Naturalistic Zoo Exhibits and Conservation

Accredited zoos have become essential to keeping animal species viable as we fight to conserve what remains of their habitat, and naturalistic zoo exhibits allow us to observe animal behavior better than ever.

New zoos

Housed in habitats instead of cages, today's zoo animals are displaying more natural behaviors than ever before.

Illustration courtesy Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers

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In The Secret Language of Animals (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2014), Janine M. Benyus goes inside the animal kingdom to explore the behavior, body language, and patterns of communication of animals from around the globe. The intimate, informative text invites a deep connection with and admiration for each of the animals, and for the unique environments that shaped them. The following excerpt is from “What’s New with Zoos?”

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If you haven’t been to a zoo in several years, you’re in for a wild surprise. Zoos have weathered a tough soul searching over the last few decades, and the good ones have re-created themselves from the inside out.

They’ve sprung the cages and turned the animals loose in startling simulations of their home habitats, some so lifelike that you’ll swear you’re being stalked by that leopard in the leaves or that wolverine on the hill. The authenticity seems to agree with the animals as well. They get to vine-swing in tropical forests, dive in living coral reefs, dabble in creeks, and burrow to their heart’s content in prairies. In a wonderful turnabout, it’s the zoo visitors who are now hemmed in by railings, not the residents.

What a welcome change! Instead of feeling your heart sink at the sight of a despondent gorilla, you’ll feel it race as a barrel-chested silverback explodes into view, then disappears in the greenery. You may have to search for him there, but that’s a good sign; it means gorillas and other animals are blending with the landscape in a way they never could when marooned on tile floors and manicured lawns. For the first time, zoo animals have the space and privacy to prowl, howl, court, build nests, and defend their territories. Besides being more at home, the animals are also in better company. No longer the lone representative of their species, they now romp in herds and pods, troops and bevies. Some have even decided to put down roots, and if you search closely, you’ll see kits, calves, joeys, and cubs, some of which are the first of their kind born in captivity.

Although these exhibits make zoos all the more entertaining, their real agenda is to educate. By immersing us in the animal’s world, they show us how the animal evolved in tandem with its habitat and how, from crest to claw, it is adapted to live where it lives. The exhibits also bring out natural behaviors in the animals, prompting them to act more like themselves than they ever have in captivity. In fact, scientists who once scorned zoos will often bring binoculars and clipboards to study animal behavior close up. The findings are helping zoos fulfill what has become their foremost mission: to successfully breed the endangered species that have landed in their lifeboat.

Just how did zoos move from their days of bars-and-shackles to the look and outlook of today? To answer that, we have to rewind a few million years, to the very beginnings of our ancient relationship with animals.

Our Love Affair With Animals

It was no more than an evolutionary eye blink ago that our apelike ancestors were crawling on their hands and knees in pursuit of big, dangerous, delicious animals. For five million years (99% of our time on earth), our survival hinged on finding animals that we could eat. Stalking an animal meant knowing everything about its habits: where it slept, where it drank its daily water, how fast it would run once it caught wind of us. By necessity, we became astute observers of our fellow creatures and learned a respect that comes with intense study of a subject. Although we’ve stepped farther and farther from the wild in our last 5,000 years of agriculture and industry, an ancient awe still stirs deep within us. It’s that to-the-bone shiver we feel when we see a wolf trot lightly from the woods or hear the thin song of a rising whale.

What is this uncanny ability animals have to amaze, delight, and at times frighten or repulse us? Part attraction, part fear, and part admiration still make us curious about wild animals even though we no longer need them to fill our stomachs. In North America alone, 134 million people pour through the turnstiles of accredited zoos and aquariums each year. That’s more people than go to all the professional sporting events combined! Worldwide, at least 700 million visitors—10% of the entire world population—attended the 1,500 zoos and aquariums united in the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums—that’s more than all the people in the United States, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom. And it’s not just school groups either. For every wide-eyed child, there are three astonished adults rushing to the rail to see the dolphins leap.

These days, animals in zoos represent more than just a shadow of our ancestral past. They are the last ambassadors of a world that is rapidly becoming less and less wild. The red-alert sirens are screaming, and, for the first time in history, we are admitting to our destructiveness and grappling to right the wrongs. Zoos that were once primarily amusement parks are now on the front lines of that fight, working to brighten the future for rare animals in their keeping. To track this sea change in the zoo world, we have to go back thousands of years, to the creation of the very first zoos.

More Natural Zoo Exhibits

Zoos were originally menageries kept by royalty as a show of power and wealth. After all, if you could arrange to ship a giraffe 1,500 miles down the Nile (as Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt did 3,500 years ago), you could probably get anything you wanted. Thousands of years later, when zoos finally opened their doors to the public, they became sources of pride for local communities. The goal was to have one example of as many different species as possible, like a stamp collection of animals. Various zoos guarded their collections jealously, and if one zoo knew the secret of, say, keeping a rare turtle alive, it wouldn’t dare tell another zoo. With each collecting trip to Africa or Asia, the zoo’s acquisitions grew. It didn’t matter that the animals were confined to cramped, barren cages or that they often died of disease or stress; it was easy enough to get replacements from the wild. Although the majority of the public stayed silent about the bad conditions at zoos, not everyone was satisfied.

