees in the wild, helps run a center on human origins, and played a central role in designing some of the most progressive exhibits at the San Diego Zoo today. Photo ©Jon Cohen

Moments after we pass through the turnstiles and enter the zoo, Gagneux begins flooding me with an abundance of ideas about what it needs to shed and where it should head. “There’s a tension between this being a ride and turning it into a museum,” he says.

Few things have put zoo officials’ teeth more on edge than education about the key organizing principle of modern biology: evolution. We walk down Monkey Trails and Forest Tales, an exhibit Gagneux contributed to when he worked for the zoo. He takes me to a sign that he sees as one of his greatest triumphs. It features a run-of-the-mill diagram he drew of the primate family tree—one that shows the relationship between apes and humans (lumped together with the improper term “humanoids”), Old and New World monkeys, tarsiers, lorises, and lemurs. No other sign at the zoo explicitly shows an evolutionary phylogeny, and Gagneux says several of his colleagues there said it would cause an uproar with higher-ups. “I put my name on it because there were people telling me it could not be done,” says Gagneux. In the end, he never received any flak, but the zoo nixed his idea to do phylogenies on signs elsewhere.

The exhibit winds through several species of monkeys and apes, cleverly featuring pages supposedly ripped from the notebooks of field researchers by a mischievous monkey. During our stroll, Gagneux bumps into many old friends, from zookeepers to administrators—several of whom roll their eyes about the evolution “debate” and what they say is the influence of a few creationists on staff. “So many people work here whose hearts are in the right places, and they want to save all these critters,” Gagneux says. “What gets me, and drove me out, is the rampant anti-intellectual attitude.”

We walk over to a fig tree. Gagneux plucks a piece of fruit and opens it with his teeth. A specific species of wasp has evolved that lays eggs inside the figs of this specific species of tree, pollinating its flowers. Both the tree and the tiny wasp need each other to survive. “Here’s a place they could have told an amazing story of coevolution,” says Gagneux, who wrote the story up but was told it was too much information. He’s come to see the zoo’s point. “Initially, my bias was: more information, more information,” he says. “But they’re right: you saturate people very rapidly. Most people don’t even read these signs.”

That said, Gagneux thinks zoos should strive hard to accommodate different information appetites. “You want to make this layer cake, where you can just walk through for entertainment and not read a single thing; you can walk through and get the minimum information about what animals are there and what they do, but then if you want, you can read a lot of stuff,” he says. “To me, that seems like a no-brainer.”

Watching the capuchin monkeys, he notes that they have prehensile tails and are the only five-handed mammal. The tails, he says, have fingerprints. “Why not tell this story?” he asks, incredulous. “It’s a huge missed opportunity—any kid will go home and say he saw a monkey with five hands.” He suggests that the zoo also install a full-body swing to let kids experience the benefit of a prehensile tail—monkeys hang from it and then have the freedom to use both arms and
both feet.

Next come the bonobos, famous for their homosexual females. Sex is another squeamish topic the zoo avoids. We bump into Bill Disher, 88, who has visited the zoo regularly since 1975 and for a time worked as an official animal observer, documenting bonobo behavior for hours on end. He now spends about five days a week here. “A lot of it is the social aspect,” laughs Disher, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who is loved by the staff. But it’s no joke—the zoo, which also is a botanical garden, attracts humans who want to spend time with other humans in a beautiful space. That hasn’t changed in 90 years.

Make no mistake: Disher is an animal buff and zoo connoisseur—he has visited nearly 50 around the world—and belongs to many animal-related societies. He laments the increasing emphasis on entertainment, singling out the recently added movie attraction, “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs: A 4-D Experience,” replete with “wind, mist, snow . . . and more!” Disher declares, “I don’t think it belongs in a zoo.” But he’s most disappointed in the decreasing number of species on display, especially when it comes to hoofstock. “It was better in 1975,” he says. “They had more animals.”

That’s true. David Woodruff, a conservation geneticist at UCSD who has published with Gagneux and serves on San Diego Zoo Global’s board of trustees, confirms that the variety of species has indeed declined here, but the ones that remain, he says, have larger populations and are breeding better. “Do you need 83 species of parrots?” he asks. “Would 40 be OK for most visitors?” His vision of the future zoo: fewer species but more sustainable captive populations. Today, San Diego Zoo Global has 3,700 animals from 650 species.

Other zoo visionaries agree. Shrinking collections do not mean the death of zoos: more is not necessarily more. In fact, some pioneers have built, or are planning to build, innovative, hybrid zoo-museum and zoo-wildlife refuges for only a handful of species.

The International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin, features 15 species of cranes and attracts some 30,000 visitors each year. Idaho’s Zoo Boise, which has a widely admired conservation program, occupies only 11 acres and displays 201 animals from 83 species. Daniel Povinelli, a psychologist at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, has for the past six years been pushing for what he calls “a chimpanzee national observatory.” Povinelli worked with a design team to draw up detailed plans for the proposed facility, which would invite the public to view up to 200 chimpanzees living in a natural setting. The animals would also come indoors to take part in cognitive research (his specialty), and glass walls would allow visitors to watch the studies take place. He imagines people would flock to the observatory in droves.

