Zoos had their beginnings as a way of making money out of showcasing the unusual, of giving people the opportunity to see exotic animals that they would normally never have the opportunity to see. More like the “freak shows” that would accompany fairs from the 16th to the 18th centuries, than a haven for stunning specimens of the animal kingdom.
More often than not these poor animals were dragged in from every corner of the world, housed in small cages and in awful conditions. Life expectancy was low and animal welfare was nonexistent. But it was a very profitable business and as long as people kept paying to see them, nothing changed. Then there was an outcry for the more humane treatment of animals in the mid 1900s and attendance at zoos dropped off dramatically.
|Perth Zoo old bear enclosure from another era|
Thankfully because of public opinion, zoos have come a long way and today they house animals in extensive enclosures mimicking habitats with the latest technology and knowledge of husbandry to control all aspects of the animals comfort, health and well-being. The zoos of today don’t just look inwards but outwards, contributing to conservation efforts, breeding programs and educating the public in the protection of some of our more vulnerable species. All of these enclosures, animal upkeep, food, staff, health care and conservation programs make zoo keeping a costly endeavor.
With the onset of quality nature shows on TV, the internet and cheap airfares that can whisk you off to almost anywhere on earth – do you need to visit the zoo? Are people as fascinated in these animals, that they will pay $40 plus per person to see something that they have seen so many times before. After all haven’t we all seen an elephant?
So how do zoos keep those attendance rates and the income up so they can continue to engage in conservation efforts? Is animal viewing enough? Do they need to add more entertainment? Become more like a theme park to appeal to a broader audience perhaps? Or will the allure of seeing, smelling and hearing happy animals in great enclosures win out?