The New Zoo: A Modern Ark

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Call it a natural disaster. The San Diego Zoo spent $3.5 million to build a designer forest that would house five adolescent Malayan sun bears. The zookeepers planted some trees, dug a moat, launched a waterfall, even hooked up a fiber-glass tree with an electric honey dispenser. As company for their wards, they invited lion-tailed macaques, yellow-breasted laughing thrushes, orange-bellied fruit doves and Indian pigmy geese.

When the lush exhibit opened this summer, zoogoers loved it. So did the bears. They shredded the trees, rolled up the sod, plugged the moat -- and then one attempted a fast break over the wall. Spectators went scrambling for a zookeeper, who propped up a plywood barrier while another clanged some pots and pans to intimidate the beasts and herd them into a locked enclosure.

Meanwhile, at Washington's National Zoo another experiment was under way: scientists wanted to acquaint their rare golden lion tamarins with a facsimile of their natural habitat, a lowland Brazilian forest. But the coddled, zoo- happy monkeys lacked some basic skills -- how, for instance, to peel a banana. Instead, they fell out of the trees and got lost in the woods.

At some 150 American zoos in between, the troubles are not very different. The sharks eat the angelfish. The Australian hairy-nosed wombat stays in its cave, and the South American smoky jungle frog hunkers down beneath a leaf, all tantalizingly hidden from the prying eyes of the roughly 110 million Americans who go to zoos every year. Visitors often complain that as a result of all the elaborate landscaping, they cannot find the animals. But this, like almost everything else that goes wrong these days, is a signal that America's zoos are doing something very right.

Just about every aspect of America's zoos has dramatically changed -- and improved -- from what viewers saw a generation ago. Gone are the sour cages full of frantic cats and the concrete tubs of thawing penguins. Instead the terrain is uncannily authentic, and animals are free to behave like, well, animals, not inmates. Here is a Himalayan highland full of red pandas, there a subtropical jungle where it rains indoors, eleven times a day. The effect is of an entire globe miraculously concentrated, the wild kingdom contained in downtown Chicago or the North Bronx. As American zoos are renovated and redesigned -- at a cost of more than a billion dollars since 1980 -- hosts of once jaded visitors, some even without children, are flooding through the gates. "In the past 15 years," says Cincinnati zoo director Edward Maruska, "we've probably changed more than we've changed in the past hundred."

And all to what end? To entertain, of course, but to do more than that. By junking the cages and building vast biological gardens, the zoos provide a decent, delightful place for animals and people to meet and, with luck, fall in love. Once that bond is made, the visitors discover there is a larger mission at hand, a crusade to join. Between the birth of Christ and the Pilgrims' landing, perhaps several species a year became extinct. By the 1990s the extinction rate may reach several species an hour, around the clock. American zoos are leading the battle to stop that clock and recruit others to the preservationist's cause. "We don't just want you to come here," says David Anderson of the New Orleans Audubon Park. "We're trying to say, 'Do something!' "

The zoos have therefore taken on a role as educators that dwarfs that of any other "recreational" institution. Whole public school systems are redesigning their science curriculums to take advantage of local exhibits, for what better biology classroom could there be than a swamp or a rain forest? The newest facilities, such as the Living World in St. Louis, include state- of-the-art computer technology that turns a simple menagerie into a cross between a laboratory and a video arcade.

Though highly effective at raising consciousness and making converts, this is not an easy or a cheap way to run a zoo. At the Tiger River exhibit in San Diego, that lovely gushing waterfall is part of a 72,000-gal. computerized irrigation system. A huge banyan tree has heating coils in its roots to encourage the python to uncoil near the viewing glass. Not far away, an agile cliff-springer mountain goat is contained on the assumption that it will not jump eight feet to a ledge on the moat's far side that is constructed at a precise 30 degrees angle. "But," admits architect David Rice, "nobody has told the cliff springer that."

Beyond the aesthetic and mechanical challenges, there is the basic issue of what zoogoers should be allowed to see in a naturalistic setting. Zoo directors refer to "the Bambi syndrome," a belief common among visitors that all creatures should be cuddly, or at least not killers. A while back, the Detroit Zoo staff euthanatized a dying goat from the children's zoo and placed it in the African-swamp exhibit, which includes big vultures. Doing what came naturally, the vultures ate the goat. About half the zoogoers who happened upon the scene were fascinated, says director Steve Graham. But the other half averted their children's eyes and scurried away.

For all the increased drama in the exhibits themselves, the real revolution is going on behind the scenes and out in the wild, where a state of emergency exists. To begin with, most zoos no longer take animals from the jungle; they grow their own. About 90% of the mammals and 75% of the birds now in U.S. zoos were bred in captivity, and some are even being carefully reintroduced to their native environs. At the same time, zoo-affiliated organizations like Wildlife Conservation International are working to save whole habitats in 38 countries in Africa, Asia and South America and to reduce the threats to endangered species. Says the Bronx Zoo's visionary director William Conway: "Our objectives are very clear -- to save fragments of nature, to preserve biodiversity."

As zoos fight back, they are pulling along the public with some shrewd tactics. Conservationists often select an irresistible, oversize crowd pleaser -- pandas are perfect, but snow leopards and black rhinos work fine -- and lead a campaign to preserve the creature's habitat. "There is a utility in the concern for the giant panda," says the National Zoo's director Michael Robinson. "Pandas are relatively stupid and uninteresting animals. But they happen to be photogenic and appealing, and they help focus people's attention." Big animals need big swatches of habitat, and so in the process a lot of less sexy species are protected too. To save the African elephant requires saving the Serengeti. That means roughly 5,000 sq. mi. and, as it happens, 400 species of birds, maybe 50 species of mammals and tens of thousands of invertebrates. And the elephants.

Though many of these outlying efforts have been wildly successful, the zoos themselves are still the front line. A child who rubs noses, even through the plate glass, with a polar bear or a penguin may be far more likely to mature into an eager conservationist than into one who sees animals as toys or accessories. It is hard to walk around a good zoo without caring, deeply, about whether this miraculous wealth of lovely, peculiar, creepy, unfathomable creatures survives or perishes. And it will be a great sorrow if zoos are ever the last place on earth where the wild things are.