Zoos Aren’t As Great For Your Kid As You Think
Humans have a long history of collecting animals. Menageries date as far back as 2500 BC in Egypt, but have been found in nearly every era, in every culture. The modern, public version of these collections – the zoo – has its roots in 18th century Europe, when the zoo’s purpose shifted from wonder, to research.
Today’s zoos, while continuing to be places of learning about animal behaviour and anatomy, have broadened their aim to include educational entertainment of the public. Most families see zoos as a fun and affordable way to teach children about biodiversity and nature — two things in short supply in most metros.
But the quality of educational programmes and the lessons derived from them are questionable.
Most zoos purport to fulfill their educational role inherently, as children and adults walk around viewing animals. And it’s true most enclosures include a plaque or sign with a few paragraphs of information on a particular species. However, these descriptions tend to be brief to the point of absurdity, leaving the few zoo-goers who do take the time to read as reliant on their own observations in order to learn as zoo-goers who do not.
These observations too could be wildly off-base, particularly among children. Because of the way most cramped urban zoos are structured, animals that run or fly long distances are unable to express their energy and behave according to instinct. Similarly, solitary animals like bears, tigers and rhinoceroses might be held in close contact with others of their kind, while some social animals, like dolphins, are committed to the misery of living alone.
These bored or unhappy animals often succumb to zoochosis, a psychological condition characterised by overgrooming, self mutilation, abnormal eating habits, or walking around in circles. In a zoo, leopards brawling seems like an exciting glimpse of the wild, even though such close, aggressive contact is unheard of in a natural environment, as leopards mark their territory with droppings and tree scratchings. The chimp eating its feces is practically a universal touchstone of a joke even as it’s accepted as common knowledge, but that conduct is also never seen in the wild. What does a child gain from observing such inauthentic animal behaviour?
Even “landscape immersion” models (a layout pioneered by the US in which zoos are located on large swathes of land on the outskirts of cities to allow animals space to roam freely in enclosures that imitate their natural habitat) are flawed. It is impossible to recreate the Savannah in middle America, or coastal South America in Mumbai, despite our best efforts and advanced technology. Even if we get the temperature right, everything else is wrong — most notably the absence of other animals.
The result is an artificial experience of nature that does little to convey the complexity of whole ecosystems. The natural world is an intricate web of relationships, from predator/prey to symbiotic. When young zoogoers see tigers fed with already-dead meat, they miss out on the fact that the deer a few enclosures over are tigers’ natural sustenance. When they see zebras and ostriches in separate enclosures, they miss the rich fact that these animals actively cooperate together to escape lions on the hunt.
At the same time, children may also imbibe a skewed sense of what it means to conserve biodiversity. Many zoos include a mission to conserve endangered species, and educational efforts — whether superficial or programmatic — often include raising awareness of dwindling animal populations or highlighting captive breeding efforts to reintroduce animals to the wild. Leaving aside the ethics and questionable success of these efforts, watching polar bears frolic in a shallow pool teaches us little about melting ice caps.
For a generation who will have to solve possibly the direst climate scenario in human history, one that threatens man and beast alike, messaging around conservation is important. Surely we want our children to think more about safeguarding the natural environments of all species rather than think about how to make a cage seem more natural?
Perhaps this is all why a 2014 study by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums found only 10% of people who go to a zoo leave with “a greater awareness of biodiversity,” a vague phrase that doesn’t specify what knowledge was gained or its impact.
Zoos are not inherently bad, but aside from bigger cages and more educated keepers, for the public, little has changed from the days of the menagerie except access. Zoos are still primarily a place of wonder, and perhaps there is value in that. But let’s not delude ourselves: Wonder is not education, and if it’s the latter you’re seeking for your family, you might be better off watching a nature documentary at home.