So Pandora’s tank, like those of many of the invertebrates, has been designed to be viewable partly in the round, and to jut slightly into the path of visitors wandering the invertebrate house’s dim halls. It has adjustable currents and removable rock formations to vary her environment and stymie the jet-slamming behavior. Letting her pounce on her prey in a regular afternoon feeding, a practice called “enrichment,” helps satisfy her hunting instincts as well as the public’s expectation of a show.
Like every other animal at the zoo, Pandora is a product of her times. As our understanding of what captive animals need has expanded dramatically, so have the expectations of the visiting public. Satisfying both the visitor and the animal has become a central dilemma for zoos. The result is a complicated creature, accustomed to humans, dependent on humans, but not tame. It is, in a sense, a new animal: wild by nature but shaped by captivity.
For most of their history in America, zoos were essentially museums of animals, concerned with collecting an example or two of the most rare and exotic species. (The collection of animals that eventually became the Smithsonian’s National Zoo was assembled as a guide for taxidermists posing their mounts.) Animals were taken, often violently, from the wild, and displayed alone or in pairs in rows of concrete cages. But over the past 30 or so years, zoos have radically overhauled their philosophies — and their policies — transforming how their animals live and how they are seen by the public.
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.
Updating is a constant process. One of the recent projects is the outdoor elephant enclosure: sprawling yards, one with a pool, separated by a series of automated gates. (Both the indoor and outdoor spaces for the elephants are in the middle of a massive renovation, with an eye toward expanding the herd.) On a recent hazy morning, the crowd on the bridge overlooking the outdoor enclosure was cheek by jowl. Below, elephant manager Marie Galloway was attempting to lure Ambika, the oldest of the zoo’s three elephants, through gates from the upper yard into the lower yard for the morning’s demonstration. Like Pandora’s feeding, these frequent demos provide stimulation for the animals and give visitors a chance to see natural behaviors at close range. Or slightly less natural behaviors, as the case may be: The zoo had recently released a video of one of its elephants playing the harmonica, and the onlookers were hoping for a reprise.
Like a prompter in the wings, Galloway, out of sight of the crowd, rustled a large bamboo branch, on which the elephants snack. Ambika shuffled her feet but didn’t move, scanning the ground with her trunk with an air of elaborate disinterest. She weighs close to 8,000 pounds, but it was hard to tell that from the bridge.
“He doesn’t have eyes,” observed a small blond boy.
“He does have eyes; you just can’t see them from here,” his mother said.
A disadvantage of larger exhibits is that, while they provide animals with a beautiful setting and room to move, they make the animals harder to view. How to keep animals both comfortable and visible has long been a challenge for zoos. “If you want to get an argument started amongst a bunch of zoo directors, you ask that question in a bar,” Krantz says.
“The public is a fickle thing,” he says. “They will say to me, as the director of a zoo, ‘I want the animals housed or displayed in large, naturalistic displays. I want them to have lots of vegetation and streams, and I want them to be able to run — all of those things, that’s what I want.’ So, you build that. And the complaints begin the day it opens. ‘I can’t see it. Where is it? It’s too far away. I can’t get a photograph. My child can’t see it.’
“Some people,” he says, “and I don’t mean this literally, but some people want that 15-square-foot cage back with the concrete floor and the iron bars. So, in order to provide that experience, you’ve got to be very creative with exhibit design. You’ve got to be sure that you’ve got animals that are not just physically healthy but mentally healthy, and that they are moving about during the day, they are foraging, they are doing all the things they do in nature, to provide that experience for the guest.”
Demos have been part of the solution in recent years, as long as the animal cooperates. Moore, the animal care director, says that one of the National Zoo’s basic tenets is to give the animal “choice and control” in its surroundings, letting it decide, for example, where to move and when, even if the results are not always visitor-friendly. Ambika, having eaten the treats within easy reach, turned and ambled back up the way she had come. At the end of the bridge, a man in a crisp button-down shirt sighed. “This kind of thing always happens at the zoo,” he said glumly.
At the National Zoo, demos have become widespread, in part because of the work of Alan Peters, who is in charge of education for animal programs and who helped develop the invertebrate house. Figuring out the best ways to turn people on to invertebrates — most of which are at best decorative, at worst transparent — taught him a lot about the varying thresholds of public interest. Peters is a laid-back, red-haired Southerner who looks exactly like Philip Seymour Hoffman would look if cast as a genial jellyfish enthusiast. He is sensitive to the faintest ripple of curiosity in zoo-goers, and expert at capitalizing on it.
