Zoological gardens

Earlier I posted a somewhat acerbic commentary on gardens.

In brief it concluded that we must have them even though we don’t really use them. I am curious to know if the same thought process could be applied to zoological gardens.

Zoos began as collections, or more strictly, menageries.

Some of the wealthy and idle rich, who often liked to collect things, developed a fascination for animals and started to collect them. The more weird, more wonderful, and wilder the better.

It is not hard to imagine the independently wealthy of the early industrial era with access to travel on the new steam ships and trains wandering off to see the wondrous wildlife of Africa, all hurrahs, what ho’s, and gin and tonics. Once they were done with shooting the lions, buffalo, elephants, rhino and leopards it was inevitable that they would want some in their copious back yards at home

It probably started with taxidermy they had done on all the trophies. But stuffed didn’t quite cut if you could have a roaring lion the other side of the rose garden.

Plus, if you could have a botanical garden, then why not a zoological garden?

So live animals became the go and menageries an inevitable consequence of wealth and travel.

And for a long while these were private collections, places where the privileged few showed off their latest acquisitions to a handful of their friends and guests. Even today, the majority of the exotic creatures held in captivity are in private collections.

Only later did the fascination spread to the general public and the notion that there might be a buck in showing the weird and wonderful to the masses.

If you have been fortunate enough to witness wildlife in the wild then even the best zoo is an anathema. You know there is something about a cage, enclosure, display (the noun choice cannot really hide the reality) that strips the zoo animal of its essence.

It does not matter that most animals are not aware of their situation as captives or that a well run zoo is no more cruel than keeping a dog or a cat at home.

And that even all the zoos in the world hold a miniscule fraction of the extant specimens of all but the rarest species. The number of captives is a blip. What is a few hundred elephants when there are hundreds of thousands still alive in the wild?

Then there are the well-rehearsed reasons in favour; various expansions on themes of

  • education
  • conservation
  • preservation
  • enjoyment value

And these all have merit.

The concern I have is an impression that we have not stretched these themes far enough.  Especially to the importance of maintaining viable wild populations of the species that we like to exhibit.

Whilst I find a trip to the local zoo to stand and admire a zebra, giraffe and even a tubby lion rewarding, I cannot escape this feeling that something’s missing.

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