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Zoos More Than a Walk in the Park

Aug 19, 2008
This time of year, your favorite zoo is about the busiest place in town. With the gas crises in full swing, many families are choosing to stay near home and take the family to the local menagerie.

Which begs the question - why does every modern city that can afford a zoo have one today?

There are probably half-a-dozen good reasons: recreation, education, nature appreciation, research, conservation, and another purpose best described as sociological.

The recreational aspects of a zoo are evident in the millions who stream through their gates every year. The San Diego Zoo, where I spent some years as PR director, consistently draws over three million people a year to its tropics-like park setting.

Since most zoos are generally located in a park, a visit to them offers a walk in a natural setting and mild exercise, both spiced with close-up views of the living wonders of nature.

In a broad sense, the zoo is a source of entertainment. (And to stay competitive in today's tourist market, the larger zoos have to offer up additional events, acts, prizes and special days.)

Directors, curators and vets on the staff would prefer to emphasize the more serious purposes of education, research and conservation. But for the endless streams of people who come to the zoo, entertainment is the primary motive - recreational and educational.

Still animals as entertainment cannot be the zoo's sole purpose. For that, there are circuses.

Nature appreciation is closely akin to the recreational function of the zoo but goes well beyond. Properly designed exhibits -- and more and more zoos have modernized their exhibition areas -- must lead to a sense of wonder at the infinite variety of life and appreciation of its mystery.

Close watching should temper the idea of the "slimy, slithering" snake to wonder at its geometric beauty and obvious cleanliness. The sight of the leading male baboon slapping at the adolescents, but enduring every indignity from the young, is a lesson in parenthood.

The ancient Chinese name for zoos, "parks of intelligence," indicates how far back the idea of the zoo's educational purpose goes. However, real acknowledgment of its educational purpose is a relatively recent addition to the zoo function, dating from the change from menagerie to zoological garden.

Obviously, the zoo teaches natural history and zoology. It also teaches the interdependence of life, and it should teach appreciation for the dignity of all creatures.

Zoos educate at many levels. There is the simplest form of education, that of the casual stroller who learns that a wolf really isn't as big as a bear, and that a tiger isn't a constantly raging beast.

The more interested stroller, reading the informational signs, learns what a marsupial is, and that porcupines cannot shoot quills.

At a still higher level are the conducted zoo tours in which informed guides lead groups on walks.

One of the great advantages of the zoo as an educational institution is that almost no one minds learning this way. Even the most fractious child will absorb information on a zoo trip. San Diego and a majority of the larger zoos have formal arrangements with local school systems for teaching visits.

The research function of the modern zoo is more and more being appreciated and used. Today's scientists have turned to wild animal collections with basic questions:

What kind of a blood system does the giraffe have that allows it to drop its head 18 feet to drink without having a heart attack?

What kind of a digestive system does a vulture have that allows it to eat putrefying fish without getting food poisoning?

How does a bird navigate over water on a cloud-shrouded night?

What psychological barriers exist in most species that make it almost impossible for one animal to deliberately kill another animal of the same species?

In early times, kings kept wild animals to show that their dominion extended even over the kings of the jungle. Romans imported ferocious beasts to take part in bloody contests in the arena. Later, noblemen and rich merchants kept them as status symbols.

Today, with a thousand species of animals now considered endangered, conservation of our wildlife may be the zoo's most important function.
About the Author
Bill Seaton is a prize-winning author and lecturer who has served nearly 25 years as public relations director of the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld and the California State Lottery. To learn more about the San Diego resident's books, blogs and awards, visit Bill Seaton.
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