Gibbering and Chattering: A Brief History of Zoos

Ropes. Cages. Quite a lot of panting.

No, I’m not talking about any sort of adult entertainment. This one’s for kids.

Let’s face it, trips to the zoo are a staple of any childhood. The gibbering of the monkeys converges with the chattering of children, who press awed faces up against enclosures. There’s intense anticipation, craning, crooning, screaming, squawking, candy-flossed fingerprints on aquarium walls…who can really say which sound belongs to which species?!

And though this sounds like a natural arrangement, the reality is different. As discussed by Bob Mullen and Garry Marvin in Zoo Culture, “the modern name is ‘zoological garden’, for a garden is an artificial and controlled reconstruction of elements of the natural world which have been chosen and then ordered for presentation in an alien context”. In other words, these natural marvels are contained in perversely unnatural settings, for unnatural spectators.

The earliest known zoo, dated around 3500 BC, was discovered during excavations near Hierakonpolis, Egypt. Hippos, elephants and wildcats were amongst the remains unearthed in the town’s ancient cemetery, suggesting the cities elite rulers held these exotic animals in a private collection. Asserting an anthropocentric purpose, it’s believed pharaohs would instruct the animals to be captured for their amusement, intimidation of enemies, or to hunt in controlled settings, all as a way of displaying their riches and power. On our own turf, King John had his own zoo at Tower of London, with the first animals arriving as gifts from overseas in 1210. Intended, no doubt, to strengthen the idea of the king as god amongst common folk, these animals were just another chapter in the fearmongering and fanciful Royal lives. Just think of King Henry III who used to bring his polar bear out on a chain and let it dive for fish in the Thames.

Interestingly, using wild beasts to flaunt mega-wealth and wield authority is something not entirely abandoned in this age (Anyone else remember Mike Tyson’s infamous white tiger? Or Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee plus one to the hottest music shows of the eighties?). Although, these initial ‘zoo’s’ had not yet established themselves as the ecological learning grounds we see them as today, nonetheless there were early zoo’s whose purpose was educational. Curated in 1000 BC, Chinese Emperor Wen Wang founded the Garden of Intelligence, a huge collection of China’s animals, covering 1,500 acres. Animals, including the main exhibit, the Giant Panda (obviously), were presented in metal cages in the middle of a rudimentary park, with the zoo’s title alluding to the great learning potential of this construct.

Fast forward to the 18th century, where the Age of Enlightenment brought about the expansion of the menagerie. Across Europe, zoology became more scientific, and gates were opening to the public in Paris, Vienna and even London, where our very own founding zoo was established at Regents Park in 1847. Originally intended as a study by its founder, Stamford Raffles, public interest grew and admission opened to the masses, though exhibiting wild animals was not without its teething problems. In 1810 in the ‘Monkey Room’ at Tower of London, a group of monkeys tore a boy’s leg off in a “dangerous manner”, and in another report a baboon got hold of a cannonball while on his way to the tower and threw it at a sailor, killing him.

It wasn’t until the 1900’s that the conceptualisation of zoos began to take focus, as the rigid separation between animal and human began to dissipate. Tierpark Hagenbeck’s zoo opened in Hamburg in 1907, becoming the first zoo to combine naturalistic landscapes, bar-less enclosures and groups of mixed species. This design became increasingly fashionable, leading to a reinvention across the latter half of the 20th century, most notably during the seventies in Seattle, where Woodland Park was generally considered the first immersion exhibit. It was now that the public desire of proximity and quasi-safari experiences began to dictate zoological design, though this was still largely for the benefit of the spectator, rather than the spectacle. As zoos began popping up in every major city, backlash was soon to follow. Arguments from animal rights groups disparaged the need for zoos as cruel, with little thought for the animal’s biological ecosystems. Greater numbers of animals were bred in captivity, with a cause for concern surrounding their welfare and the sterile, monotonous routines they were subjected to. This argument is ongoing, with the release of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 film ‘Blackfish’, an investigation of SeaWorld and its main exhibit, Tillikum the killer whale.

Currently, there are over 10,000 zoos worldwide, which today aim to entertain, and simultaneously educate the public. Though do we really need to capture animals when we have nature shows, David Attenborough and the internet? This may be tricky to judge, though at least today’s zoo’s come with a strong emphasis on conservation; housing endangered species which proves vital for animal survival. Though these modern menageries still have a distance to go in meeting all the ethological needs of their residents, the exploitative nature has been notably reigned in, with social awareness triumphantly leading the way. Soon, with a bit of luck, we’ll be the ones behind glass, whilst a dapper Lion and his harem might stroll past and say, “Here here, just look at this specimen!”

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