Most zoos define their aims as 'Conservation,
Education, Research, and Recreation'. Sometimes they substitute the word 'Entertainment',
but note how they nearly always list it last. We all know that zoos are recreational
places; this is the real reason that so many millions of us go to the zoo every year - to
have a good day out. Yet fashionable opinion has taught us to be faintly ashamed of
enjoying a zoo too much. We should not, we seem to believe, enjoy seeing animals
deprived of their liberty. So zoos will often pretend that recreation is a subsidiary
objective to all those noble ones.
Of course there is an element of humbug in this. Zoos have to survive,
and unless they enjoy the patronage of a benevolent millionaire, they do it by offering us
a good day out. Leaving aside all of the fringe attractions that a zoo can use to
accomplish this - funfairs, discovery centres, camel rides, and so on - the real point at
issue is the animal collection itself. Can this be made more attractive without
compromising all those other ideals?
There is an old fashioned view which seems to hold that recreation and
welfare are in conflict. Under this theory cages should not be too big otherwise they
appear empty. Too many dens and hiding places conceal the animals from the paying public.
Too large paddocks reduce the impact of herd animals to specks upon the horizon. Too
little variety in the collection is unexciting for the visitor. Zoos that have been
developed with this theory in mind tend to have large, diverse collections within small,
simple enclosures. Let us call them Type 'A' zoos. They might include London,
Washington, Antwerp, San Diego ... to name only a few.
But then there is a second point of view, almost directly opposed to
the first. We could call this the Type 'B' attitude, which believes that an enclosure
designed to offer the most to the animal is intrinsically more interesting to the visitor.
Never mind that the animals might be hidden or far away. They look freer, happier, and the
experience of the zoo is fundamentally more optimistic and encouraging. Few zoos are
really Type'B'. Safari parks often try to be; so do wild animal parks like San Diego Wild Animal Park. John Aspinall's zoos at
Howletts and Port Lympne in England also tend strongly towards this view, to the extent
that visitors will almost certainly never see a clouded leopard in any one of Howletts'
numerous breeding enclosures: the animals just never emerge in daylight. A Type 'A'
collection would shut at least one outside. If nothing else, it would prove they had one.
At a Type 'B' zoo you need patience. They are not museums with exhibits on display. They
are enclosed habitats, where, with luck, you might spot a wild animal.
So which strategy is right? Visitor statistics might suggest that the
first is more successful; but the second surely represent the way that public opinion is
moving. If this is correct, then the small city zoos have had their day, and the future
lies with big estate zoos where, perhaps, binoculars will be loaned out at the gate as the
best way to enjoy the day.
What does all this have to do with recreation? Well, ultimately the
most enjoyable zoos are those which seem to care the most about their animals. This does
not have to mean that the animals are all off-show; but it does mean healthy contented
animals, not bored and listless ones. This guide judges the recreation value of zoos
predominantly upon the satisfaction value of their animal collection. Yes, this does mean
variety, but not variety at the expense of space, or at the expense of keeping animals in
Of course there are many other ways in which zoos try to be
recreational. There are several good zoos where you could easily imagine enjoying the walk
even if there were no animals there at all. La Palmyra Zoo in France you might enjoy
for the trees and the parkland, Chester Zoo you might enjoy for
the gardens, Dudley for the castle, and Prague Zoo or
Pretoria Zoo for the views. Some zoos take recreation to an extreme, like Walt Disney's
Wild Animal Kigdom with its theme park setting. At others the animals are just one
part of a whole package of entertainments, as at Longleat in England where you can lose
yourself in the largest hedge maze in the world or visit one of England's historic houses.
We may take account of these when we consider the recreation value of any zoo; but bear in
mind that at this extreme the recreation is really rather peripheral to the zoo.
Some zoos have found imaginative ways of integrating recreation into
the zoo, to add value to the visit. Jersey Zoo provides children with a climbing frame
alongside the gorillas, to encourage them to copy the gorilla behaviour. Marwell in
England has periscopes alongside the giraffes - to 'see the world from a giraffe's
height'. Several zoos have miniature railways, and the best tend to be those that also
provide a good view of the animals. Pretoria Zoo and San Diego Zoo have cable cars;
Chester Zoo has a boat ride and a monorail.
There is also a growing fashion for contact sessions with animals. London Zoo has regular meet-the-animals events in its open air
marquee. San Diego Wild Animal Park has an aviary where
you can feed lorikeets, and puts on falconry displays. Many zoos with sealions make a big
event out of feeding time, and Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, of
course, has its penguin parade. All of these things enhance a day out at the zoo, and help
to make it a more memorable event. So long as they do not unfairly exploit the animals,
(and of course different people will interpret this in different ways), then they are
helpful, educative, and yes, entertaining.
Zoos need to entertain. It need not conflict with their greater ideals. Good zoos
become exciting and entertaining places to visit because their animals inspire awe and
wonder, and because they help us to appreciate the animals with some variety, some beauty,
some imagination. These are the elements that we look for in the Good Zoos in the Good Zoo