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How the Leopard Got Its Bars 

Wednesday, Sep 26 2001

Halfway through David Hancocks’ A Different Nature, we encounter an extraordinary photograph. A snow leopard and a young woman eye each other through the bars of the animal‘s cage -- the woman elegantly attired, the cat serenely poised. The image, which dates from 1906, possesses the formal beauty of an early fashion still, yet it is this very beauty, with its symmetrical composition of stanchions and skylights, that so disconcerts. For here depicted is the height of barbarity. Light and air flood in on the creature, but not a single branch or rock bespoils the geometric purity of its clinical concrete cage.

This snow leopard’s plight has been shared (and in many countries still is shared) by untold numbers of animals. Throughout zoos‘ history, as Hancocks depressingly chronicles, their designers have for the most part been more concerned with the formalism of their buildings and with theoretical principles of design than with the well-being of their charges.

In the 1930s, in the grip of modernism, rationalist zoo architects sought to demonstrate their “commitment to animal health empirically rather than impressionistically.” Rejecting moves by the innovative German Carl Hagenbeck to combine naturalistic landscapes and barless enclosures, the architects of London’s new zoo opted for a strictly “scientific” approach. In Hagenbeck‘s Hamburg zoo, complained an article in Architect and Building News, shy animals could hide themselves from public gaze behind rocks. The London zoo designers were having none of that: Floors were designed so it was more comfortable for animals to sit near the viewing windows than at the back of their cages. Think not that this practice is confined to a bygone era: At England’s Paignton Zoo, which describes itself as a “tropical paradise,” grids of metal points protrude from the otherwise barren concrete floors to, in Hancocks‘ words, “dissuade animals from sitting where the zoo director does not want them to sit.”

And so it goes on . . . and on. Today at Xili Lake Zoo in Shenzhen, China, visitors can have their photographs taken with a defanged, declawed and drugged tiger. Not visually appealing, you might think, until you factor in the fellow who snaps a stick across the beast’s jaws -- and everyone is guaranteed a first-class snarl.

Since the days of the pharaohs, the “ownership” of exotic animals has conferred immense prestige. As much for zoo directors today as for princes of yore. Hancocks, former head of the exemplary Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle and Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, and currently director of Victoria‘s Open Range Zoo in Australia, notes with disgust many of his colleagues’ use of the possessive pronoun -- as in “my elephant,” “my tiger” and so on. But while outrage at zoo conditions is often justified -- Hancocks himself is scathing in his criticism of most contemporary zoos -- he also insists that outright rejection of them is not an option.

For one thing, the animals who live in them generally cannot be returned to the wild and need better conditions. Those who reject zoos, and I must confess that I have leaned in this direction, are turning a blind eye on a problem that will not go away merely by our refusal to engage with it. “It should surprise no one that the majority of people who have worked in zoos did so because they liked them,” Hancocks writes. “It is rare for people who dislike zoos and want to change zoos, to choose to work in them.” Hancocks is one of this breed, and he makes his case with convincing passion and unusually elegant prose.

Overwhelmingly, zoos have been designed not for the animals who must live in them, but for the people who visit them. That this must change is the point of A Different Nature. In every facet of zoo design, the comfort of the inhabitants must be the first priority -- psychological as well as physical comfort. Hancocks deplores, for example, the apparently widespread practice of taking infant animals away from their mothers to be raised “safely” by zoo staff. He argues that natural parenting is a necessity for the well-being of infants and mothers alike.

Changes in zoo design must be more than cosmetic. What appears natural to the human eye can often be deceiving. A chief target of Hancocks‘ ire is the mania for fake rock formations. Born out of Hagenbeck’s legitimate desire to give animals more realistic settings, fake rockery has, in Hancocks‘ view, effloresced into an insidious epidemic. Look closely at the “landscape immersion” exhibits at many zoos, and you will find fake rocks, fake trees, fake plants and fake lighting. Ersatz environments may satisfy human aesthetics, but living creatures need real dirt beneath their paws, real branches to scratch their claws on and real foliage to nest in.

Indeed, animals’ needs may conflict with human aesthetic concerns. When the Woodland Park Zoo started to feed whole sheep and goats to their big cats, and entire rabbits and chickens to the smaller cats, the staff was inundated with letters from visitors “repelled by the sight of flesh being torn from recognizable carcasses.”

Hancocks wants to reform more than just the way zoo animals are housed and treated. “My proposal is to uninvent zoos as we know them and to create a new type of institution,” he tells us, going on to call for a fundamental rethinking of the entire purpose of zoos. The display of animals for their own sake is not justifiable, but zoos can and should be pivotal institutions in practicing and promoting conservation. Many zoos today do indeed tout their conservation efforts, but according to Hancocks, most such efforts are mere show, having little or no effect outside their own doors. He argues that the proper focus of zoos‘ attention should be whole ecosystems, particularly local ecosystems instead of the typical diet of glamorous species.

“Visitors to San Diego Zoo can hear messages about the threat of tiger extinction and nod their head in concern, then drive north to the San Diego Wild Animal Park and hear messages about the depredation of elephants by poaching,” he writes. Between the two institutions, they will have traveled “through a region in which virtually every square inch of native chaparral habitat has been destroyed.” Though it’s one of the most endangered ecosystems on Earth, there is no hint at either zoo of the magnitude of the local Californian problem. “It is too uncomfortably close to home.”

An emphasis on exotic species and faraway habitats such as the Amazon rain forest, notes Hancocks, serves to distract us from the problems of our own eco systems, which are often just as fragile. How many U.S. citizens know that North American hardwood forests are in danger of disappearing? he asks. We live today with a paradox: Many children know more about exotic species like dolphins and pandas than their grandparents could have imagined, but next to nothing about their local fauna and flora. In one study of Arizona children, none of the Anglos and only about half the Hispanics knew that the fruit of the prickly pear was edible, yet it has been “a major food source in the area for at least 8,000 years.” An important role for zoos in the future should be to lead the fight for conservation of and education about local ecosystems, says Hancocks, and he endorses a proposal that would have every accredited zoo essentially adopt an ecosystem.

Again, rather than focus efforts on a small number of “charismatic megafauna,” Hancocks calls for zoos to make preservation of total biodiversity their primary goal. Preserving a tiny fraction of the mammalian order will mean nothing if whole ecosystems collapse, and recent environmental science is throwing up evidence that ecosystems decline catastrophically when key species are lost. Those may not be the most “appealing” species in any traditional sense, but it is precisely the concept of what we find appealing in nature that Hancocks hopes zoos of the future will change. Given that declining biodiversity is probably the greatest of all the environmental challenges we face, Hancocks‘ book has a special urgency. This is not just a cry for the wild, but a call to arms.

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