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Though modern zoos are usually traced to Paris and London in the 1700s, it is difficult to determine exactly when the collecting and cataloging of "exotic" animals began. Certainly the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, the Mesopotamians, the Indians, the Chinese, and the Romans all had animal collections that were displayed in various ways to selected persons. Some medieval kings had collections of animals, and these royal zoos continued through the 1700s. In the late 1700s, some animals were moved to Paris so scientists from the new Museum of Natural History could have access to living animals to study.

The Establishment of Modern Zoos

Nevertheless, the first modern zoo is generally recognized as that established in London's Regent's Park from the King's Royal Collection in about 1829. Shortly after that, other European cities began to establish zoos, and, in 1867, the first American zoo, in Philadelphia, was established. These zoos were interested only in displaying animals for the amusement of people. People then, as in the early 2000s, were most amused by animal behavior that resembled human behavior. Some zoos began with the establishment of zoological societies that had scientific and educational goals, but these lofty initial goals were almost always underfunded and less important than simple animal acquisition and display.

The Philadelphia Zoo was the inspiration of Dr. William Camac, a man active in Philadelphia's civic affairs and widely traveled in Europe, where he visited many zoos. In 1859, he founded a zoological society. In 1873, the zoo began acquiring animals for display, under the guidance of Frank Thompson. Herman Schwarzmann, an engineer, did the initial zoo design, heavily influenced by the London Zoo, in Fairmount Park, and the zoo opened in July 1874. It continued to add to its buildings and collection, focusing on being ready for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition Year. Special events like world's fairs and national exhibitions have often provided the impetus for building or expanding zoos or zoo collections.

The establishment of both the Washington, D.C. (National) Zoo and the Bronx Zoo was accomplished at the end of the nineteenth century. In Washington, the U.S. Congress in 1889 appointed a board to plan a zoological park. Sydney Langley, a member of that board and the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and William Hornaday, curator of Living Animals at the Smithsonian Museum, were instrumental in the development of the park in Rock Creek Park, a site about two miles from the White House. The Bronx Zoo was led in its establishment by well-known New Yorkers like Theodore Roosevelt and members of his sportsmen's club, Boone and Crockett. Madison Grant was instrumental in the initial creation of the buildings in South Bronx Park and in the raising of funds from some of the most prominent New Yorkers of the time, including John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius and William Vanderbilt, and William C. Whitney.

Other great American zoos were formed at about this time and into the 1900s, including the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and the Saint Louis Zoo, both located in large parks in the middle of the city, a pattern later emulated by zoos in Boston, Pittsburgh, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, among others.

Attracting Visitors and Generating Revenue

The attraction of zoos was initially the opportunity to see animals, but in order for zoos to thrive, people had to continue to visit. When the Philadelphia Zoo first opened, it drew 200,000 visitors per year, and that number spiked to nearly 700,000 during the Centennial Exhibition in 1876. It then began to fall and bottomed out at 152,000 during the Great Depression. The loss of visitors meant a loss of revenue (only two great American zoos charge no admission—the Washington National Zoo and the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago). The revenue was directly connected to operating expenses, so zoos needed to attract return visitors regularly. That meant that there had to be new, more modern displays and buildings on a regular basis, as well as events that attracted people. These events included greater educational programs, docent-led tours, after-hours events for members, outreach programs, and other special events.

Initially, animals were displayed in cages, most of which were too small to allow the animals room to take more than a few steps in any direction. The "advantage" was that the cages were close enough for people to observe the animals. Most of the times the animals were not lively; in fact, caged behavior can usually be characterized by one of two words—morose or neurotic. Animals were often lethargic or pacing back and forth. This behavior was unhealthy for them and uninteresting for viewers, so the next display advancement was the building of pits for animals. These pits allowed viewers better sight lines, provided more room for animals, and allowed the animals to be displayed outdoors. Of course, warm weather animals were back in their connected indoor cages during winter months. Two changes since the 1980s further improved the viewing as well as the health of the animals. First, some zoos in the early 2000s used very thin but strong metals to build cages for those animals that could not be contained in pits or were able to escape from other types of enclosures. The other display advancement was the creation of more natural settings, where a number of species of animals are displayed in a habitat, such as a grassland or a marshland. More realistic displays were the result, though predator and prey are not displayed together, for obvious reasons. Zoo designers needed a much greater amount of land to create these natural settings; thus, a number of zoos relocated to spaces outside their cities, where land was less expensive and more widely available. The Milwaukee, Minnesota, and Toronto Zoos are three good examples of this change. A drawback to natural-setting displays is that the animals have room to "hide" or be less visible because of the limited viewer sites around the large display areas. Still, natural-setting displays allow zoo visitors to view animals interacting with other species and having the opportunity to run and romp.

Moving zoos out of their center-city locations creates transportation concerns. In many cases, visitors must depend upon their automobile to reach the sites, but a few zoos provide public transportation. In one noted instance—the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans—the transportation is almost as interesting as the zoo. The zoo is located in Audubon Park on the banks of the Mississippi River, and a zoo boat travels back and forth on the river from the downtown area to the zoo. In addition, the old trolley line with its wooden cars travels down St. Charles Street to the edge of Audubon Park, providing visitors with another alternative to automobiles.