In front of a brightly lighted tank of Pacific sea anemones, splotched on a rock wall like scoops of sherbet, Peters pointed out a couple of little ones balanced on a Lucite ledge suction-cupped to the tank’s glass front. “These are the first anemones ever, as far as we know, that have been raised in human care, from gametes we collected from the water. They are two years old — two years old TODAY!” he exclaimed. “Here, sing with me,” he said to three teenage boys in baseball caps standing by the tank, who looked startled.
“Happy birthday to you,” everyone sang. “Happy birthday — it’s a red Tealia,” Peters said to the boys. “Happy birthday, red Tealia, happy birthday to you!”
For Peters, moments like this are part of the zoo’s mission of conservation. He hopes that such enjoyable encounters will leave a lasting impression, making people more likely to support wildlife preservation efforts when they leave. But the reality for zoos is that while conservation has become their main message, it is not always an interesting one for visitors, and zoos have had to work harder to capture the public’s attention.
“We went through this phase in the ’80s as a profession that animals were sacred,” Krantz says. “That there are fewer tigers than Rembrandt paintings, so they had to be displayed in such a way as to impart to the public that they are looking at a very rare work of art.
“What we found out, 10 or 15 years later, is that that’s not what the public wanted,” Krantz continues. “They wanted to get closer, they wanted to hear about it, they wanted to know interesting facts. They wanted a bond, an emotional bond with that animal.”
In recent years, zoos have begun to ramp up efforts to engage the public more directly. “The buzzword in the business now is ‘connecting,’ ” says Tony Vecchio, director of the Jacksonville Zoo in Jacksonville, Fla. “Connecting kids to nature, connecting people to nature.”
Keeper talks, in which a keeper at the enclosure takes questions from visitors, are a popular way to do this. The talks may touch on conservation issues (during the elephant demo at the National Zoo, a keeper reads from a script about boycotting ivory products) but are most effective at conveying a keeper’s enthusiasm.
Craig Saffoe, curator of great cats at the National Zoo, cares less about teaching a particular lesson than fueling people’s curiosity. To second-graders, he describes how lions attack and kill a zebra, and eat its heart and brain. He lets them pet a golden swatch of a lion’s pelt. “Has anyone ever touched a lion?” he likes to ask. “I know you haven’t, because you’re still alive.”
Saffoe, who has multiple tattoos of cheetahs, including a large one bounding into his shirt-sleeve, also gives versions of his keeper talks in the community. He recently spoke at a bar to a gathering of young professionals, who proved a receptive audience. “By the end of the evening, everyone’s hammered and I’m talking about cheetah sex, and people start yelling, ‘Show us your tattoos!’ ”
A well-designed exhibit can also help connect people to the animals in a way that the “rare work of art” approach does not. The National Zoo’s O Line, a four-story network of cables that allows the orangutans to travel over the main visitor walkway between their enclosures, was years ahead of its time when it opened in 1995, says Terry Maple, former president and chief executive of Zoo Atlanta, who calls it “the most courageous bit of design I had ever seen in a zoo.” While it was being built, the exhibit had generated controversy as a radical, even risky, way to show off the apes.
On a recent morning, an orangutan was approaching hand-over-hand, pausing occasionally to recline on the cables. The long, shaggy hair on his arms swung like the fringe on a fancy Western jacket as he brachiated in swooping arcs. The crowd that had gathered below was divided in its reaction, half gazing in reverent silence, and half loudly carrying on, with the kind of brashness that belies uneasiness, about orangutan droppings and whether or not “that [expletive] going to drop down and attack you.” And though the lines from which the orangutan was swinging resembled telephone wires more than jungle vines, the charge of the event was the distinct feeling of having stumbled into the apes’ world, where the normal rules of human dominance no longer applied. It was novel and thrilling, and not entirely comfortable.
The idea of showing visitors more of what the zoo does for animal well-being while also giving them firsthand, interactive experience with animals is slowly spreading in the zoo community. Vecchio’s zoo in Jacksonville is creating a new tiger exhibit, similar in concept to the O Line, with trails and corridors that will allow the big cats to roam through visitor space. At the National Zoo’s Think Tank, visitors can interact with the orangutans by controlling some of their playthings from outside the enclosure. At Krantz’s zoo in South Carolina, visitors are now allowed to feed the giraffes. “You just watch the expression on that child’s or that adult’s face when that twelve-inch tongue comes out and wraps around that piece of lettuce,” Krantz says. “I think something like that has done more for giraffe conservation than anything on earth.”
