Animal collections have evolved a great deal since the 18th century. In the past, species were collected in menageries. Animals were captured in their natural environment, only to be put on display in narrow, empty cages. Often isolated, the animal was exhibited in much the same way as a vase in a museum. Its life expectancy was short, and it was replaced as needed. It was an object of amusement, even of wonder.
A fresh perspective on the animal world
The middle of the 20th century marked a change. Zoos underwent a transformation. They became animal parks, where the animals were kept in infinitely bigger enclosures, with vegetation, and where their way of life was better respected (from the social and food point of view). But zoos acquired animals for a public ready to pay to satisfy its curiosity, its taste for the beautiful and for the exotic. The bigger species – elephants, rhinoceroses, giraffes – were most popular.
Protecting endangered species
In the 1970s people began to talk about the Sixth Extinction of species on Earth, brought about essentially by our own proliferation. CITES was born. Drawn up in Washington, this Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora governs trade among the countries that are signatories to it. It was an open door for zoos, which now became involved in the safeguarding of these species.
The SSP (Species Survival Plan) was created in 1982 and the EEP (European Endangered Species Programme) in 1985 in order to organize breeding in captivity and manage genetics to prevent inbreeding.
The new paradigms
Any self-respecting zoo today has a conservation mission involving one or more species, in addition to an educational and research mission. The money generated is invested in the protection of the species’ natural range in nature. Even if few zoos manage to achieve that ideal, a lot of them are working at it. Real reintroduction successes exist, but they are still limited.
Some institutions are working now with animal species that are less spectacular but ecologically more essential and severely threatened in their environment, like amphibians and insects.
Promoting education and research
Zoos are under close scrutiny, and serious institutions participate in accreditation programs that establish quality standards for their captivity, education, research and conservation programs (CAZA/Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums). In sensitizing the public to the fate of sometimes little known species, zoos can play an important role in their survival and that of their natural habitats.
The zoo is an important awareness-raising tool, but it is not the only one. By becoming better informed and by developing a keener curiosity for the animal and plant world, we can all help preserve the fauna and flora of our planet. We are all part of the solution.