A zoological garden is an establishment housing collections of both wild and domestic animals that are exhibited to the public. Zoos reflect the curiosity and intrigue of humankind toward our animal kingdom. Zoos also reflect our responsibility as a species to promote conservation through education and make an attempt to manage our globe by studying the species within. Modern trends include perfecting husbandry techniques for many exotic species and carefully managing captive breeding programs. A key focus of zoos is the breeding of endangered species in captivity, while meticulously managing their gene pools, functioning as a modern “Noah’s Ark.” Zoos are capable of sustaining viable populations of endangered species, even after the animals have disappeared from the wild.
The current trend in zoos is to display animals in simulated natural environments. This provides a more beneficial environment for the resident animals, while also immersing the public in many unique ecosystems, such as an African Savannah. Most large cities currently have zoological reserves, and many serve as centers of research for conservation and the study of exotic animals. Centers of research include London (Regents Park), New York City (The Bronx Zoo), San Francisco (San Francisco Zoo), Paris (Jardin des Plantes, Jardin d’Acclimatation, and Bois de Boulogne), Honolulu (The Honolulu Zoo), Melbourne (Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens), Rome (Zoological Garden of Rome), and Berlin (Tiergarten). A zoo can be a municipality owned by the city, privately owned, or managed by a nonprofit zoological society or a combination of several. For example, the Honolulu Zoo is owned by the City and County of Honolulu, but also has a nonprofit branch, the Honolulu Zoological Society, to assist its efforts in conservation and education.
The purpose of a zoo has many facets, including entertainment, education, conservation, research, and captive breeding programs. In the past, zoos were only looked at as a source of entertainment. The current focus of zoos has become much more complex. A zoo’s responsibility is multifaceted, including research on rare and endangered species, conservation efforts on all continents, and education of the public to increase people’s awareness of global issues and responsibilities. The American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AZA), founded in 1924, is the main accreditation body in North America and the Pacific. With 214 accredited institutions and more than 6,000 members, AZA supports the advancement of zoos and aquariums, holding zoos to high standards, as well as managing captive breeding programs. The AZA has the profound potential to promote and fund conservation and education efforts, benefiting both species and habitat conservation. The Honolulu Zoo is an accredited AZA member, reflecting high zoological standards in its mission statement: “to foster an appreciation of our living world, with an emphasis on tropical ecosystems, by serving as a center for environmental education, biology study, and recreation and conservation activities.”
The practice of keeping wild animals in captivity is an ancient idea. Stone tablets found in the Sumerian city of Ur, dated to around 2300 BC, document the establishment and management of the earliest known animal park. In ancient Egypt, wild animals were regarded as objects of wealth, and were presented as gifts to the pharaohs. Around 1500 BC, the pharaoh Tuthmosis III (1501-1447 BC) imported many animals to Egypt and maintained his own collection. Queen Hatshephut, his stepmother, organized expeditions to capture wild animals. In 1490 BC, Queen Hatshephut sent an expedition to the coast of present-day Somalia, bringing back monkeys and exotic birds for the royal animal park.
The Greeks preferred wild birds to mammals. However, when the Greeks invaded India, they were greatly impressed by the elephants’ capacity to be trained to work or fight, and they promptly drafted the elephant for war. Alexander the Great maintained collections of both African and Indian elephants, bears, monkeys, and other exotic animals, in tribute to the countries his army vanquished. In time, he established what was possibly the first public zoo. In the third century BC, Alexander joined Aristotle and began the first scientific studies of captive animals.
Up until the 19th century, little had changed in western zoos. Most zoos were still the privilege of the nobility and wealthy. Poor knowledge of animal husbandry and natural history led to poor living conditions and shortened lives for zoo animals. Animals were kept in zoos for human amusement and were symbols of power and status. The evolution of a more modern zoo began in France under the reign of Louis XIV at Versailles in 1664. He began to display animals arranged together in more natural groupings and attended closely to their physical needs. His legacy continues through to today. After the French revolution, the collection was sent to the Jardin des Plantes, a botanical garden in Paris. This union created the Jardin des Plantes Zoological Gardens in 1793. The Jardin gained an international reputation as a place of science and knowledge, and prompted Sir Stamford Raffles and other British gentlemen to create a nonprofit zoological collection in London. In 1826, the Zoological Society of London was created.