A small revolution began in the early nineteen hundreds when Carl Hagenbeck of Germany did away with the cages and put his animals on wide green lawns surrounded by hidden moats. Visitors applauded the change, but it took some time for the exhibits to catch on in other zoos. One of the problems was that zookeepers found it hard to control diseases that spread in the soil and grass of outdoor exhibits. A cement box was easier to hose down, and advocates claimed it was better in the long run for the animal’s health, if not for its spirits. After World War II, medical technology improved and so did animal health care. Many zoos began to feature Hagenbeck-like exhibits, at least for their hoofed animals and cats of the African plains. Still, the majority of zoos put animals behind bars and replaced their losses with captures from the wild. These zoos enabled people to see animals, but instead of engendering respect, the pacing jaguars and psychotic polar bears often provoked pity and a feeling of guilt among visitors.

In the 1960s, this collective guilt became sharper, focused through the lenses of writers, activists, and opinion-makers. People were becoming aware that we share this planet with other creatures that have every right to be here. As our consciousness of animal rights matured, true animal champions suddenly had a dilemma. They wanted to see wild animals and reconnect with their roots, but the deplorable conditions in many zoos kept them away. Some took issue with the restricted quarters and with the practice of capturing animals from the wild. Others protested the heavy emphasis on vaudeville-style entertainment such as chimp tea parties, penguin parades, and walrus ballets. These rumblings of discontent came not only from outside, but also from within the zoo staffs themselves. It became clear that zoos were losing credibility and would soon be forced to evolve or to shut their gates for good.

Breeding Endangered Species and More

Meanwhile, as the debate about captive animals raged, sobering news about their wild counterparts started to trickle in. Scientists reported that many of the species thriving in zoos were just barely hanging on in the wild. For some species, they predicted that the numbers in captivity would soon be greater than those in the wild. Overnight, it seemed, zookeepers were caring for some of the most precious cargo on earth. Realizing this, zoo directors and conservationists from around the world started to draft a whole new role for zoos.

The days of collecting wild specimens were over. Zoos began to experiment with breeding, and by the mid-1980s, more than 90% of zoo mammals were born in captivity. Although this meant that zoos could resupply themselves rather than deplete wild populations, it was not enough. As populations on the outside teetered, zoos began to realize that they might someday host the only examples of a species left on the planet. When that day came, the responsibility, not only for individuals, but for an entire species—its physical and genetic health and its possible reintroduction to the wild—would rest squarely on the zoo world’s shoulders.

That day has come. Extinctions are occurring at a rate unprecedented in the planet’s history, rising from a loss of one species every 5 years in 1850 to the current rate, according to the U.N. Environment Program, of 150 to 200 species of plants, mammals, birds, and insects every 24 hours. You may notice the proliferation of Vanishing Species signs in front of the animal exhibits at your zoo. The prognosis is not good for many of these faltering species; experts predict that as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species could be extinct by mid-century.

Preventing extinction isn’t just a matter of protecting animals from poachers. The real problem is that wild animals are running out of space, and, where they do have space, their habitats are being degraded. It’s hard to find a place on earth that hasn’t felt the grip of human greed and its alibi, the so-called license to “subdue and dominate.” Even the woolliest of wilderness are now surrounded by a lasso of development that cinches tighter each day. Tropical deforestation (at 150 acres a minute) combined with pollution (warming the world by approximately 1.53 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880) and the prolific human population machine (producing more than three hundred and fifty thousand new people a day) threaten to push many species over the edge. In fact, conservative estimates say that 25% of all species will be in trouble within the next few years. Faced with statistics like that, zoos have become modern-day arks, called as Noah was to protect the future of entire evolutionary lines.

Protecting and breeding these animals, as important as that is, is just the first part of the solution. The ark is only as good as the promise that someday the flood will subside and we can release the passengers to suitable habitats. Unfortunately, suitable habitats are getting harder and harder to find. If the ark is to be anything more than a pipe dream, we must devote ourselves wholeheartedly to the other part of the solution: we must stop the flood of habitat destruction at its source. The fact is, after all is said and done, a species of wild animal doesn’t really belong in a zoo. It belongs in the wild, living by its wits and evolving in the face of natural challenges.

Zoos are in a unique position to tell this story to millions of people who are smiling, enjoying themselves, and primed to learn and listen. Zoos can tune us in and turn us on. They can make us angry about the assault on wild habitats and show us how to harness our energy in votes, dollars, lifestyle changes, and volunteered talent. In the meantime, while we struggle to salvage what’s left of the wild, the new zoos can act as safety nets, centers for research, and places where we can enjoy the exquisite pleasure of spending time in the company of animals.


Reprinted with permission from The Secret Language of Animals: A Guide to Remarkable Behavior by Janine M. Benyus and published by Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2014. Buy this book from our store: The Secret Language of Animals.