Deciding what exactly to display is another issue for zoos. Some large American zoos have tried to take a "comprehensive" approach in displaying most of the well-known animals in the world. Zoos like the Bronx, National, San Diego, and Brookfield (outside Chicago) see this approach as part of their mission in a large urban area. Thus, these zoos built new areas for animals of tropical Asia or Australian habitats. Other zoos created unique niches for themselves, making their displays unrivaled. Two good examples are the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum outside Tucson and the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. The former has animals of the desert arranged by climate, including a hummingbird aviary unlike any other. The latter has a Louisiana Swamp exhibit that draws on the unique ecosystem of the region. The display includes white alligators found in a Louisiana swamp. Though not geographically unique, the Cincinnati Zoo created a niche through its insectarium, unique to the United States but modeled on similar exhibits in some Asian zoos and since copied by some other North American zoos.

As indicated earlier, only two of the large American zoos are free. The entry fees are another issue relating to both attracting visitors and generating revenues. With entry fees running from $6 to $12 per person, a visit to the zoo can quickly become expensive for a family. Some zoos have days with reduced fees, which allow people with lower incomes to enjoy the facility. The funding of zoos has become more and more difficult as their mission has become more complex and expensive. The upkeep of a zoo is enormous; there are costs for animal care, zoo maintenance, and salaries of personnel. Fees generate only a small part of necessary monies. Most zoos are under the aegis of zoological societies, which often are related to the government in some manner. The park is usually kept up by the respective government entity while the zoological society offers memberships and sponsors various fund-raising events to support the zoo's missions. Large donors to the zoo often will sponsor an exhibit or aid in the purchase of some animals from another zoo.

Acquiring and Breeding Animals

The acquisition of animals has changed greatly since zoos first began in the United States. In the early parts of the twentieth-century zoos would requisition hunters to acquire zoo animals. Their methods were often unscientific and cruel. With many animals threatened or endangered in 2004, almost all zoo animals were acquired in one of two ways—either from other zoos or through breeding. Much of the breeding or trading of animals was under the auspices of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA) and/or the International Union of Directors of Zoological Gardens. The International Zoo Yearbook, published annually since 1960 by the Zoological Society of London, provides information on animal husbandry and management and the best methods of displaying various species. Breeding books are kept of almost all animal species in order to provide for the greatest diversity in the gene pool and to ensure that there is no inbreeding, which can increase the likelihood of diseases and defects.

The concern about inbreeding is but one of the ethical questions surrounding the idea of zoos. The biggest question, perhaps, is: Should zoos exist at all? Some individuals believe that the capture and incarceration of other species is unethical. At one time this was more of an issue, but in 2004, with the loss of habitat of many species because of human encroachment, there were a number of species that might not exist if not for zoos and other managed "wild" habitats.

Still, the breeding of animals, to some, seems wholly manipulative and unethical, but once animals are in zoos, there are few, if any, other opportunities for species perpetuation. Breeding is stressful to animals; they must be transported to other locations, then become acclimated to their new environments and, finally, to their new prospective mates. Some of the other ethical questions surrounding the breeding of animals include whether animals should be bred if their numbers are very small and their natural habitats nonexistent; whether animals bred in zoos should be reintroduced to the wild, and, if so, how; and what should happen to animals that reproduce to such an extent in zoos that there are no places to situate them.

There are also ethical questions regarding the notion of "good stewardship." How does one define a "good zoo" and who develops that definition? What are acceptable standards for the maintenance and welfare of animals in captivity? To what extent, if any, should captive animals be subject to experimentation? How should zoos explain the plight of endangered animals without becoming overly political? What is a "humane" way to display animals? There are not simple answers for these questions, and they continue to drive the dynamic of zoo construction and renovation. Many of these issues also relate to the earlier issue of funding, especially when much of the funding is publicly supported or generated.

Zoological Parks and American Cities

American zoos in the early 2000s included more than fifty outstanding zoological parks. Many cities view having a renowned zoo as a reflection of civic pride and progress. Almost all zoos had to make choices about how they would distinguish themselves from their brethren. As noted, the biggest zoos in the biggest cities often chose to have comprehensive animal exhibits. These great zoos include the Bronx Zoo in New York City, the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park (and its larger, wild animal enclosure in Escondido, thirty miles north), the Brookfield Zoo in suburban Chicago, the Philadelphia Zoo, the St. Louis Zoo (made famous by its director, Marlin Perkins, and the first zoo television show, Zoo Parade), the Miami Zoo, the Denver Zoo, the Los Angeles Zoo, and the Atlanta Zoo (which was once on the brink of ruin but rebounded through civic efforts since the 1980s).

A number of smaller cities created large zoos, often in areas just outside the city, and had many of the "popular" wild animals, but they also created unique exhibits and displayed their animals in large, multispecies displays. These include the Milwaukee Zoo, the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, outside the Twin Cities of Minneapolis, the Pittsburgh Zoo, the Phoenix Zoo, the Tacoma Zoo, the Portland Zoo (known for its successful elephant breeding), and the New Orleans Zoo.

Zoos have become an important attraction for many cities, but they also have turned into the last bastions of a number of endangered species. Though zoos are ostensibly for animal welfare, they were designed initially for, and continue to function largely for, human pleasure. At one time, animals that exhibited humanlike behaviors were more popular as people anthropomorphized the animal actions, but at the turn of the century, the greater educational programs of zoos, their more informative display placards, and the greatest exposure of animal species through various media made many other species popular with human visitors. Most zoos provide small children's zoos within the larger environs, where children may pet farm animals or other, more docile animals. Picnic areas are available in the parks, and many zoos have some sort of people mover, which provides better access for those with mobility limitations, as well as provides a guided overview of the parks.

See also: Circuses, City Parks, Disneyland, National Parks, Park Movements, Walt Disney World


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Murry R. Nelson