Are zoos for fun or instruction? For spectators or scholars? No doubt about the dignity of their history: Egyptian pharaohs were displaying wild animals 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, and since then almost every civilized people has been zoo keeping and zoo going. No doubt about their popularity, either. In the U.S., attendance at zoos is 112 million a year, far surpassing the annual combined attendance of professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey.
The people who run them like it to be known that zoos are a considerable cut above circuses and menageries. They emphasize that zoos are centers of education, conservation and research. Well, sometimes they are. And yet zoos are enduring and popular mainly because they give pleasure. Contemplating the shapes, sizes, colors and behavior of captive wild animals can be an esthetic experience. Or putting it another way, you can have a high old time looking at them. Let's see how things are going in the best American zoos.
THE NATIONAL ZOOLOGICAL PARK
This is the most popular zoo in the country, with five million visitors annually. More important, it is one of the finest zoological collections in the world and the national collection. The National Zoo began casually. In the 1880s the Smithsonian Institution maintained a small collection of caged animals in a compound behind the museum. The beasts were for artists and taxidermists who might need them for museum displays. However, the wild animals became an attraction in the capital, and Congress voted funds to move them to Rock Creek Park and establish a permanent zoo administered by the Smithsonian.
In the early summer, when the native trees and imported shrubbery are in bloom and birds are flitting about the ravines of Rock Creek, the National Zoo is one of the more delightful sanctuaries in urban America. Truthfully, the NZP is not now at its best, nor will it be for some while. Construction crews dominate the scene. But be tolerant of this intrusion. It is part of a $40 million expansion and restoration project, which was badly needed to maintain the NZP's position among the great zoos of the world. The turn-of-the-century cages and buildings had become increasingly unsightly, obsolete and even unsafe; the exhibit specimens, older and shabbier. The Dog Walk, a row of dank metal pens on a ravine floor, displayed a collection of ratty, dispirited looking wild dogs in what had to be one of the most disagreeable zoo exhibits ever assembled. Now the Dog Walk has mercifully been razed.
The turning point in the zoo's decline came during the Kennedy administration. Young John Kennedy served as a FONZ volunteer (Friends of the National Zoo) and often took part in "preg watches" (sitting up all night to watch and listen to gravid tigers and bears). Sending one's children to zoos became Washington chic, and it has remained so. The city being what it is, this fashionable interest has been converted into appropriations.
Among the more visible results is a magnificent walkthrough aviary, the outdoor section of which is enclosed under a swooping, free-form canopy of gauzy mesh. It is the architectural spectacular of the NZP. Many of the new exhibits depart boldly from old styles of design and display. In the renovated monkey house that opened this summer, the enclosures are furnished with what amounts to pieces of wood sculpture upon which the animals exercise and play. The shapes are visually interesting and test runs indicated that the monkeys find them entertaining.
While enlarging its facilities, the NZP has been reducing the number of animals it displays. Since 1962, more than 200 species have been dropped, leaving about 600 on the rolls, a total that ranks only 12th among American zoos. However, Theodore Reed, the NZP director, is proud rather than apologetic about this reduction. "Stamp collecting [competition among zoos to acquire the most and rarest animals] is pretty much a thing of the past," he says. "Mainstream zoos should exhibit the classic animals, but in other areas competition on the basis of numbers doesn't make much sense. An exhibit of 50 primates may not be as interesting for the general visitor as one of 25, and the chances are the zoo will do a better job with fewer animals."
Generally, the less-is-better philosophy has been vindicated at the NZP by the reproductive activity, a traditional measure of the well-being of captive animals. Since 1962, the reproductive rate has increased from 220 births among 68 species to 421 births among 75 species.