Zoos: Modern Arks?


Everyone knows what a zoo is for: first and foremost, its purpose is to show off animals. In the latter half of the twentieth century, however, the institution sought to reinvent itself primarily as a conservation establishment. The salvific tone of zoo rhetoric requires consideration. Until very recently, and perhaps even now, the dream of most progressive zoological conservators has been to return future generations of their presently endangered keep into the circumstance of wilderness, "to take them back to the wild at some future, more relaxed and more enlightened time".[1] Geopolitically, however, the near-term prospects for economic relaxation and ethical enlightenment are not very encouraging. On the contrary, dedication to an international ethos of growth and greed has become the strongest force of our times, overwhelming pleas for a steady spirit of sharing. Whence and whither, then, the utopian visions that are often held to be the highest justification of zoological parks and gardens? One answer is that they are birthed from, and aligned with, a dubious faith in the promise of biotechnology. For instance, if it should take centuries instead of decades for the enlightened epoch of zoological paradise to arrive, we will (so it's said) ride out the extended time by freezing the seminal and embryonic material of those species threatened with extinction.[2] Eventually, come Releasement Day, biodiversity will be resurrected in its full beauty and splendor—if not here on Earth, then on the surface of some suitably geo-engineered planet (e.g., Mars with its ice caps melted down for water).[3] It should be obvious that futuristic planning of this sort presumes socio-ecologic stability over a very long term. Yet those measures necessary to prevent collapse of society and/or biosphere—human population control and sustainable lifestyle—are also precisely the factors that would most contribute to habitat preservation and species conservation in the wild to begin with. The unavoidable answer to mass extinction, then, behind all biotopian dreams of intervention and reeducation,[4] is self-limitation—of individual persons and humanity as a whole.


Across the spectrum of applied science, it is rare to find scientific professionals assuming and announcing such flagrantly utopian schemes as we do at the zoo. (Here I am referring more to the discourse of directors and promoters than to that of keepers and guides.) The phrase "flagrantly utopian schemes" carries a connotation of illegitimacy, yet I harbor no intent to denigrate either utopianism as such or zoo direction in person(nel). Still, it is odd to notice such grandiose projects pluming forth from quarters normally so circumspect and cautious as those of science and conservation. It's enough to make one suspicious, if not outright skeptical.[5] What is going on here? Could it be desperation that drives scientists to don such outlandishly Biblical mantles? Or has the heroic persona and policy usually reserved for and by medical science seeped into the field and practice of biotic preservation? Both of these are possibilities, and there are others as well—but I'll leave it to sociologists of science to figure out the actual motivations involved.

Here, instead, I direct our attention to the contents and effects—the "logic" if you will—of the ark analogy. Upon initial inspection, and perhaps in the final analysis, we will find that it represents an incoherent enterprise. Let's look more closely at the picture before us: environmentalists want to go from point A (= current endangerment of species x in habitat y) to point B (= survival of species x over a long term in ecosystem y'); zoo directors or promoters respond with plan C (= rescue species x from A by bringing specimens or genetic samples aboard the zoological ark, breeding and releasing a population of x' later on). Often forgotten is that a necessary condition for the successful execution of plan C is the realization or restoration of a hospitable biome (to serve as a suitable setting for releasement).[6] In other words, C presents a worthwhile prospect of long-term species survival only if we've got a good shot at getting to ecosystem y'—which in actuality is (typically very) dubious much more often than not.[7] Defenders of the Noachic project may say their ark is not a steamship going anywhere, but rather a lifeboat waiting for improved circumstances.[8] And there's the rub: unless better conditions are going to rain down on us like manna from heaven, shouldn't we be working to improve our circumstances (i.e., acting to establish ecosystem y' sooner rather than later) instead of building and managing the ark indefinitely? It might not be strictly self-contradictory to embark upon C, but practically speaking—in the context of limited resources and time—it is so inefficient as to be stultifying.[9] If a flood of ecological catastrophe is our fate, then we are doomed ark or not; if we can prevent ecologic crises from becoming catastrophic, then let's do it—the place to start is back at point A, with poor species x in bad habitat y. And if that scenario is truly a lost cause, then we need to accept that and move on to more promising scenarios. Such a way of proceeding would at least make more sense than waiting for Godot, some putative species-savior shrouded in an abuse of utopian thinking.

