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The Ethics of the Zoo


Zoos are constantly rethinking their goals, reassessing what's best for their visitors and animals. The Detroit and San Francisco Zoos recently decided to transfer their elephants to sanctuaries out of concern for the animals' health and well-being. But according to Jeffrey Hyson, who is writing a cultural history of zoos, some things about zoos don't change.

Mr. JEFFREY HYSON (St. Joseph's University): What people have expected to do and see at zoos since they first emerged in the late 18th and 19th centuries is to see exotic animals doing interesting things. And as much as exhibit design has changed over the years, as much as you've seen shifts in education programs, in conservation activities, fundamentally, zoo-goers are there to see the animals, to see them active, to see them looking back.

BLOCK: And what are zoo personnel, zoo directors doing to try to keep that experience interactive in the way you're describing?

Mr. HYSON: One of the things that zoo directors have grappled with recently is how to blend more naturalistic exhibit design with a continuing effort to make sure that the animals stay active, that they stay interesting. There was an interesting phase back in the 1980s when naturalistic zoos really took hold as the new fad. And every zoo with the money to spare suddenly planted the African savanna in the middle of Pittsburgh. What many zoos ultimately found, though, was that visitors didn't like to have to work to look for the animals.

BLOCK: They want them right there in front of them.

Mr. HYSON: They want them right there, right up at the glass, right up at the bars, right up at the mote, whatever.

BLOCK: There is a real tension here, though, isn't there, because there's some aspect of a zoo where you're led to believe this is the real thing? But when it's in a situation or an environment that's so dissimilar from what they would have in the wild, no predators, there's no hunting for food...

Mr. HYSON: Right.

BLOCK: ...zoo critics say this isn't the real animal at all anymore. I read the statement of one zoo critic who called these zoo animals mere gene bags, gene, G-E-N-E.

Mr. HYSON: Right. It's a great line. No, I would agree with that in large part. I think that the line that these creatures are somehow ambassadors of the wild, another favorite phrase in the zoo business--that's a tough line to maintain when, in fact, you're talking about captive populations that are, in many cases, generations removed from the wild, and also animals that also only in a few very isolated cases stand any chance of being reintroduced to their habitat. There are some critics even within the zoo business themselves who acknowledge that really the naturalism's more for us, us the humans, than it is for the animals.

BLOCK: To make us feel better about it in a way.

Mr. HYSON: Exactly. And there are some who would even go further, both inside and outside the zoo world, who say, `Well, in some ways, the bad old zoo'--and it's worth remembering that every generation has thought of the previous generation as the one of the bad old zoo. But for our purposes, `The bad old zoo of bars and cages and bathroom tile design was, in some ways, less of a lie about what kind of an institution the zoo is.' I think that's maybe a little harsh, but I think there is a need for zoos to really foreground the ambiguity of the institution, to actually say, `Yes, we are sort of wild, but sort of artificial. We are sort of educational, but we're also entertaining.'

BLOCK: Do you figure that at some point in the not-too-distant future that the zoo will become a cultural artifact; it just won't exist as we know it today?

Mr. HYSON: Oh, no, I don't think so at all. I think that zoos are very much here to stay because what zoos have been able to achieve is this extraordinary status that's simultaneously very popular, very much a place of family entertainment, but at the same time, they have this public position. They get government funding. They are thought of as civic treasures and civic resources. They are valuable public spaces. And they're able to tack back and forth between those extremes, depending on the prevailing winds.

I think that many zoos, especially the non-accredited zoos, could do a lot better in the way they display animals. But I think fundamentally, there's still something extraordinarily exciting and appealing about that moment when you're standing at the edge of a zoo exhibit and that animal stares back at you, when my kids run back and forth in front of the giant river otter exhibit at Philadelphia, chasing the otters as they swim back and forth in the water. Even at the least naturalistic zoos, there is that moment of contact across the species line. That's undeniable.

BLOCK: Jeffrey Hyson, thanks very much.

Mr. HYSON: My pleasure.

BLOCK: Jeffrey Hyson teaches history at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, and is writing a cultural history of American zoos.

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MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.