Is there a future for zoos?

Annabe Tredoux is a scanner for the Institute of Futures Research at Stellenbosch Business School

Is there a future for zoos?
Is there a future for zoos?

This is the zoo news: Noor Jehan, an African elephant, died in a Pakistan zoo after she fell into a pond. A critically endangered Asiatic cheetah cub died in Teheran. Guests petted a nocturnal Kiwi bird housed by Zoo Miami under bright lights. Extremely elevated temperatures, as experienced in the Northern Hemisphere, demanded intensive measures from zoo staff to keep animals cool. And then there is the plight of animals in the zoos in the Ukraine – animals becoming refugees.

Amidst evolving ethical concerns and a changing landscape, zoos retain their vital roles in conservation, education, research, and nurturing the bond between humanity and the environment.

Renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough says, in his opinion, zoos can be justified but only if they are scientific, selective about what they keep, and are held to the highest possible standards. He acknowledges that certain creatures, like eagles, are ill-suited for confinement, as their natural behaviour is incompatible with zoo settings. However, he maintains that animals adversely impacted by human activities and environmental disturbances can find reprieve through human intervention in well-structured zoo environments.

Zoos do have their advantages such as:

  • Conservation and biodiversity: Zoos often participate in breeding programmes for threatened and endangered animals. These measures help to support genetic diversity and even prevent species loss. An example quoted by Attenborough is the Arabian oryx. A combined effort between zoos and private enterprise created a breeding stock, numbers are increasing, and soon animals might be released in the wild again.
  • Education and awareness: Zoos are another tool available to educators to observe live animals. Visitors to zoos can learn about varied species, habitats, and biodiversity challenges of these animals in captivity. The experience can raise awareness to the responsibility of humans to protect natural environments for the future.
  • Research and scientific study: Scientists can study animal behaviour, genetics, nutritional needs, and healthcare of animals in captivity. The knowledge gained can help conservation efforts inside and outside the zoo.
  • Captive breeding and reintroduction: This is a complex process although the goal is admirable. Zoos can play a role in reintegration preparation and monitoring of the health of the animals.
  • Inspiring environmental stewardship: Zoos have the power to inspire and create a sense of awe for visitors. The connection between human and animal in a zoo setting can raise awareness of our beautiful natural world and stimulate people to make more sustainable choices in their daily lives.

Notwithstanding the various advantages, zoos face a myriad of challenges. Due to current worldwide economic factors, zoos face problems related to their economic viability and funding. The task of caring for a diverse array of animals, spanning from reptiles to avian species, necessitates a highly dedicated and expert staff.

Rising costs across various fronts, including welfare and food for the animals, maintenance and overheads, as well as an overall decline in zoo visitors, severely impact the economic viability and sustainability of these institutions. Tourists skipping a trip to the zoo can be attributed partly to growing awareness and sensitivity to animal rights and welfare.

There are also ethical concerns associated with the public display of animals in captivity, as it can lead to stress, adversely affecting the health and well-being of animals and triggering behavioural problems.

As concerns around global warming and habitat loss increase, there is a greater emphasis on habitat conservation, restoration, and biodiversity protection. Within the environmental protection community, there is a shift from supporting animals in captivity to rather focus on safeguarding their remaining natural habitats.

Ethical management of zoos is not universal, much to the detriment of their animal inhabitants. When you add to this the challenges associated to the current traditional model, the zoo of the future might look quite different indeed!

Advances in technology, coupled with the rise in popularity of virtual experiences have reshaped the landscape. During the 2020 lockdown, various national parks, zoos, and aquariums introduced virtual tours for those unable to visit in person. This glimpse of a future model can be improved upon by offering immersive, animal-friendly experiences within the ecosystems without harming animals or the environment.

Imagine the zoo of the future!

Scenario A: A virtual reality wildlife sanctuary

The visitors enter the sanctuary with their comfortable VR headsets and are at once immersed in a place of sound, colour and movement. The virtual world creates a sense of wonder as the visitors explore the different ecosystems. They encounter holographic presentations of animals and wildlife in minute detail. They follow these representations and experience the animals’ daily behaviours in their natural environments. The visitors discover interactive learning stations and are invited to take part in research activities. As the visitors remove their VR headsets at the end of their journey, they are left with a sense of awe, a deep connection to the natural world, and a newly discovered understanding of their responsibility towards the planet’s future.

Scenario B: Urban bio-domes and vertical habitats

Imagine your city in the future where tall buildings and skyscrapers are transformed into living, breathing ecosystems. Every building is a greenhouse merging architecture and natural environments into innovative habitats. Plants cover the insides and outsides of buildings creating vertical farms and forests. Water cascades down artificial rock formations forming pools, ponds, and little streams. The vertical forests house a diverse animal and bird life. Your senses are filled with sound and sightings, gentle touches of wind breathing over your skin. You smell the freshness and feel energised and rejuvenated. Urban dwellers experience a connection with nature and coexistence with living beings other than people. These sustainable environments are testimony to man’s creativity and innovative thinking.

A place of learning

Other possible options to preserve the future of zoos rely on the creative use of technology, interaction between science and business, and the willingness of schools and universities to adopt a zoo for educational purposes. Zoos can be changed into conservation and research centres. This shift in focus could promote collaboration between scientists, ecologists, and conservationists to advance research on endangered species.

Zoos of the future can embrace eco-friendly practices about minimal waste and renewable energy. They can transform into centres dedicated to rehabilitating injured and orphaned animals and releasing them back into the wild. In all the above scenarios visitors can be invited to take part in hands-on experiences and learn about animal care and the natural environment.

Future zoos might rely on advanced technologies like genetic engineering to support animals in changing environments. AI-powered animal communication is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Communication with animals may support insight into their needs for survival, and beyond that, to support them from surviving to thriving.

These concepts illustrate how zoos might evolve and adapt to meet future needs in education, research and sustainability while addressing ethical concerns. Creative and innovative thinking and application will benefit the development of modern zoos that are spacious, enhance animal welfare, and engage people in a life-enriching experience of the natural world.