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.


| June 2015



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

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?”

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Secret Language of Animals.

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.





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