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Goodbye, Jumbo

The identity crisis of the modern zoo

By Keith O’Brien
July 26, 2009

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In zoo parlance, they’re known as charismatic megafauna. We’re talking lions, tigers, and other large creatures. They are the big-ticket beasts and the reason, historically anyway, why people have come to the zoo. Where there is megafauna, the thinking goes, there will be crowds.

That’s partly what made Ron Kagan’s decision so shocking. The executive director of the Detroit Zoo announced in 2004 that he was voluntarily sending his zoo’s two Asian elephants to a California sanctuary, where the land was plentiful, the weather temperate, and the elephants could roam. The reason, Kagan said, was simple. To paraphrase: The zoo, despite its best efforts, was essentially ruining the elephants’ lives.

“It wasn’t like an elephant died or something like that,” Kagan said recently. “There was just a progression, struggling for years, recognizing there was a problem, and that these were common problems for elephants. We just kept thinking, ‘What can we do?’ ”

Kagan’s choice, which is still reverberating in the zoo industry five years later, marks the latest twist in a long, often clumsy, historical shift - from animals caged for our delight, to a more enlightened conservation message, and finally to the notion that zoos can actually change human behavior by teaching us about the ways we’re damaging the natural world. Now more than ever, zoos are bringing the message of wildlife conservation to the forefront, making it not only part of their marketing plans, but their core missions. Indeed, some zoo directors now say conservation is the only pure reason for keeping animals at all.

Yet within this noble notion there is a fundamental and nagging problem: Zoos, despite their evolution, remain a form of entertainment, with the animals unwittingly playing the main roles. So if zoo directors are trying more than ever to do right by the beasts in their care, providing them in many cases with hyper-naturalistic, state-of-the-art exhibits and greater attention to what the animals might actually want, then it seems only a matter of time before they ask themselves some tough questions: Should they be keeping animals at all? If so, which ones, and why? Should elephants be in zoos? Should gorillas?

“If you asked somebody in our profession 10 years ago, ‘Is the gorilla happy?’, they would get really upset and say, ‘Why would you ask such an anthropomorphic question?’ ” said Kagan, 57. “But these sort of things now are legitimately a part of scientific study and assessment.”

Consequently, many, including Kagan, see changes on the horizon. Nigel Rothfels, the author of “Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo” (Johns Hopkins, 2008) believes zoos of the future will have fewer species and larger spaces for them to occupy. Those that choose to keep elephants and other large species, he argues, will likely do it better than ever before, putting significant resources into the projects. But most zoos, Rothfels believes, will make a different choice: they will give up the charismatic megafauna that people have come to expect. In other words, the biggest challenge for some zoos in the years ahead may be letting go.

“There may well be fewer zoos in the future,” Rothfels said recently. “But the zoos that will be there will be better.”

It makes for both an exciting and challenging time in zoos. Despite their critics, the institutions remain very popular. As the recent debate over Zoo New England’s troubled parks has revealed, people love their zoos. Even as government funding dries up, attendance at many zoos is steady, and even rising. And with the natural world in increasing peril - poachers killing elephants in Africa, climate change threatening habitats worldwide, and American children increasingly sealed off into safe suburban bubbles - many zoo officials feel that this is their moment, their chance to remind people why wildlife matters, before it is too late.

“We need to make that connection, and it’s not hard,” said Bill Conway, the legendary former director of the Bronx Zoo and now a senior conservationist at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “It’s very different to see an animal live, to make that emotional connection, to look it in the eye and have it look back at you.”

People have been collecting exotic animals for centuries. Babylonian royals, Chinese rulers, and Egyptian kings all dabbled in it, keeping at times alligators, bears, lions, and elephants in private collections. The purpose was often sheer entertainment. At animal parks in early China, fights are said to have been staged, sometimes between man and beast. Later, Europeans used animal preserves for hunting, and finally, in the 1700 and 1800s, modern zoos, with animals on display for public viewing, began to emerge in European cities.

In 1874, the first zoo in the United States opened to great fanfare in Philadelphia. With a brass band playing and flags fluttering, thousands of people arrived that morning and queued up to see the exotic wallabies, kangaroos, bears, and an Indian elephant.

In the 75 years or so that followed, others rushed to top Philadelphia’s early offerings, as American zookeepers engaged in something akin to animal “stamp collecting,” Conway said. The goal, generally speaking, was to acquire as many species as possible and house them, often alone, in simple cages. “One of this, one of that, one of the next thing,” said Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “Just so you could see what a tiger looked like.”

But in 1979, Kiki, the gorilla, stepped into a different world. Held captive for years amid concrete and bars at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, he was given a lush new exhibit, designed by his caretakers to resemble the wild African home where he had lived so briefly. There was grass and a stream, and then this shift: Not only did zoo officials believe the gorillas loved it, so did the visitors.

