It's no longer a (traditional) zoo out there

For Wanda and Winky, this fall will bring a new home, warmer weather, and spacious grounds. For visitors to the Detroit Zoo, it will mean the loss of a big - several wrinkled tons, actually - attraction.

The zoo's recent announcement that it won't keep its aging Asian elephants because it can't give them the space, companionship, and climate they need has caused more than a few ripples in Detroit - and the zoo community nationwide. After all, a zoo without elephants?

But in a world in which goldfish have their own vets, horses get spa treatments, and a number of communities have espoused pet "guardianship," the Detroit Zoo's decision is one more sign of humans' changing relationship with animals.

Zoos nowadays are as apt to evoke sympathy for the caged creatures as curiosity. People are both more aware of animals' needs - emotional and physical - and less willing to tolerate abuse. Between vocal animal rights campaigns and hit films like "Free Willy" and "Finding Nemo," a fundamental shift is taking place in public consciousness: Animals are being treated, essentially, more like humans. "It's like we're waking up from a deep cultural sleep," says Tom Regan, an animal rights ethicist and author of "Empty Cages." Animals are somebodies, not somethings. That's what I think we're waking up to."

In some ways, zoos have been responding to a new sensibility for years. Small cages have given way to "habitats." Social animals like apes are housed together. Conservation and education have gotten increased emphasis. More animals are trained with positive reinforcement rather than punishment, and many zoos keep intelligent animals engaged by using techniques such as scattering their food so they need to work to find it.

Art Carlson, a white-haired visitor at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, remembers the first time he came to the grounds in 1938. "They used to have the poor lions and tigers in cages," he says, watching the zoo's three elephants. "They'd pace back and forth. As a kid, I felt sorry for them. The animals never have enough space, but at least now they're not in a cage."

Even against that changing backdrop, Detroit's elephant decision was a zoolological zinger. Yet it won't be the first zoo to lose its largest pachyderms. Lulu and Tinkerbelle, San Francisco's resident giants, will also be heading to leafier pastures this summer - a decision sparked by public outrage over the death of two elephants this spring. Controversies have had similar results elsewhere.

But Detroit may be the first to get rid of such a popular animal for purely ethical reasons. "It was really a natural progression of our effort to create a new, expanded environment for elephants," says zoo director Ron Kagan. "And it was the realization that nothing we could do could mitigate the severity of the winters, or the reality that elephants live in large groups, and don't breed well in captivity no matter where they are. It became a realization that improving things for elephants really meant not having them."

Getting elephants out of zoos (and circuses, where they have a much harder life) has long been a target of animal-rights groups. The animals are particularly ill-suited for confinement, the groups say, because of their social and habitat needs. Lack of exercise and years of standing on hard surfaces lead to chronic illnesses, and the elephants are often split up from longtime companions.

But Mr. Kagan's suggestion that elephants, along with dolphins and whales, may not belong in captivity at all is at odds with most in the zoo community. Nor does he does shy from detailing how zoos, as much as they've improved, still fall short. "We have a long way to go to fully embrace animal welfare," he says. "It shocks me that there are still zoos with animals literally behind bars: You're saying to the visitor that this animal is guilty of something, that it's dangerous."

But it's his suggestion that zoos need to find a middle ground between animal rights and conservation - valuing individual creatures as well as entire populations and ecosystems - that sounds unusual, given the normally antagonistic relationship between the two viewpoints.

Today, many zoos feel under attack from animal-rights groups, some of which feel no animals belong in captivity. "What we need are people who have informed opinions. That's different from a purely emotional view of animals," says Michael Hutchins, director of conservation science for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. "If these more extreme animal-rights views start to take hold in the mainstream, it's going to be more difficult to conserve wildlife."

He cites technologies used to protect wild populations - such as tagging methods for Beluga whales or radio backpacks enlisted to track endangered toads - that has been developed at zoos. He also notes that certain animal behavior - elephants' ultrasonic communication, for instance - has been discovered by studying captive animals. Then there's the educational value. "Zoos are one of the few places people can see living, breathing wild animals and come to love them," he says.

All of which are arguments dismissed by most animal-rights activists. Some see a long-term value in zoos as refuges for abandoned animals - a role Detroit, but few other zoos, already plays. But activists oppose many standard practices and often the whole philosophy of cages. Zoos are "part of the shadows of the 19th century," says Dr. Regan. "They don't belong in the 21st century. There are far superior ways to teach people about animals."

In the end, the evolution of zoos will most likely happen naturally - a gradual shift toward bigger spaces, fewer animals, and more climate-appropriate species.

For visitors, that may bring some disappointments. The Lincoln Park Zoo's elephant exhibit - currently under attack by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals - draws an eager horde of kids and parents daily. Ricky Galla, with his wife and 3-year-old son, admits he has mixed feelings about the place. "I don't think they should have zoos in the middle of Chicago," he says, citing a smaller facility in Racine, Wis., as a better alternative. "But as a parent...." His son, though, has no doubts. When asked to name his favorite animal, his eyes widen and he points straight ahead: "Elephants!"

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