When Darwin set out on his voyage in 1837 on HMS Beagle, as the naturalist on the boat he collected a huge amount of specimens for the Zoological Society of London. The collection included birds from the Galapagos Islands, which Darwin first thought was a mismatch assembly of warblers, grosbeaks, orioles, and finches. Upon inspection by an ornithologist at the Zoological Society of London, the birds were determined to all be new species of finches. This astonishing find in part led Darwin to his theory of evolution. Our inquisitory nature has led us to capture and study the animals around us throughout history. As more and more species become endangered in the modern world, the living DNA found in our zoological institutions has become invaluable to conserving the genetic diversity of our world.
Today’s zoos have the opportunity to play a vital role in the survival and maintenance of endangered species worldwide. Through captive breeding programs, rare animals can be brought back from the edge of extinction. Enormous improvements in enclosure design, appreciation and awareness of species natural history, and animal management techniques, have led to highly successful breeding rates for a variety of species. These high reproduction rates have led to a surplus of animals within the zoo system. Surplus animals create challenges in the use of space and resources and have led to a need to focus on breeding protocols. The goal of every captive breeding program is to maintain the genetic diversity of a species by coordinating all participating facilities to make beneficial reproductive decisions. Every captive breeding program has both a national and international studbook system that manages this task. The ISIS (International Species Information System) and the IZY (International Zoo Yearbook) are two databases used to manage captive stock.
Throughout history wild animals have been kept for human amusement and enjoyment. Zoos are a place where people can visit to satisfy their curiosity and view specimens of an exotic nature. The past few decades have brought about a new responsibility for zoos. Human activity has considerably reduced the earth’s biodiversity. Wide-scale pollution, human overpopulation, habitat destruction, and the unrestricted use of natural resources have led to the disappearance of many species.
Today zoos focus on the conservation of endangered animals and the education of the public in conservation and environmental issues. Each year the world’s zoos are visited by hundreds of millions of people, from all areas of society and all ages. Many of the people who visit have little contact with nature, and zoos provide a means for all to experience the biodiversity of the planet. The main attraction will always be the wild animals. These exotic species are the hook that grabs the public’s attention, and allows zoos to convey knowledge of pressing conservation issues to the public. With the support of the public, zoos can successfully fund their efforts and create change, whether it be purchasing acres for a sanctuary or raising money for game reserve management. Each small step does make a difference. The modern zoo is a repository of living DNA, a Noah’s ark, and can in some cases have the capacity to actually turn back the tide of destruction.
Zoos have always been an important source of biological knowledge. They have been instrumental in the development of anatomy, morphology, classification, and natural history data. Research undertaken in zoos includes studies on animal behavior, veterinary medication, appropriate husbandry, and physiology of countless wild species. This knowledge benefits captive animals, and also provides a better understanding of wild populations.
Scientific study of animals is vital both in captive and wild settings. The knowledge obtained from wild research can help both the conservation and management of wild populations and the development of successful husbandry techniques. In return, zoos work with universities and colleges to carry out detailed studies that would be difficult to perform in wild settings. The zoo environment contains a vast array of knowledgeable collaborators, all focused on the successful management of species in captivity and the wild.
The greatest hope for species survival is through education. We need people to understand the global situation, not just what is in their back yard. Through education, the public can understand that there are massive interconnected changes happening in all global ecosystems. Tropical rain forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, escalating global warming, which is in turn melting the icecaps in the Arctic and Antarctic. Every action has a consequence. Our forests are being destroyed at a phenomenal rate; we cannot continue to survive at our current rate of destruction. It is not hard to comprehend the real danger of mass extinction.
Every country has three forms of wealth: material, cultural, and biological. Biodiversity has the potential to produce new medicines and chemicals that can benefit all of humankind. Biodiversity also has the potential to produce profound amounts of money from ecotourism. Poor countries are finding that nature reserves and game parks can make more money than farmland. Societies must begin to invest in native species as a financial resource: not as food, but as a source of ecotourism, providing a profitable and sustainable resource. Ecotourism and biodiversity are the true hopes for the future, especially in developing countries. Zoos can assist local governments globally to replenish lost populations and promote conservation.
Zoos have to foster a sense of community, a sense of global interconnection, where we recognize and embrace our neighbors on other continents. We must acknowledge the diverse conservation issues that global societies face and focus on sustainable solutions. Zoos can set a precedent to aggressively manage what we have left. We can reach out in our own communities, and through the efforts of zoos, bring people together.
- American Zoo and Aquarium Association. (2004).
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