A new push for hyper-naturalism began to consume zoos across the country while conservation efforts, practiced by some zoos for years, also began to take center stage. In 1980, the Cincinnati Zoo founded its Cat Ambassador Program to help raise awareness about the troubles facing cheetahs in Africa. Two years later, the San Diego Zoo pioneered conservation work that helped to bring the California condor back from the brink of extinction, and throughout the 1980s and ’90s, many zoos continued along these twin paths: raising awareness about the plight of animals while often housing them in environs that looked, if not felt, more true-to-life.

But some zoos stumbled upon a paradox: As much as people might care about the animals, they still wanted to be entertained. In 1995, the Kansas City Zoo opened a $32 million, 95-acre Africa exhibit, hoping it would help increase attendance by 50 percent within a year. But it didn’t happen. In an effort to make the sprawling exhibit feel natural, planners neglected to build many places where people could sit and cool down in the summer heat. People had to walk too far to see the animals. And the animals themselves were too hard to see.

“The issues just compounded,” said Randy Wisthoff, the zoo’s current executive director, who took the job in 2003.

Attendance declined, and a 2002 report commissioned by the local Friends of the Zoo told officials what they already knew: The zoo lacked “entertainment value.” What it needed was more safari rides, movie nights, and misting stations. And there was this conclusion, which cuts to the heart of the zoo’s modern-day dilemma. While visitors appreciated that animals might enjoy their nicer habitats, what zoo-goers really wanted was what they have always wanted: animals, up close, and ideally, doing something interesting.

“On the one hand, zoos want to be about conservation and education,” said Jeffrey Hyson, assistant history professor at Saint Joseph’s University and the author of a forthcoming book on zoos. “On the other hand, they’ve got to emotionally appeal to visitors and make things more fun. They’ve got to have birthday parties for the animals, naming contests. They’ve got to turn animals into personalities.”

In a recent study conducted by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums titled “Why Zoos & Aquariums Matter,” researchers surveyed more than 5,000 visitors and reported that zoos are indeed helping to shape the way people think about the natural world. Fifty-seven percent said their zoo visits strengthened their connection with nature. Fifty-four percent said zoos and aquariums prompted them to reconsider their role in environmental problems, and 61 percent talked about what they had learned.

But visitors don’t come to zoos “to eat their vitamins,” said Thane Maynard, executive director of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. And so, zoos are trying to take on an ever more idealistic mission, while serving up fun by blurring the lines between the worlds of the humans and the animals.

Chances to feed giraffes or lorikeets are popping up from Little Rock to Albuquerque, and stingray touch tanks are all the rage. Two years ago in Cincinnati, zoo officials built a show around an idea they weren’t even sure would work: a cheetah run. But work it did. Five days a week, before awe-struck crowds, the zoo’s cheetahs now reach speeds up to 40 miles an hour - a little over half their potential - chasing a dog toy on a pulley. The zoo now plans to invest $4 million in a more elaborate cheetah course while other new exhibits, like “Russia’s Grizzly Coast” at the Minnesota Zoo, are not only naturalistic, but bring the animals up close through clever tactics like heated rocks and well-placed pools of water.

“The bears spend a lot of the day - especially in the summer when it’s hot - in the water, swimming, playing with each other, and sometimes trying, and succeeding, to catch live fish,” said Lee Ehmke, director and CEO of the Minnesota Zoo, where the exhibit opened last year. “It’s awesome. People stay for an hour sometimes.”

The power of these close encounters, Ehmke said, is that people are being compelled to care. There is nothing, zoo officials argue, like being face-to-face with an animal. That makes people appreciate the beauty of nature, Ehmke said. As a result of its new exhibit, Minnesota zoo officials raised $15,000 last year that went directly to field conservation work, and they are not alone. According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, accredited zoos raise roughly $70 million a year for conservation projects.

That fund-raising does not justify caging animals in the eyes of some animal rights activists. These critics argue that zoos would have a far greater impact if they spent their money solely on keeping animals free, not captive. And in Detroit, at least one zoo official believes that zoos should be focusing more on something else.

Ron Kagan isn’t against conservation; that’s part of the mission, he said. What he’d like to see more of, however, is in-depth discussion about animal welfare, how to best gauge it, and what to do about it if zoos are falling short of meeting animals’ needs. It’s a discussion that may lead to the conclusion that the zoos’ ultimate mission means giving up more of its animals, but Kagan’s all right with that.

He recently traveled to San Andreas, Calif., 120 miles east of San Francisco, and visited the sprawling sanctuary where he sent his two elephants in 2005. One of them, Winky, died last year, euthanized at age 56. But the other, named Wanda, is doing well, Kagan said. There in the grassy foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, she is living out her days on a 100-acre patch of land that, to him, anyway, seems pretty much like paradise.

Freelance writer Keith O’Brien, winner of the 2009 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism, is a former staff writer for the Globe. E-mail him at keith@keithob.com.