The challenge is giving visitors that experience without compromising the animal’s comfort or essential “wildness.” The Great Ape House might seem such a compromise. Inside it is warm and humid and smells strongly of great ape. A small percentage of the people who enter, usually teenagers, bolt back onto the sidewalk, clutching one another and holding their noses. The building, a windowless bank of concrete that resembles the Brutalist style, was built in 1980, a time when design at zoos mostly addressed the prevention of disease. Concrete rooms, designed to be bleached and hosed out, are furnished with concrete trees and the occasional webbing hammock. If the zoo were building the enclosure from scratch today, says great apes keeper Erin Stromberg, it would probably be much different — it would have what are called “bio-floors,” for example, deep layers of natural materials instead of concrete, and storage for the apes’ enrichment toys. But it does have important elements, such as connected rooms that allow the apes to move throughout the complex, which were forward-thinking when it was built.
The rooms, starkly lighted and with floor-to-ceiling glass, offer virtually unimpeded views of the apes, just a few feet away. Like a room full of old Borscht-belt comedians, they could do almost anything — such as the orangutan tossing a sheet over his head and shoulders, ghost-like, and hopping up and down — and people would watch. The stadium-type seating in front of the big gorilla room encourages people to linger, which they did on a recent afternoon, idling in the musty heat as though by the seashore. The gorillas, on their side, lingered also. Humans and apes pressed against either side of the glass, inches from one another. People posed for pictures. The giant silverback stumped slowly along the length of the window, accompanied by a boy on the other side, who trailed his hand on the glass as if on the gorilla’s shoulder.
It is not possible to say, as a rule, that the closer wild animals get to humans, the more uncomfortable the animals become. Many zoo animals find the presence of humans unthreatening, uninteresting or even enjoyable. The National Zoo’s gorillas are lifelong exhibit animals — the last of the zoo’s wild-born gorillas died last year — and, as such, are distinctly different from their counterparts in the wild. The apes have been trained to be separated from their family group, which normally distresses them, so they can be more easily anesthetized for exams. Two of the males have small devices embedded under the skin on their backs that take continuous EKG readings, and have been trained to present their backs to their keepers so the information can be downloaded. The gorillas have a tolerance, even an affinity, for visitors, and an aversion to the summer heat in their outdoor enclosure, despite their ancestral roots in equatorial Africa. “These guys grew up in D.C. and know what air conditioning is,” Stromberg says. “Given the choice, they’ll go sit in it.”
“Wild,” at the zoo, is relative. “Most mammals and birds [people] see, and a growing number of amphibians and reptiles, in accredited zoos, are born there,” Moore says. “They’re still wild animals — we don’t want to say that they are tame animals — but they are habituated to the presence of people.
“So, even though we give them the choice to hide, they don’t necessarily choose to hide; they choose to sit out and watch the people.”
For these animals, the zoo replaces, from birth, the wilderness for which they have evolved. Life in captivity would not be possible without their keepers, who help them adjust in nearly every way. Fifty years ago, a zookeeping job was more like being a janitor for animals; “a city job where you could be outside and work with your hands,” says Brandie Smith, senior curator at the zoo. With the widespread changes in the ’80s came a new kind of keeper, who was primarily interested in the job for its contact with animals and had a background in animal science. As zoos reformed, the new generation of keepers was driving change at the ground level.
On a recent morning, great cats keeper Kristen Clark stood next to a row of steel mesh cages that held several of the zoo’s juvenile male lions, each as long as a loveseat, but lanky and mane-less. Clark, in shorts and knee-high rubber boots, was preparing to take the lions through training exercises. She was holding a bowl of raw meat, and the juvenile she was in front of, Aslan, was wheeling alertly at the front of his cage. He was emitting a constant low-pitched growl, which had the effect of signaling great power in a low gear, like an idling Harley-Davidson. Clark began giving him voice and gesture commands to touch different spots on the cage’s wire front, and to press against it; Aslan leaped to complete the tasks almost before she had finished requesting them. After each, Clark gave a little blast on a whistle and dropped a piece of meat through a metal hatch. Aslan swallowed it in a gulp.
One goal of training is to reduce the stress that comes from routine handling, as with health exams. In the past, big cats were generally examined by immobilizing them in a “squeeze cage” or by darting them with a tranquilizer, which had the potential to stress or panic them. One of the zoo’s old tigers bore a long-standing grudge against a veterinarian who had darted her.
“For years, he couldn’t go near her,” Clark says. “She’d get super aggressive whenever she saw him.” Clark and her colleagues had trained the lions to do something that Saffoe, the big-cat curator, had originally thought could never be done: voluntarily press against the wire mesh of the cage to receive injections and give blood.
