This “zoo renaissance,” as Don Moore, the National Zoo’s associate director of animal care sciences, calls it, happened alongside the wildlife conservation movement. As new regulations began to shut down the international wildlife trade, zoos began to breed their own animals or trade with other zoos. The modern zoo reinvented itself as an ark, its creatures precious cargo rescued from an increasingly inhospitable wilderness.
Zoos also began to reform the ways they cared for and displayed their animals, in response to advances in the science of animal well-being and to satisfy an increasingly sophisticated public. Nature programs on television, which had been general-interest shows such as “Wild Kingdom,” began to specialize. “All of a sudden ... there’s a two-hour special on a pride of lions in the Serengeti,” says Satch Krantz, longtime director of the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, S.C. “A week later, you go to the zoo, and there’s an old lion in a 15-square-foot concrete cage, and that just didn’t cut it anymore. And that was a good thing.” What was cutting-edge design in the ’60s and ’70s — such as the rare-mammals enclosures at the Philadelphia Zoo that were tiled and could be flushed clean — gave way to immersion exhibits: spacious, naturalistic settings that gave visitors the feeling of spying on animals in the wild. In recent years, exhibit design has evolved more rapidly than zoos, restricted by budget and space, can often keep pace with. Like every zoo, the National Zoo has exhibits from different eras, each the height of progress in its day and many, now, to some degree outmoded.