Atlanta — Back and forth, back and forth; four steps, turn; four steps, turn. The male African lion paced the small, barred cage that looks like a prison cell, here at the Atlanta Zoo.
''Can they get out sometimes?'' a little boy asks his father as they stand in front of the lion's cage.
Although the lion often has access to a small, outdoor area, many of the animals spend most of their time in cages. But that may change - as Atlanta attempts to dig its way out of a scandal concerning its treatment of animals at its zoo, a scandal involving the deaths of an elephant, two kodiak bears, a lion , a tiger, and a bison.
Across the country, many zoos have been getting lions and other animals out of cages and into more natural settings - ones with trees, bushes, grass, water, and other animals of the same species. Animal care has been improving in other ways too: better diets, better veterinary care, and efforts to breed endangered species.
New Orlean's Audubon Zoo, for example, has changed from what its executive director, Ron Forman, says was one of ''prison-like cages, no proper staff, and no proper diet'' 10 years ago to what national zoo officials say is one of the better ones.
Some zoos such as Atlanta, however, have been lagging behind. They rely mostly on cages and not natural settings. Some animals have died after being shipped to small, private animal exhibits. Records have been poorly kept. Atlanta also has had serious personnel conflicts, and a lack of funding and planning.
It was this broad array of problems, not just the emphasis on cages - which many zoos still have - that led to Atlanta's expulsion earlier this year from the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA). The Atlanta Zoo was the only one ever to have it membership suspended by the group.
''The Atlanta situation is totally and completely unique,'' says Robert O. Wagner, executive director of the AAZPA.
Nationally, some very positive trends are evident in many zoos, he says:
1. Instead of displaying one or two animals of many species, zoos are tending to keep fewer species but larger numbers of each one. This provides a more natural environment for the animal and encourages better reproduction.
2. Educational efforts at zoos have increased by about 10 times what they were a decade ago. More attention is being given to the plights of endangered species and dwindling wildlife in general.
3. Breeding programs have improved for endangered species.
''We envision zoos as an ark for endangered species,'' says Tom Foose, the AAZPA's conservation coordinator. The organization has a computer listing of information about endangered species in captivity. The genealogical data are used in determining the best breeding matches involving animals in the US.
Among the animals being watched and matched: the Indian rhinoceros, red wolf, Asian lion, Siberian tiger, and golden lion tamarin (a small Brazilian monkey). The ''Species Survival Plan,'' as it is called, began in 1980.
But worldwide, endangered species face a number of pressures: an expanding human population in the animals' natural habitat; and poachers and the markets that keep poachers in business. Rhino horns, for example, have been fetching high prices in North Yemen as dagger handles, Mr. Foose says.
In US zoos, animal care has improved ''vastly'' in recent years, Foose adds. ''The animals are healthier and happier.''
One example highly rated by national zoo officials is the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, S.C., which opened in 1974. The bird exhibit includes a rain-forest setting with real and articifical trees and features a rainstorm - complete with thunder - four times a day. The big cats roam in large, outdoor moated exhibits.
But a much older zoo, the one in New Orleans, has also been keeping up with trends in better animal care. Ten years ago, the zoo was ''one of the worst, if not the worst'' in the nation, says Mr. Forman, who has been the zoo's executive director for eight years. Today, with major support from private donors, many of the animals are housed in more naturalistic settings rather than in cages.
Atlanta, too, may be about to begin a turnaround. Accepting blame for the zoo's problems, which experts say were two decades in the making, Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young appointed as the new director Terry Maple, who helped in the revitalization of the New Orleans zoo.
On his first day on the job, June 15, Mr. Maple said of the zoo: ''We're closer to being a prison than a natural habitat. My model is nature.'' He announced plans for one of the nation's foremost exhibits in a natural setting of gorillas and orangutans. City funding for the zoo was recently boosted, but Maple's plans will cost much more than current levels.