Surely this overstates the case against the zoo-as-ark, some may figure. I would like to preempt such doubts by quoting at length a leading zoo architect and museum director, Hancocks, who speaks to the crucial issue of releasement (i.e., the envisioned disembarking of zoo-animals):

"As a practical matter, the conditions under which [many if not most] zoos keep animals are not at all conducive to reintroduction. The spaces in which animals are displayed in zoos are rarely tolerable for sustaining natural behaviors. The regime under which zoos maintain their animals in no way prepares their skills for survival. The conditions in which almost all zoo animals spend the majority of their lives, the holding quarters where they typically spend about sixteen of every twenty-four hours, are usually woefully inadequate for anything other than basic containment. There have been some encouraging developments in zoo exhibit design over the past two decades, although many of the improvements are only superficial and aimed more at creating better images than satisfying the animals' behavioral and psychological needs, but the design of off-exhibit holding areas has made no substantial improvements since the days of the nineteenth-century menageries. They still tend to be barren, cramped, and sterile spaces, full of harsh and reverberating noises, with no opportunity for social or any other natural interactions."[10]

The ark analogy breaks down if the loop back into the wild is short-circuited by problems like those Hancocks details above. An ark ceases to be Noachic if it cannot deposit its keep in a sound situation. So, as another commentator points out, "if it becomes clear in the twenty-first century that zoos are on an endless journey, th[at] ... may require us to dock at mini natural habitats or, when that is not feasible, simply to bring the journey of some species to a natural conclusion—extinction".[11] It is now becoming clearer, at least to some, that Noah has in fact abandoned ship (if indeed the zoo-as-ark ever had claim to sail under his name). Already in the '90s, at a workshop brought together by the White Oak Conservation Center, one participant concluded in her summary report that "limited space, money, and personnel make the Noah's ark concept untenable".[12]

Negative judgments regarding the zoo-as-ark model are not idiosyncratic. It appears that a coalescing set of criticisms is gathering enough force to move us beyond this misleading ideal. To their credit, institutions on the cutting edge of zoological practice are beginning to wake up from their Noachic dreams and bring their visions of biotopia back to Earth:

"The A[merican] Z[oo and Aquarium] A[ssociation] and some of the leading zoos have begun to realize that the 'Noah's Ark' approach of saving species in captivity for eventual reintroduction can have only limited effect. ... Field conservation—preserving habitats and species in the wild—appears to extend the best hope of saving at least some species and ecosystems from the rising tide of humans."[13]

This way of phrasing the plight of wild animals in today's and tomorrow's world is an improvement in metaphor and conception—because it conveys with greater perspicacity what is actually the case: the flood is us, extinction now is primarily caused by humans. Given that insight, it makes better sense to try to stem our own tide (of population and consumption) than to construct cruiseliners of implausible redemption, rescue-ships bound for utopia (in the pejorative sense of nowhere or never-never land). The present remarks, then, are aimed not so much at breaking new ground as at reinforcing and broadening changes in perspective and practice that are thankfully already underway. In situ preservation is the wave of the future for projects of species survival—it's more efficient for the task, more beneficial for the animals, and consequently has greater claim to the title of biotopia (in the positive sense of being a good place for life forms to flourish).


"The next major step for zoos and aquariums is to focus programs directly upon the survival of [populations of] their collection's [kinds of] creatures in their native habitats, whether those be local or overseas", announces William Conway.[14] "Taking that step distinguishes the 'conservation park' of tomorrow from the zoo of yesterday",[15] he continues, and we should note that his own institution in the Bronx has already made the change (at least in name). But one wonders to what extent such change could be coopted into something merely nominal, particularly if these new institutions would still have "collections" and if they are to cooperate amongst themselves and with other organizations "to effect an interconnected mutually reinforcing global conservation park".[16] This avant-garde vision, though an encouraging sign, yet continues captivity and harbors an air of totalizing redemption (as if the whole world were to become some planetary megazoo, a cosmic ark sailing winds of biotic salvation).[17] Dismantling the ark metaphor requires more thoroughgoing transformation, though not necessarily absolute abolition. As Eugene Hargrove puts it: "Docking the arks ... need not mean the end of zoological societies as institutions. It could simply mean the abandonment of the representational display of animals in order to remain current with new forms of thought in the postmodern period (for example, conservation education and bioregional interpretation via narrative modes of thought)."[18] Since Hargrove himself is sketchy on the specifics of narratological access to animals, unfortunately mentioning only nature videos as an uninspiring illustration, environmental researchers and practitioners might want to spend more time investigating this point and experimenting thereon.