When Galloway began, as a keeper, in 1987, the elephants were still kept chained in their cages at night. When the elephant manager made the decision to unchain them in 1988, the fear was that it might make them harder to handle. But in fact, Galloway says, it improved their behavior. “Their feet were in better condition, they could socialize in a better way — it actually made them easier to handle.”
The practice of enrichment also grew out of keeper work. One of the pioneers was Jacksonville’s Vecchio, who, with his fellow keepers, started experimenting in the ’80s with ways to keep animals occupied. Back then, there wasn’t much focus on animals’ mental health and how they would fare when their instincts, which had evolved to deal with the complex and unpredictable environment of the wild, had few outlets. Many zoos struggled with animals that demonstrated pacing, swaying and other repetitive behaviors, sometimes to the point of self-injury, that are thought now to be caused by boredom or stress.
Vecchio and his colleagues began using what they had on hand, such as newspapers and plastic garbage cans, to keep the animals occupied and try to reduce those behaviors, called stereotypies. The makeshift toys often contrasted jarringly with the natural style of exhibits that was coming into vogue at the time. But naturalism is more for the visitors than for animals, Vecchio says: “I’ve heard from the animal-rights community that a concrete tree isn’t a real tree, and animals know the difference. I do think animals know the difference. I don’t think they care.”
Making these kinds of judgments is still the role of keepers today, who must be in tune enough with a wild animal’s often cryptic signals to decide when behaviors indicate real discomfort. Bears, for example, are particularly prone to stereotypies; one of the National Zoo’s sloth bears often paces in tight circuits. Keepers regularly record the bear’s actions to determine exactly what it does and when, and design interventions to try to distract the bear from the behavior before it starts. Stereotypies are often difficult to eliminate — an animal that paced around a small cage may continue to trace that path even in a larger space. Enrichment, which can include socializing, helps. Moore notes that the sloth bear recently had a day free of stereotypies; he spent it with a female sloth bear, “his girlfriend.”
One of these behaviors that attracts attention is the gorillas’ habit of regurgitating food into their hands and re-ingesting it. While extant in the wild, this is more prevalent in captivity. Stromberg works with the gorillas to reduce the behavior, which she says they tend to do because it provokes a reaction from onlookers. “It doesn’t really fit into the category of stereotypies, but it’s not exactly a desired behavior, either.” If it’s not damaging to the apes, why work to change it? “The real-world answer is because we’re tired of explaining it,” she says.
As keepers have begun working more closely and for longer periods with animals — taking greater responsibility for their well-being, asking them to do more, and building trust through training — those relationships have deepened. Moore, whose background is in animal behavior, muses about how the animals perceive their keepers, or what he calls “the Zen of animal management.” “How are the elephants seeing Marie?” he asks. “How is the cuttlefish— which actually is kind of a smart invertebrate — how is the cuttlefish seeing the person that feeds it?”
The question, he says, is, “Are you a part of their social group or not?” Galloway, who was present at the birth of the elephant Shanthi’s two calves, recalls bringing her own daughter, now a teenager, into the elephant enclosure as a newborn. “The elephants all came running up, the African elephant put her trunk in her face, Shanthi stuck her trunk up under her butt. They put their big eyeballs right down by her face to see her, like, ‘It’s a baby!’ ” In the past, when keepers’ duties were more perfunctory, animals were less likely to consider them part of the family. But, says Moore, “I think the line is getting really, really blurred in zoos these days.”
This is relatively new territory for zoos, and they must reckon, increasingly, with the effects. Keepers are rotated to prevent animals from becoming overly dependent on any one person. An elaborate transitioning process follows animals that are moved between zoos, with trusted keepers accompanying them, training the new keepers, and staying on until the animals are comfortable with their new hosts. At the same time, the zoo does its best to give social animals the company of their own kind. It hopes to use the new elephant complex, with its elaborate system of massive, motorized gates, to build a herd as it would occur naturally, “moms and sisters and their daughters,” with males kept mostly separate, Galloway says.
The gates allow the keepers to “manage the animals socially in the way they want to be managed,” Galloway says. “Before, it was either apart or together.” In the wild, relationships are partly defined by the physical distance that animals keep from each other, so in closer quarters, the zoo must help the animals maintain those distinctions. The keepers give the elephants different kinds of access to each other, such as “howdy time,” in which the elephants are separated but socialize through a partition. As male calves such as Shanthi’s adolescent son, Kandula, grow up, they need to be slowly separated from the herd. “It’s a gradual process for the bulls to leave the family,” Galloway says. “It’s not like they pack their bags and leave for college.”
