How Do You Feel About Zoos?

My sister and nephew are visiting me in SoCal this week from Washington State and one of the items on our agenda is the San Diego Zoo. Although my sister and I visited many zoos in our travels as military brats, the San Diego Zoo is regularly ranked as one of the top zoos in the world.

San Diego Zoo. Photo: Cathy Hanson

But before zoos, there were menageries. The history of menageries goes back to the ancient world in Greece and Rome, when royal leaders had menageries of animals that included diplomatic gifts from leaders of other countries. Those menageries were generally not open to the public, but were only available to the rich and powerful. Seeing a variety of exotic animals was just one more status symbol.

San Diego Zoo. Photo: Cathy Hanson

In the late 18th century, the purpose of zoos changed. With the Age of Enlightenment came the idea that these animals should be studied scientifically and medically. And with some of these zoos located in large population areas it seemed an obvious idea to open them to the public for entertainment purposes.

San Diego Zoo. Photo: Cathy Hanson

The San Diego Zoo first opened in 1916, so it has a 100-year history. It is operated by a not-for-profit organization which is the largest zoological membership association in the world. Located on 100 acres in Balboa Park, the zoo is home to more than 3,500 animals of more than 650 species. It is also home to more than 700,000 exotic plants, which was what I noticed when I first visited.

Like many people, I’m ambivalent about zoos. I like to see animals we don’t get to see in the city, and I like to watch the way they interact with each other. Our zoo makes the effort to create areas that are close to the animals’ natural habitats.

There are huge benefits to a well-run zoo, including scientific study, educating the public, breeding programs, protecting endangered species, and yes, entertainment. They also raise awareness and funds for research.

San Diego Zoo. They have a new koala area now that I’m very excited to see. Photo: Cathy Hanson

But.

Not all zoos are well-run. There are way too many stories about cruelty to the animals, whether from management, staff or the public. Most habitats cannot be exactly replicated, leading the animals to experience stress and behavior problems. But some zoos don’t even make the effort and still use cages or small concrete pens. And ultimately, prison is prison no matter how well they treat you.

As with many things in life, we are left to balance to bad with the good. So I’ll go to the zoo this week and trust that there is more good than bad. I’ll be grateful for the opportunity to watch lemurs and koala bears and giraffes and sloths. I love sloths! And I’ll spend some time wishing the world wasn’t such a dangerous place for these amazing animals.

Pals. Photo: Cathy Hanson

What about you? Are you for or against zoos? Do you have a most memorable zoo experience?

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About Cathy Hanson

I’m a military brat and grew up on Air Force bases around the world. I discovered my love for history when I was 14 years old and the U.S. Air Force transferred my family to a base in England. Traveling from castles to cathedrals to ruins to cities, I felt the stories of these places and understood that history is not solely about events whose dates we are required to memorize. History is stories. My passion for those stories led me to a master’s degree in history.

Please feel free to comment, ask questions, supply answers, or tell me your favorite history resource or artifact.

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