A tiger navigates the Big Cat Crossing at the Philadelphia Zoo. REUTERS/Charles Mostoller

These institutions need to adapt to 21st-century environmental thought.

At the end of June, Buenos Aires, Argentina, made a radical announcement: after nearly 150 years, the city will shut down its zoo.

“This situation of captivity is degrading for the animals, it’s not the way to take care of them,” Mayor Horacio Rodriguez Larreta told Fusion. Instead, the 2,500 animals in the zoo will transition to nature reserves elsewhere in Argentina, and the 44-acre zoo property will be transformed into an ecopark where visitors will be able to learn about the species in a more open and natural habitat.

The closure of the Buenos Aires zoo has set a new baseline precedent for the future of these institutions, says David Grazian, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of American Zoo: A Sociological Safari. But eliminating zoos, Grazian says, is not necessarily the way forward for every city; instead, existing zoos could adapt to reflect growing environmental awareness and responsibility.

The problems with zoos

Across the United States, zoos draw over 181 million visitors annually. For cities like Philadelphia and San Diego, they’re major tourist attractions. In others, like Cincinnati, they’re employment hubs: the Cincinnati zoo is estimated to have a $143 million impact on the region, employing 1,700 people at a total of $51.7 million annually.

But there’s a difference between these prominent urban zoos and the majority of institutions across the U.S. Over 2,000 businesses are licensed by the USDA as “animal exhibitors,” but only around 10 percent of those are also accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Those that aren’t accredited are often cramped roadside zoos, some housed in old industrial sites, Grazian says. “There’s no justification for the continued existence of unaccredited zoos,” he adds. With no educational requirement in place for unaccredited institutions, the animals there exist only as a source of entertainment with which the public is growing increasingly uncomfortable. Recent incidents like the shooting of the gorilla Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo, and the mistreatment of orcas and marine creatures exposed in the documentary Blackfish, have further tainted the reputation of zoos.

The announcement from Buenos Aires offers an opportunity to collectively rethink the role of accredited institutions, says Barbara King, a professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary, and the author of the book How Animals Grieve. King agrees with Grazian that systematically shuttering zoos is not a catchall solution. In addition to the potential loss of cultural and economic capital for their host cities, King says it’s important to keep in mind how difficult it can be to relocate animals once the zoo has closed.

Alternative visions

There needs to be a conversation around what urban zoos might look like in the future, King says. That could entail leaving behind what Grazian describes as the “Noah’s Ark” model most zoos currently abide by. “There’s the idea that a zoo needs two of everything—two tigers, two bears, two large cats, two elephants,” Grazian says. “But it would be more sensible and more educational for individual zoos to commit to keeping fewer species, and dedicating themselves to providing more space for the animals and a more targeted educational message for visitors,” he adds.

King points to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson (above) as an example of where urban zoos might be heading. While not a zoo in the traditional sense, the Desert Museum educates visitors about the surrounding landscape, exhibiting only smaller native species to inform visitors about their shared environment. It may not contain the “terrific megafauna” that have long been the hallmark of the zoo experience, but as King points out, it’s often those large animals, like elephants and polar bears, for whom the zoo is most difficult and antithetical to their natural habitat.  

The emphasis on species diversity in zoos stems from a time when travel and information about animals was not as widespread; now that zoos have become linked with tourism, Grazian says, accredited institutions could work together to make informed decisions about which species to house and create network-wide diversity, rather than crowding that variety into each individual zoo. “So maybe a major zoo, like the San Francisco Zoo, could limit itself to one or two big species, and instead of having only, say, three tigers, house ten, each with their own very large exhibit,” Grazian says. “The zoo could teach people about each individual animal, and the extent to which they’re extraordinarily endangered.”

The educational aspect is, for Grazian, an argument for keeping zoos active in cities. “If we’re going to have any chance as a society to teach the public about climate change and the environmental crisis, zoos are going to be a place where it happens, in part because they attract so many people, but also such a wide variety: religious, secular, Democrat, Republican—everyone visits the zoo,” Grazian says.

However, zoos’ efficacy in this regard will hinge on their ability to adapt to the demands of 21st century society. “If they don’t meet the challenge by embarking on these changes, I think you’ll start to see zoos disappear,” Grazian says. “In the long run, I don’t think the public will stand for [zoos in their current form].”

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