These are also the concerns of the big-cat keepers, whose female lions both delivered litters two years ago, and who are now trying to build a pride and keep the male cubs, now juveniles, from challenging their father, Luke, the pride’s patriarch. The keepers rotate groups of lions through the indoor and outdoor enclosures to maintain the proper hierarchies of the pride. “I don’t know if it’s about love,” says Clark, of the pride dynamic, “but it is about social bonds. You don’t want to mess with it once it’s in place.”
By managing nearly every part of an animal’s life, the zoo is able to re-create enough of the culture of the wilderness for a wild animal to live comfortably. The virtual wilderness of the zoo is not, ultimately, analogous to the real wilderness, says Moore, as attempts to release captive-raised animals into the wild have shown. These efforts, which can take years, often meet with only limited success, as if the time spent in captivity, no matter how wild-like, has changed the animals irreversibly. Moore was involved in the release of captive-raised red wolves in North Carolina, which seemed to work, up to a point. “When the red wolves got stressed,” he says, “they went back, and they found garbage cans in the suburbs, and people.”
If a virtual wilderness is not the same as a real wilderness, and a zoo animal not the same as a wild one, the zoo’s hope is that its versions function at least as well as the originals. And many animals do live longer in zoos. “With all due apologies to people who disagree with me,” says Moore, “animals in zoos have a great life. They’ve got regular food; they’ve got regular social management; they’ve got no diseases and no parasites, courtesy of their medical visits; they’ve got no predators, because we don’t allow that.” In the wild, he says, “they have freedom, but freedom comes with a huge cost to animal welfare sometimes. If I’m an animal, I guess I’d rather be in a zoo where I’m a lot more comfortable.”
Nowhere at the zoo does the fake wilderness feel more real than in the Amazonia exhibit’s rain forest. With the exception of the giant central kapok “tree” and a few smaller ones, all the flora is real; smaller plants are wired to larger branches to simulate the overlapping jumble of a mature forest. Clearings between the trees look over the open tanks of river fish, drifting like grouchy parade balloons in the deep water. Tortoises doze in the underbrush, monkeys perch above the meandering path, and birds flit and call in the greenery that rises high above the path. It is only at the very top that the foliage gives way to a grid of frosted windows.
The immersive setting has made visitors de facto members of the little ecosystem. The blue-mottled fish the size of dinner plates that stand out among the mud-colored river fish are, in fact, native to Central America, not the Amazon; they were sneaked into the open tanks by visitors who, presumably, had discovered that their rapid growth and aggressive nature made them poor pets. “We’re like an orphanage,” says Amazonia keeper Ryan Lacz. “People leave boxes of turtles on the doorstep. Someone released a chicken into the rain forest.”
Mike, a roseate spoonbill who has the run of the place, has recently begun getting a little pushy with visitors, hanging out on the railing by the entrance doors and pecking people who come too close. The staff hoped to distract him sufficiently from these behaviors to be able to keep him in the exhibit. “The challenges are different with social birds,” Lacz says. “If they’re in a small cage, you have to do more to keep him interested so he doesn’t get depressed. I increased his training to keep him occupied.”
Lacz, a mild and steady young guy with blue eyes and a beard, trains Mike among the tortoises on a small patch of topsoil near the giant-river-fish tank. Lacz had Mike peck a ball on the end of a stick, called a target, and gave the bird little slices of fresh fish as reinforcement. Mike, whose flattened bill and wrinkly brow give him a noble-fool aspect, pecked the target reliably, shifting around between commands, a wide eye fixed on the humans standing so near.
“Animal well-being is the driving force behind enrichment,” Lacz said. “But you don’t want to fully domesticate them. People come to the zoo to see natural behaviors.” After a few minutes, Lacz moved the target into an animal carrier, which he had been training Mike to enter voluntarily so that the bird could be moved less stressfully. “Crate,” he encouraged. Mike bobbed in place but remained where he was. “You scared, boy?” Lacz asked sweetly.
Seeing the target inside the crate seemed to agitate the bird, who hopped restlessly from foot to foot. He gave a little jump and got in as far as his head and shoulders before hastily reversing, eyeballing his keeper and the stranger holding a notebook with the harried air of a waiter juggling demands from several tables. For a wild animal, Mike had come a long way already: socializing with an endless parade of humans instead of the egrets and ibises his species was used to; making one of his closest companions a guy in a baseball cap; learning to live, instead of along miles of tropical coastlines, beneath a fake tree on a bit of mud under a glassed-in sky. It was only another step or two to enter the crate. But in the end, he stayed out.
Lauren Wilcox is a freelance writer living in New Jersey and a regular contributor to the Magazine. To comment on this article, send e-mail to email@example.com.