- Breaking the Barriers:
Zoo Design in an Age of Conservation
During this era of unprecedented human-induced environmental devastation, a radical shift in the concept of zoos is underway. Proliferation of human population growth and habitat fragmentation outside zoo gates has compounded limited spatial, financial, and genetically-diverse biological resources inside zoo gates to render the conventional notion of the “Ark” as being fundamentally flawed and incomplete. As zoos struggle to keep up with these internal and external pressures, the prospect of a new paradigm is emerging throughout the field with the capacity to carry zoos, and more importantly, their voiceless tenants, into the future. This advancement in the role zoos play ushers in field-based conservation, strategic collection planning, and inter-institutional collaboration at its philosophical core. To plan and design for such a pronounced paradigmatic shift is to break down the barriers between exhibit and field, visitor and visited, specimen and species, and respective zoo facilities, for the safeguarding of wildlife during the 21 st century and beyond. Through thoughtful and provocative design, zoos must reflect the responsibilities they have and the principles they promote as integral players in an Age of Conservation.
How did zoos get to where they are today?
The earliest animal collections were, with few known exceptions, kept as menageries for royalty and the elite. From the time of ancient Mesopotamia up through the European Renaissance period, these collections signified great power and wealth for those that owned them. Being able to repress and confine wild animals was a clear testament to one’s imperial or prestigious status in society, as well as one’s fundamental superiority over nature.
The Age of Enlightenment brought a scientific underpinning to animal collections, based on the development of Carl von Linné’s classification system in the 1730s. Beginning with the founding of the London Zoo in 1828, most collections were formally arranged according to this methodology. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that animal welfare became a higher priority among most zoos than the pursuit of taxonomic order.
During the 1960s and 1970s, zoos began embracing more stimulating captive conditions to improve the quality of life for their animals and the attitude of zoo visitors. Exhibits metamorphosed from rigid displays grounded in classification to naturalistic exhibits based on biogeography. With these improvements, animals started to breed in captivity. Concurrently, with ecologists predicting wildlife extinctions to be a growing problem, a new justification for the existence of zoological institutions was born. Perhaps zoos could breed endangered species as a modern-day “Noah’s Ark” to curb the emerging extinction crisis.
Being predicated upon a noble cause, however, did not immunize this new paradigm from its own set of difficulties. In 1979, a study done by Kathy Ralls and John Ballou of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. showed animals born of related parents had a much higher rate of juvenile mortality than those born to unrelated parents. The implications of these results on the “Ark” concept were severe. Since many zoos had only small numbers of each species to begin with, inbreeding was inevitable to occur within a few generations.
In an effort to thwart the genetic homogenization of captive populations, elaborate computerized mating systems known as Species Survival Plans (SSPs) were developed in the 1980s. These plans rely upon studbooks and pedigree records to minimize inbreeding for each species. Although SSPs are essential tools in sustaining genetic variability, they also yield some drawbacks. Since genetic diversity is the key to maintaining viable captive populations, in many instances, only some of the offspring from a breeding pair may be used in a given SSP. The other offspring then become known as “surplus” animals. These extra specimens of a given genotype can not be bred, but require just as much expense and area as those that can be. Zoos therefore are limited in their spatial and financial capacity to support adequate breeding pools for a multitude of species.
In addition to the enormous costs and vast amounts of space required for captive breeding, zoos are also subjugated to the grim realities of a rapidly changing world. Currently, only 4-6% of the terrestrial realm and 0.5% of the marine realm are under any sort of wildlife protection. Habitat fragmentation and loss is at an all-time high. Global warming is causing instability within the biosphere in countless ways. The human population is expected to reach 9.2 billion by the 2050. And the number of threatened species is constantly on the rise. As zoos focus on saving species that are currently endangered, there are even more imperiled species piling up in the background, and even less habitat to reintroduce the zoo-bred populations into. So what’s a zoo to do?
Where should zoos go from here?
It is apparent that captive breeding, by itself, is not enough to keep pace with global degradation. The human population has dug itself into an environmental hole too deep for zoos to continue their business as usual. Now, more than ever, to truly accomplish a mission of saving wildlife from extinction, zoos are tasked with breaking the physical and perceptual barriers between their facilities and the natural world. They must connect to and interact with the wild in order to succeed in conserving the nature which they represent. Internal, or ex situ conservation programs (such as SSPs) should strive to correspond with external, or in situ conservation programs (such as protection of wild habitat), transforming established zoos into proactive conservation headquarters. However, if the link to in situ conservation is not made strong, the fate of zoos is destined to fade back to the same anthropocentric social and cultural construct from which they are derived.
Certain zoos are already spearheading this movement. In 1999, the Bronx Zoo opened its exemplary 6.5-acre exhibit “Congo Gorilla Forest,” where visitors can view gorillas, okapis, red river hogs, and other Central African rainforest species in naturalistic settings. Although the exhibit is home to one of the largest breeding groups of lowland gorillas, the greater conservation impact stems from the opportunity visitors are given to direct their exhibit admission fee straight to field conservation projects conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society. To date, the exhibit has raised over $8.5 million towards habitat protection, scientific research, and environmental education in Central Africa. Other examples of zoos currently supporting in situ conservation programs abroad include Roger Williams Zoo aiding the development a wildlife protection area in Papua New Guinea, the Minnesota Zoo partnering with Ujung Kulon National Park in Java, Indonesia, and even the tiny Brevard Zoo assisting in purchasing land for a national park in the Caribbean island of Dominica. This growing trend is beginning to characterize a new field conservation-based paradigm. However, field conservation is not limited only to distant reaches of the globe.
Zoos can also facilitate the protection of local or regional landscapes. This approach is practical for many reasons, but maybe most importantly for advocating responsible stewardship of nature among the local residents of an area. Locals may then be influenced to lessen their own ecological footprint, or inform decision-makers about regional environmental issues. Examples of this local conservation support model include the Denver Zoo’s backing of an ambitious plan to create regional wildlife corridors called the Southern Rockies Wildlands Vision, and the Toledo Zoo’s reintroduction of the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly to the Nature Conservancy’s Kitty Todd Preserve.
By emphasizing in situ conservation, zoos can move directly to the root of the problem while avoiding costly ex situ alternatives. The goal of many field conservation attempts is to protect or restore habitat in a threatened area. Areas are generally chosen for their concentration of biodiversity, the existence of a particular rare species, or because they are under immediate threat of some sort. But what about those species under such great risk that habitat protection is not enough to save them?
In these cases, ex situ conservation becomes the necessary action. Such endangered species should take priority within zoo collections, for they could not survive without intervention. Thus, it goes to follow, zoos should invest most of their captive-breeding efforts towards the species that are most threatened, and vice versa. This strategic approach should guide zoo collection-planning. Also, zoological institutions must collaborate in order to sustain viable populations of sufficient size and genetic diversity. Management of captive populations needs to be inter-institutional in order to be successful.
It is imperative to the survival of biodiversity that zoos convert into operative agents of conservation. Considering predictions of global warming, human population increase, and a host of other environmental catastrophes, the 21st century seems more likely now than ever to become an Age of Extinction, if significant steps are not taken to avoid it. Zoos can initiate that diversion to transform the coming century into an Age of Conservation.