So what's new at the zoo?
At New York's Bronx Zoo, an enclosed $9-million "Jungle World" will open in June, in which visitors will stroll along an elevated walkway inside exhibits containing giant water monitor lizards, monkeys, tapirs, gibbons and other creatures of the rain forest. The exhibits will be hot and humid, with real foliage, occasional mist and natural lighting.
At the Dallas Zoo, a $75-million expansion calls for a monorail to take visitors on a 20-minute ride of varying heights: at water level, for viewing river-bank animals; treetop, through the monkey exhibit; then, at sand level through a desert habitat, back up through an aviary and then passing head-high past giraffes.
At the Philadelphia Zoo's multi-sensory "Treehouse," built at a cost of $2.2 million and which opened April 10, youngsters on a fantasy excursion can climb into the darkness of a huge bird egg and hear the brooding mother, feel the crevices in a bee's honeycomb or get inside a frog, peer through its eyes and reach through its mouth. If the child grabs onto a dangling fly, the frog gulps.
And at the San Diego Zoo, a bird aviary uses a mesh that is so unobtrusive and lets so much natural light through that the visitor may forget he is walking inside a cage as rare and colorful birds nest and fly within feet of him.
Throughout the country, zoos are going through an expensive face-lift as they look for newer, more sophisticated ways to drum home the message that man is the steward of wildlife and its habitat.
Some of the changes around the country are dramatic. Multimillion-dollar exhibits are being designed to totally "immerse" the zoo visitor into the animal's habitat, giving him the sense that he is in the animal's kingdom, not vice versa.
Touches of Subtlety
More subtle changes are occurring, too, ranging from the use of wildlife quizzes and trivia games on computer terminals to exhibit signs designed to educate the visitor about the plight of endangered animals.
All the while, zoos are attempting to strike the elusive balance between too much showmanship and too much scholarship. While zoo directors want to send visitors home with a raised consciousness of the natural world, they acknowledge that most people go to zoos to be entertained.
"Our motto is, 'That's Entertainment!' " said Clayton Freiheit, director of the Denver Zoo. "It would be wonderful if we could say, 'That's Education!' but if we did, nobody would come."
So while you may no longer see a costumed chimpanzee riding a bicycle (try the circus, thank you), you will hear cockatoos imitating Ethel Merman (because a cockatoo's natural behavior is to imitate), you will see elephants play harmonicas (to demonstrate the function and dexterity of its trunk) and you will see a raccoon knock over a trash can on cue (because raccoons do that sort of thing in the wild).
Zoos are entering their third generation of intellectual and physical development. With more expensive exhibits generally being built larger and with more natural landscaping, today's zoo visitor has to walk farther for a better view, and often has to patiently search through foliage and behind rocks and trees to spot his subject.
This is in stark contrast to the first-generation modern zoo, with its strings of small cages housing a tired menagerie of exotic animals that were displayed as little more than freaks in a living museum. If one animal died, the owner bought another.
Beginning in the late 1920s, the nation's zoos took a cue from their European counterparts and began displaying animals behind open moats or water, instead of bars. In the United States, the San Diego Zoo was a forerunner. At the same time, zoo directors, not unlike stamp collectors, feverishly worked to expand their animal inventory.
Most recently, zoos discovered the aesthetic flaws of concrete grottoes that, while sanitary, hardly suggested a natural habitat. And curators realized that zoos could no longer be consumers of wildlife, but rather had to become a producers as animals became extinct in the wild. So zoos embarked on breeding programs.
Today, zoos are scraping for money--competing for tax dollars and for philanthropic gifts with hospitals, libraries, museums and symphonies--to build entirely new exhibits or to renovate the moat-and-concrete ones in favor of ones that utilize soil, grass, rocks and trees (or, in some cases, fake rocks and fake trees). And sometimes, as at the Bronx zoo, visitors are being invited inside the exhibit where they can smell the animals and feel the rain.
The modern zoo displays both animal and a re-creation of its habitat as a single package and, increasingly, compatible species of animals are grouped together in the same enclosure.