Another potential successor to, or replacement for, zoos as we have known them is so-called ecotourism. From this vantage, the optimal situation would be "to create conditions enabling everybody, including those of modest financial means, the aged, the disabled, and the very young, to appreciate the animals in their natural settings".[19] Objections to such an enterprise have included 1) that ecotourism on a grand scale would be too costly in terms of money, time, and energy expended, and 2) that, even if the economics could be worked out, wild areas are already too beleaguered by humanity to withstand so many more visitors.[20] To the first objection, I reply that if ecotourism were to shed its exoticism—the presumption that interaction with nature requires literally out-landish travel and spectacle (such as African safari for North Atlantic elites)—then it would be much more feasible for greater numbers of people. In response to the second objection, my reply is that we need to jettison the old purist model of (pristine, absolutely nonhuman) wilderness anyway, because this relict concept of uncritical ecotopian imagination falsifies nature and has proven unhelpful in environmental(ist) causes.[21] "Wilderness" has to be understood as demarcating relative or comparative differences of land usage on a continuum with rural and urban uses, rather than some zone so entirely beyond human contact that the least brush would burst its bubble of (fictitious) fragility and purity.[22] Moreover, nature tourism could be stepped up in proportion to real measures of success on achieving more sustainable human populations, and so the pool of potential ecotourists would contain fewer and lighter travelers upon the lands or seas. Thus I think this alternative access to animals is at least preferable to zoos and could play a role in finding a better biotopia once we've abandoned the showboat-ark.[23]

Acknowledgment: An earlier version of this essay appeared as "Redemption from Extinction: Examining the Zoological Ark of Biotopia", in Between the Species: An Electronic Journal for the Study of Philosophy and Animals 1 (2001), (vol. 1 link no longer active).