The National Chimpanzee Observatory as envisioned by psychologist Daniel Povinelli. Image ©Chris LeBlanc, DesignVision

Despite its prominent backers, Povinelli’s dream has yet to gain serious traction. But the vision is not so far-fetched as it may seem: the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and the Leipzig Zoo in Germany have popular attractions where researchers conduct cognitive studies with great apes in public view. Bottom line: future zoos will need to put quality before quantity.

Gagneux and I decide to take the guided bus tour. We both find the idea of riding around the zoo on a diesel-powered, double-decker bus that dodges pedestrians repulsive and antithetical to the experience of leisurely observing animals and reading about them. But we also are curious about the way the zoo presents itself to the many visitors who opt for the more passive and rapid overview of the collection.

We first pass the pink flamingos, near the zoo’s front gate. In his book A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future, David Hancocks, an architect and former director of acclaimed zoos in Seattle and Tucson, assails the common practice of placing pink flamingos at entrances to dazzle visitors with an immediate “splash of color and exotica.” Instead, he celebrates the Emmen Zoo in the Netherlands, which welcomes visitors with a Biochron exhibit about the beginning of life on Earth: it sports a 2 billion-year-old fossil of blue-green algae and ends with a sober note about the inevitability of extinction, including our own.

In addition to the primates we’ve just visited, the 25-minute ride takes us past (but only occasionally allows us to see) the charismatic mega-vertebrates that draw millions to zoos: rhinos, giraffes, pandas, zebras, hippos, condors, lions, bears, elephants, and tigers. We also drive by the more exotic South African bat-eared foxes, secretarybirds, and painted dogs; northern Chinese leopards; Siberian lynx; and rock wallabies. The guide prattles on with endless morphological details (body weight, wingspan, tongue length, jaw strength) and “fun” facts about diets, sleep, habits, and lifespan. She never mentions the words “evolution” or “adaptation,” which means there’s no attempt to connect species to each other or their environments. “There’s nothing with respect to the natural history,” says Gagneux, shaking his head at yet another missed opportunity.

At two different points during the ride, the guide stresses that “we are much more than a zoo,” noting that they breed endangered species and support conservation efforts around the world. She explains the distinction between endangered and extinct, problems she says the zoo addresses through its Institute for Conservation Research, the branch that once employed Gagneux. “We aspire to make a change in the world, and we hope we’ve inspired you to do the same,” she says at the tour’s end. “Do me a favor: don’t sit back and wait for your neighbors to make a change. Just think—if each of us made a little change in our habits, what a difference it would make in the world. I’m talking small changes. If you leave a room, turn out the light. If you see a piece of trash on the ground, pick it up—don’t just walk by it. If you have a water bottle, throw it into the recycling bin. Just little things.”

The problem that zoos have when it comes to rescuing endangered species and promoting conservation is that they have been able to do only “just little things” themselves. Many of the larger zoos have bought into a concept that they must work together to provide a Noah’s Ark for threatened and endangered species until humans come to their senses and stop their wanton destruction of the environment. Some zoo visionaries even tout the promise of cloning endangered or extinct species from DNA retrieved from animal samples in frozen zoos, like the one maintained by the Institute for Conservation Research. But the numbers don’t lie: as Woodruff and several other researchers have documented, zoos—despite tremendous scientific advances in breeding and caring for captive animals—have failed to maintain their own collections.

Few authoritative studies have analyzed the sustainability of zoo collections across several institutions. But one study published in 2009 assessed 87 zoos, mainly in North America and Europe. Authors Caroline Lees, then head of the management program for the Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria, and Jonathan Wilcken, director of the Auckland Zoo, looked at 31 carnivore, 37 primate, 12 ungulate, and seven rodent populations. They found that 48 percent were “breeding to replacement” and only 55 percent met recommended threshold levels of genetic diversity. “This study echoes the findings of others over the years; that is, that zoo populations are in poor shape and are not achieving the conditions for sustainability,” they wrote in International Zoo Yearbook. “The Ark, it seems, is sinking.” (1)

“Species survival plans,” which encourage zoos to collectively attack the problem by sharing animals, have existed since the late 1970s. But those have suffered the fate of other best-laid plans. “It’s harder than we thought—very much harder,” says William Conway, who previously headed the Wildlife Conservation Society and played a central role in developing the species survival plan program. “And we don’t have an alternative.”

Conway, who led the progressive rehab of the Bronx Zoo from the early 1960s until he retired in 1999, says that, back in the day, big zoos sometimes had 1,000 species. “Now it’s uncommon to have more than 400,” he notes. Zoos basically do not have the space to breed and maintain viable populations of all the threatened and endangered species. “All the zoo-animal spaces in the world would easily fit within the borough of Brooklyn,” Conway says. “There isn’t sufficient space to do the type of international propagation people dream of.” And zoos, which typically struggle to make ends meet, do not have deep-enough pockets to buy more space.

