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A Closer Look at Today’s Zoos

A Closer Look at Today’s Zoos

THREE thousand years ago, a Chinese emperor created a park and called it the Garden of Intelligence. The park had many live animals on display and covered an area of 1,500 acres (607 ha). Back then, such a park must have been a rarity.

Today, however, zoos are accessible to millions of people worldwide. “In a world where natural areas are shrinking and populations are increasingly urbanized, for many people zoos have become the most accessible place to get in touch with wildlife,” notes the book Zoos in the 21st Century.

What a Modern Zoo Can Offer

Zoos offer visitors the opportunity to see some of the earth’s most attractive and impressive animals in a reasonably natural setting. You may see brilliant butterflies fluttering in a tropical garden or penguins getting a shower of ice in an enclosure that mimics the frozen wastes of the Antarctic.

You may walk through a miniature equatorial forest and spot some of the animals and birds that live in that habitat. Or you might enter a darkened chamber to observe animals that are active at night. In some zoos you can even see exhibits of birds of prey in flight or watch dolphins performing their own aerial acrobatics. The cages that used to house dangerous animals have made way for open-air enclosures with moats that separate the wild creatures from the public.

 Both Sides of a Controversy

Some animal-rights activists question whether species should be taken from the wild and confined in unnatural environments. Activists argue that zoos restrict the animals’ movements and disrupt their instinctive behavior.

In reply to this criticism, zookeepers say that they carry out a vital role in conservation and education. “Our goal is to engender respect for the animals,” explains Jaime Rull, of Faunia, Madrid, Spain. “We want to create in our visitors a desire to help conserve the animals’ habitats, without which they will not survive.” Some surveys indicate that effective zoo exhibits do indeed increase public awareness of the need to protect endangered species.

Some rare species​—such as the giant panda—​seem to have developed a special place in the public’s affection. “All the visitors want to see our two pandas,” says Noelia Benito,  of Madrid’s Zoo Aquarium. “This flagship species has become a symbol of our fight to save endangered species. We are hoping that the pandas will breed, although these animals are very choosy about their mates.”

Unlike the pandas, many animals do breed freely in zoos, thanks to improved conditions and good veterinary attention. Successful breeding programs have helped answer critics who argue that zoos should not be involved in the trade of endangered species. Apart from maintaining a pool of animals for exhibition, many zoos also try to breed endangered animals in the hope that they can eventually be reintroduced into the wild.

A principal cause of extinctions in the wild is the loss of habitat. Thus, zoos have become actively involved in funding conservation programs, working directly with wildlife sanctuaries in tropical countries. *

The Face of Nature

Since most children have a natural fascination with animals, a weekend or vacation visit to a zoo by the whole family offers parents the opportunity to teach their children about God’s creation. They can together gaze at the face of nature.

From the beginning of history, mankind has had a keen interest in the animal world. It is an interest worth cultivating in our children, since the natural world gives us insight into the personality of its Creator. A visit to the zoo can also enhance our respect for and awareness of the wonderful creatures that inhabit our fragile planet.

Clockwise from top left: tropical butterfly, Bengal tiger, giant panda, bald eagle, California sea lion

^ par. 12 Efforts by zoos to help protect the tiger in Asia, lemurs in Madagascar, and primates in Africa appear to have been successful.