  1. ^Colin Tudge, Last Animals at the Zoo: How Mass Extinction Can Be Stopped (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1992), p. 255.
  2. ^Ibid., p. 170.
  3. ^My imagery is not unlicensed, for zoo ideology has a tendency to wax Noachic: see philosopher Jacques Dufresne's Biodome encomium, in which he refers to "technology in the service of life" under a "Rainbow Covenant"--q.v. "The Meaning of Biodome", Quatre-Temps 16.2 (Summer 1992), 6-12. Cf. the obvious disanalogy: whereas the Noah of the Bible had only one duty--"keep the animals alive and well for the time being and leave the rest to the Lord"--the self-appointed pilots of today's ark do not claim to, and cannot afford to, rely on the prospect of divine intervention. William Konstant, "Launching the Ark and Not Missing the Boat: Building Local Capacity for Wildlife Conservation", in The Ark Evolving: Zoos and Aquariums in Transition, C. Wemmer ed. (Front Royal: Smithsonian, 1995), p. 193 (italics added).
  4. ^As Tudge makes clear, training in wilderness survival skills will be necessary for successful reintroduction of future zoo animals (q.v. chap. 7, esp. pp. 233-240).
  5. ^Stefan A. Ormrod pulls no punches in his own critique of the zoo industry's "unrealistic optimism"--in "Showboat as Ark" he claims that the majority of zoos "are not conservation centres; they are abusers and consumers of wildlife". From BBC Wildlife Magazine (July 1994): 40.
  6. ^As David Hancocks notes, "the zoo world's cavalier attitude to habitat seems to suppose that wild habitats are in abundance, merely waiting for animals bred in the zoo to be released there". Quoted from "An Introduction to Reintroduction", in Ethics on the Ark: Zoos, Animal Welfare, and Wildlife Conservation, B. Norton et al. eds. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1995), p. 181.
  7. ^Hancocks: "Reintroduction is an extraordinarily difficult procedure. It is far too complex for zoos to carry out on their own, and it is far more than just an exercise in zoology. It involves politics, social welfare, education programs, long-term funding stability, public support, many changes in zoo facilities and programs, and, especially, it involves restoration and protection of wild habitats" (p. 182, emphases added).
  8. ^We must wonder when the waiting game will be over, for, as environmental ethicist Eugene Hargrove softly phrases it, zoos "are less justifiable if they are on a boat ride that will never end". Quoted from "The Role of Zoos in the Twenty-First Century", in Ethics on the Ark, p. 18.
  9. ^Bluntly put, "the task of saving the world's wildlife is too great for even the combined efforts of all the world's zoos. They don't have enough space, nor can they apply sufficient resources" (D. Hancocks, "Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh No!", in Ethics on the Ark, p. 35). Cf. Jan DeBlieu, who finds it "unwise to depend too heavily on captive breeding as a solution to the problem of disappearing biological diversity. This is especially true when one considers the large number of species that face extinction and the limited resources available for preserving them". Quoted from her Meant to be Wild: The Struggle to Save Endangered Species through Captive Breeding (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1991), p. 280 (italics added).
  10. ^Hancocks, "Introduction to Reintroduction", pp. 181f. (italics added). With this in mind, it should come as no surprise to hear a prominent zoo professional admit "the methods we use to conserve species, and care for individual animals, can rob animals of the wildness that we value in them." Quoted from John Robinson, "The Responsibility to Conserve Wild Species", in Wildlife Conservation, Zoos, and Animal Protection: A Strategic Analysis, A. Rowan ed. (Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy, 1995), p. 232. Compare Keekok Lee's ontological analysis in Zoos: A Philosophical Tour (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), on the basis of which she exhorts zoos to cease pretending that they keep and show truly wild animals.
  11. ^Hargrove, p. 18. Not to allow for these possibilities, it seems to me, is to remain blinded by an illusory attitude of mastery/control that David Ehrenfeld has dubbed "the arrogance of humanism". Thinking outside an absolute imperative of artificial rescue is anathema to some preservators; fortunately, Hargrove and others appear to have broken the spell of this strategic rigidity.
  12. ^Jennifer Lewis, "Wildlife Conservation, Zoos, and Animal Protection: A Strategic Analysis", in Wildlife Conservation, Zoos, and Animal Protection p. 211. Cf. William Conway, "The Conservation Park", in The Ark Evolving :"Realistically, the economics of sustaining large numbers of diverse creatures in captivity over long periods of time, even with advanced reproduction technology, restrict propagation programs to a fraction of their potential ... and always will" (pp. 267f.). Dr. Conway was director of Wildlife Conservation Park, aka Bronx Zoo.
  13. ^Lewis, pp. 210f.
  14. ^"The Conservation Park: A New Zoo Synthesis for a Changed World", in Ark Evolving, p. 269.
  15. ^Ibid.
  16. ^Ibid., p. 273 (original italics) .
  17. ^"I don't want to breathe that Smithsonian air", sang the Australian musicians, Midnight Oil. A lyric quoted from their ecopolitical "Arctic World", on Diesel and Dust (Sydney and New York: Warner Brothers/Columbia Records, 1986/1987).
  18. ^"Twenty-First Century", in Ethics on the Ark, p. 18.
  19. ^Zbigniew Mieczkowski, Environmental Issues of Tourism and Recreation (Lanham: University Press of America, 1995), p. 138.
  20. ^Ibid.
  21. ^I realize this claim cannot be taken for granted. Behind it lies a controversy at the cutting edge of contemporary ecological thought--for examples, cf. Daniel Janzen's proposal "Gardenification of Wildland Nature and the Human Footprint", Science 279 (27 February 1998), and Jack Turner's polemics in The Abstract Wild (Tucson: University of Arizona, 1996), esp. the essays "Wildness and the Defense of Nature", "In Wildness is the Preservation of the World", and "A Rant".
  22. ^See Ted (Edward) Whitesell's essay, "Mapping the Wild", Terra Nova 3.3 (Summer 1998): 155-165; see also his Wild Habitats: Changing Approaches to Nature Preservation in Developing Countries (Hodder Arnold H&S, 200?).
  23. ^For a reconstructive vision of post-tourist animal engagement, see Chilla Bulbeck's Facing the Wild: Ecotourism, Conservation, and Animal Encounters (London: Earthscan, 2005), esp. chap. 6 "Respectful Stewardship of a Hybrid Nature".


Acampora, R. (2008). Zoos: Modern Arks?. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/157229


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