Conway says zoos must work more assiduously for the preservation of animals in the wild, noting that most African parks have lost 50 percent of their wildlife. At the Bronx Zoo, he spearheaded the much-celebrated Congo Gorilla Forest, a 6.5-acre exhibit that allows visitors to select how a portion of their admission fee should help the Wildlife Conservation Society with different field projects. This one exhibit, opened in 1999, has to date raised more than $10 million for conservation projects in Central Africa. Woodruff says San Diego Zoo Global similarly tries to help countries with their conservation efforts. “You don’t have a prayer [with] this Ark paradigm unless you have in-country investments such that you can work with in-country people to help with in-country conservation,” says Woodruff.

David Hancocks, author and former zoo director, says zoos have had few conservation successes and they oversell them. “Zoos have been dressing themselves up as champions of conservation, but they’re not matching it with what they do,” he says. “If you strip away the rhetoric of what zoos claim they do and what they actually do, it’s still 99.99 percent putting animals on show.” Instead, he states, zoos should work much harder at educating the public. “They’re heading toward a future of irrelevance,” he says. “There’s an urgent need for people to understand and appreciate the natural world. Zoos could become the sort of institution that would do that, but because they’re focusing only on showing what animals look like, that’s preventing them from reaching this future.”

Hancocks says the people who work in zoos resist change. “I work in zoos because I don’t like zoos,” he declares. Zoos promote a “Hollywood” presentation of nature and tell “an incomplete and incoherent story,” he complains. This occurs in part because they worry more about having the animals visible from every angle than in creating environments that accurately reflect how the animals live in nature. In his vision, more zoos will follow the lead of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum he used to run in Tucson: it emphasizes an ecosystem rather than a collection of animals, presenting the natural history of the region with native fauna, flora, fossils, and minerals. The open-air museum strives to show the interrelatedness of living things and their environment, as well as “to inspire people to live in harmony with the natural world by fostering love, appreciation, and understanding of the Sonoran Desert.”

The Association of Zoos & Aquariums long has boasted that its 200-plus members “collectively serve an annual audience larger than all major sporting events combined.” If zoos push the museum/education angle too hard, I suggest to Hancocks, they will inevitably lose entertainment value and run the risk of becoming boring. “I agree with you that they may not draw more people than the sports combined,” he says. “But there are museums that are hugely successful, and I don’t see why zoos don’t tap into that sort of success. I do not agree that they would become boring.”

After the bus ride, Gagneux and I take the Skyfari aerial tram to the other side of the zoo to see the new elephant exhibit he helped design, which powerfully mixes museum with zoo.

The ride offers a stunning, unique view of Balboa Park, and we have overhead peeks at the gorillas and giant pandas. The quiet—especially after listening to the tour guide’s incessant patter and the groan of the bus—oddly creates a serene feeling, and I have the sense that we’re flying into a game park on a glider. It demonstrates that a “ride” can accentuate the zoo experience without relying on amusement-park thrills.

Elephant Odyssey blends living animals with sculptures to tell the story of extinction, an idea Gagneux and three zoo colleagues hatched. Twelve thousand years ago, four species of elephants roamed the San Diego area. The exhibit opens with a replica of the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles: a pool of black water drains every ten minutes to reveal fossil replicas. A docent stands behind a counter with large glass cases holding casts of fossils, ready to answer questions. A southern mammoth (M. meridionalis) sculpture that people can touch stands outside the elephant exhibit, which has transparent, outdoor caging so visitors can see their living conditions. Similarly, enclosures separately show living African lions, tree sloths, jaguars, camels, condors, and dung beetles, and have sculptures that feature their extinct California relatives.

Zoogoers can put their faces into metal cutouts to try on different theories about local species extinction. Photo ©Jon Cohen

Like the paintings that let you stick your face through a hole and become a mermaid or a muscleman, metal cutouts of four scientists—minus their faces—stand aside a walkway. Each scientist represents a different theory to explain the disappearance of these animals, and zoogoers are encouraged to put their own faces into the cutouts to try on the alternative theories. The zoo also put together a 45-page booklet to help teachers build on the lessons taught at the exhibit; implicitly and explicitly, it hammers home the importance of conservation.

At the zoo’s exit, we pass a metal stand that once sold four different newspapers. There is only one in it now. I am certain that in 90 years, the stand will not be here.

I am also confident that people, social creatures that we are, will still want news, albeit delivered in forms different from current newspapers. In that same vein, people will still want to observe—up close—other species. Humans are intrigued by similarities and differences, curious about environments beyond the ones we know, and fascinated by questions of origin and how everything connects. That is the nature of our species. But we feed that desire far more carefully than we did when the San Diego Zoo opened in 1923, and we will feed it far more carefully tomorrow. Only those zoos that adapt to the changing environment will survive.

1. Lees C.M. and J. Wilcken. 2009. International Zoo Yearbook doi:10.1111/j.1748–1090.2008.00066.x.

Jon Cohen is a correspondent with Science and also has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, Outside, and other publications. He has written three books, the most recent of which is Almost Chimpanzee: Searching for What Makes Us Human, in Rainforests, Labs, Sanctuaries, and Zoos (Henry Holt/Times Books, 2010).

Image ©AGB: Corbis/Keystone Brazil, courtesy of DDB Brazil and Zoo Safari


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