The Evolution of Zoos Throughout History

The word menagerie comes to us from the French, and it originally meant something like the “management of a household” which probably included caring for livestock. However, by the time English speakers began to use the word, it had a very different meaning – it referred to places where trained animals performed for the public (not a pleasant idea to us with our modern sensibilities). So a circus? A dancing bear in a cage?

A collection for the select few

Actually, menageries as we now call them date as far back as 3500BC in Egypt. Exotic animals made up showy collections of the royal and the very rich all over the world. These animals were often given as ostentatious gifts from one member of the elite to another, and were clear symbols of status and power. Wealthy owners assigned numerous servants to care for these exotic creatures, and some even good-heartedly tried to create “paradises”for their new menageries to live in. Only a select few got to even see these animals. But as you might imagine, the unfortunate animals’ life spans were greatly truncated, since they had been removed from native habitats and then confined by humans without any knowledge of their diets, habits, or needs. On the other end of the spectrum, some Roman emperors, like the notorious Caligula, put on spectacles where gladiators would fight lions, bears, tigers, and other animals deemed sufficiently vicious, to the death.

Well, maybe the “peasants” would like to get a look at the animals

Eventually, in the 16th century, exotic animals in captivity became accessible for public viewing, in such locations as the Tower of London, and across the globe in the Aztec emperor Moctezuma’s “House of Animals.” By the late 18th century, in Paris, and as a result of the French Revolution, the Menagerie du Jardin de Plantes opened to the public, comprising fourteen acres of animal cages inside a botanical garden. People were now beginning to take an interest in the biology and habits of wild animals, if not yet in their well-being, so these early “zoos” attracted scientists and scholars. But of course they had no opportunity to see animals exhibit natural behaviors.

Things changing for the better

A pretty dreadful history so far! But in the U.S. in the 19th century, things were looking up at the Smithsonian Institution, where a taxidermist named William Temple Hornaday took a trip west, hoping to see the millions of Bison he had heard about – but there were only a few hundred left. In his distress, he immediately began to think about conservation, establishing the “Department of Living Animals” at the Smithsonian. From this humble beginning came today’s National Zoo, a leader in conservation, animal research, and breeding of endangered species.

In other parts of the world, zoo administrators were also beginning to adopt a more humane attitude toward the animals in their care. Today, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (and also the International Association of Zoos and Aquariums) regulates the requirements for habitat, exhibition and welfare of the animals in the Zoos they accredit. AZA-accredited zoos (such as the Reid Park Zoo) have a clear commitment to animal welfare, and an overarching mission to support species and habitat conservation. This support is even more crucial as we all confront the changing climate.

Did you know animals at the Reid Park Zoo are always able to choose whether they’d like to be in public view or not? Did you know they are closely monitored every day to check on their physical and mental/emotional health, both of which manifest in observable behaviors? That their habitats have been carefully designed to invoke natural behaviors? And that the keepers strive continuously to provide feeding conditions similar to those in the wild? Did you know that the Reid Park Zoo expansion will allow large and beautiful naturalistic habitats for many more endangered species?

A far cry from a menagerie, we think you’ll agree. How lucky we are that now we can go to a reputable Zoo and be inspired by species that might not be long with us in the wild. Or maybe, that zoo you’re visiting will be the one to play a central role in a repopulation effort! You can see animals well treated and behaving naturally, and you will be helping them just by visiting. Nigel Rothfels, the author of Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo, writes, “It seems to me that we are almost hardwired to desire to have this kind of close engagement with animals.” There is a beautiful place for all of us to learn and get a connection to the amazing natural world, right in the heart of Tucson. Visit the Reid Park Zoo – it will do YOU good to be a part of all the good that’s being done for the animals there!

4 Comments

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  1. When I saw the image of the Tiger my heart melted. I can not wait for the Zoo Expansion and more Malayan Tigers. I miss Baheem and Sita and know how important Tiger conservation is. That is why the Zoo Expansion is so important. It will have two pools, two yards and a place for breeding.

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  2. Yesterday was International Tiger Day. As I reflect my time as a Docent with my artifacts in the Tiger cave with Baheem and Sita, I look forward to the Zoo Expansion Pathways to Asia. Tiger conservation will be a big part of this. Tigers in the wild lose their lives to being poached, and to a shrinking food supply due to habitat loss.

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