Sanctuaries or animal jails?

Few zoos get it right, many are unbearable

Jumbo may have been one of the most revered, and largest, elephants ever seen in captivity, but the animal star, who lived in the mid-1800s, endured a lifetime of hardship: He was sold to various institutions, nearly starved to death, and, finally, killed by a runaway freight train.

Even when he was treated comparatively well, at the London Zoo, for example, his keepers didn't seem to understand his dietary or health needs. The giant pachyderm's daily diet included 200 pounds of hay, two bushels of oats, one bushel of sweet biscuits, 15 loaves of bread, three quarts of onions, and occasional buckets of apples and nuts. But it also included buckets of cakes and candies, and even hefty swigs of whiskey.

The unnatural diet, devoid of the roughage of bark and roots that elephants usually eat to wear down their teeth, likely caused Jumbo to suffer from impacted molars, a fact discovered only 100 years after the elephant's death by examining his remains.

When he was alive, the painful molars likely prompted Jumbo's apparent fits of madness, which ultimately led to his sale to American circus ringmaster Phineas T. Barnum.

Jumbo is one example that David Hancocks uses to describe the paradox of zoos, which many times end up being small, dirty jails for the very animals they intend to protect.

Hancocks, a 30-year veteran of designing and directing zoos and current director of Victoria's Open Range Zoo in Australia, opposes the rank conditions and poor standards that remain today in many zoos. But he manages to balance his writing with ample examples of zoos that do things right.

One example is the Bronx Zoo in New York city, which integrates natural habitat exhibits with worldwide conservation programs to both educate the public and preserve the animals. Another is the Woodland Zoo in Seattle, which constructed a gorilla area with trees to climb, places to hide, and a complex landscape with ample vegetation to explore. The result is a habitat that relieves the boredom that sometimes gives rise to aggressive behavior.

While wild animals - the more exotic the better - have entranced humans for thousands of years, mankind has been largely insensitive to their needs, from food to living quarters that provide diversions to keep their minds keen.

Hancocks traces the origins of zoos from the Sumerians, who started the first zoos 4,300 years ago, through the Romans, who butchered thousands of animals for their own amusement.

He writes of the Egyptians, who deified animals, and the Greeks, who wanted to observe the animals closely. China's Chou dynasty built a zoo about 3,000 years ago as a sacred, peaceful place.

More modern zoos in Europe and the United States tend to showcase man's domination over animals. While many zoos started out to honor animals, zoos throughout the world today have degenerated into rows of animals in tiny, often dirty cages made of concrete and iron bars. Some are so filthy that it is almost impossible for visitors to approach the cages.

That's why Hancocks questions the ongoing role of zoos as places for recreation, research, conservation, and education. He believes they can become much more if designed well and turned into conservation centers.

He even lauds new-age zoos, which may lack real animals, and instead use high-definition television or IMAX large-format film technology to realistically show animals in their native habitats and highlight the behaviors that rarely emerge in captivity.

Hancocks writes authoritatively and compassionately, and fortunately offers some ideas on how to improve zoos for both the animals and the people who visit them.

He is most enthusiastic about turning zoos into conservation centers that not only show how animals live in settings more true to their native environments, but that also show the biodiversity of those habitats.

The book also has an extensive bibliography. However, the black and white photos don't do the subject matter justice. Color shots of good and bad zoo designs would have better illustrated Hancocks's points.

His ultimate goal is to engage zoo-goers to be more caring about wild animals and more sensitive about conserving environments throughout the world.

He writes that zoos are in a position to cultivate environmental sensitivity so the hundreds of millions of patrons might want to "live more lightly on the land, be more careful about using the world's natural resources, and actually choose to vote for politicians who care about the wild inhabitants of the Earth and the health of the wild places that remain."

Lori Valigra is a freelance science writer living in Cambridge, Mass.

A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future By David Hancocks University of California Press 392 pp., $35

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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