Let’s start with two stories.

On Sunday, February 9, 2014, at the Copenhagen Zoo, a 2-year-old giraffe stretched out its neck toward an inviting piece of bread held between the fingers of a keeper. Marius grasped the treat with his long tongue, pulled it into his mouth, and received a bullet in his brain. Then, before a crowd of zoogoers, including children, Marius’s corpse was cut apart and fed to the zoo’s lions.

This story reverberated through international news. Zoo spokespeople told the world that the giraffe required execution to eliminate its genes from the breeding program. And Danish law supposedly prohibited the sale of Marius despite offers, one of which exceeded half a million dollars. Yet keeping the giraffe would simply be too costly.

Giraffes at the Copenhagen Zoo in 2012 (top left). A sit-in in Lisbon, Portugal in 2014 protesting euthanasia practices on animals for reasons of conservation of the species. The stuffed animal in the foreground represents the case of Marius, a giraffe killed to prevent the propagation of his genes (top right). Harambe, a Western lowland gorilla, at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2015 (bottom left). Harambe and the three-year-old boy who fell into the enclosure’s moat (bottom right).

Animal rights activists shouted, “Inhumane!” and “Barbaric!” In response, one zoo spokesperson stated, “I’m actually proud because I think we have given children a huge understanding of the anatomy of a giraffe that they wouldn’t have had from watching a giraffe in a photo.”

On Saturday, May 28, 2016, at the Cincinnati Zoo, a 3-year-old boy climbed over a fence, crawled through four feet of shrubbery, and fell into the watery moat surrounding the gorilla enclosure. Though, at the keepers’ beckoning, two of the enclosure’s three inhabitants moved indoors, Harambe (a 17-year-old, 450-pound Western lowland gorilla) went to investigate the splashing child. He then clasped his fingers around the boy and dragged him quickly and powerfully along the moated perimeter, onlookers screaming all the while.

Harambe showed signs of stress. His legs and arms were extended stiffly as he made his body look larger. Harambe also showed signs of care—delicately standing the boy up, sitting him down, propping him up, and pulling up his pants. Though Harambe’s intentions can never be known, one fact was clear. The small boy, in the hands of an adult gorilla, was in a life-threatening predicament.

The gorilla habitat at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2016.

Zoo officials decided that they must kill the gorilla. With a single shot, a keeper, from the side of the enclosure, put a bullet into Harambe’s brain as the boy sat between his legs.

Harambe’s death sparked an international controversy. Some blamed the incident on the boy’s mother. Others blamed the incident on the zoo for faulty enclosure design. Regardless of Harambe’s intentions, some argued, zoo officials had no right to kill a gorilla who had done nothing wrong. Still others posited that the wrongdoing lay not with any particulars, but lay embedded in the very idea of a gorilla enclosure. Should zoos even have gorilla enclosures in the first place?

It should come as no surprise that zoos make headlines. According to a 2013 report, U.S. zoos attract more than 160 million visitors annually, more than do all NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB games combined. These zoos also contribute almost $20 billion to the GDP every year while supporting almost 200,000 jobs.

And this is only the American side of today’s zoo story. On a global scale yearly attendance figures are estimated at around 675 million. There is no doubt that zoological parks are one of our contemporary world’s most popular cultural institutions. There is also no doubt that zoos represent a profitable business and a global industry.

Crowds gather to watch an aquatic show at the Singapore Zoo in 2012 (top left). Thousands attend a music festival at the Albuquerque BioPark Zoo in 2002 (top right). Onlookers watch the elephants at Dublin’s Zoo in 2014 (bottom left). Children and adults walk through the tunnels of the Dallas World Aquarium Zoo in 2014 (bottom right).

Yet the zoological park is a peculiar institution indeed, an industry based not around the consumption of electronics or energy, foodstuffs or retail goods, transportation or health services, but instead based around the long necks, sharp teeth, bright colors, gargantuan sizes, ivory extremities, spots, scales, and stripes of living, breathing, yet commodified animals.

Like most of the culture that surrounds us, we take zoos for granted. We forget that it is not natural to contain thousands of animals within artificial enclosures built in the heart of our largest cities. We forget that zoos have a history. And uncovering this history requires an archeology of sorts. Stroll with me through the zoo. Let’s see what stories lay beneath its entrance gate, its animals, its enclosures, its visitors, and its encounters.

The Entrance Gate

Humans placed animals on display long before they strolled through the entrance gates of zoological parks. In fact, the birth of the menagerie (a collection of wild animals for the purpose of exhibition) began with the birth of the city. Menageries emerged with them as symbols of power and wealth.

Whoever wielded power in the ancient world (whether Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, Greek, Roman, Persian, Arab, or Mesoamerican) also established collections of exotic animals in order to display their wealth, status, imperial ambition, and military might. When Hittite kings displayed lions, tigers, wolves, leopards and bears; when Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut displayed rhinoceroses, giraffes, and greyhounds; when Emperor Wu Di displayed elephants, yak, giant pandas, cormorants, and herons; and when Montezuma displayed jaguars, eagles, and snakes, what they really displayed was their ability to conquer their enemies, conquer geography, and conquer nature.

A Roman marble mosaic from CE 194 in Edessa, Greece depicting the mythical poet Orpheus taming wild animals with his music.

For most of their history, menageries were crude establishments where collections of animals lived short lives in small cages. Yet as cities multiplied, so did the number of animals behind bars.

When the ancient, medieval, and early-modern upper classes fell in love with captive animals, they forged a global trade in animal commodities. To their eyes, exotic creatures from faraway lands appeared luxurious and spectacular. No king would be worthy of his crown without an elephant or a zebra on hand.

While merchants captured, shipped, and sold legions of animals to these royal collections, traveling fairs carted elephants, rhinoceroses, giraffes, and hippopotamuses from town to town for local entertainment.

The royal menagerie of Versailles during the reign on Louis XIV of France (1643-1715).

Exploration and empire-building expanded the reach and symbolic importance of the menagerie. Exotic animals became the playthings of empires. In 1493, 1494, and 1496, Christopher Columbus, for example, gave sixty parrots and a macaw to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, setting a precedent for stocking European menageries with New World animals.

Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, iguanas, bison, guinea pigs, llamas, turkeys, Muscovy ducks, squirrels, and many species of birds flooded Europe. And these animals came to European menageries from all directions. In 1515, Sultan Muzaffar Shah of Malacca sent the governor of Portuguese India a rhinoceros as a gift between friends. The governor then re-gifted it to Dom Manuel I, king of Portugal. All of these animals were showcased as symbols of royal wealth and power.

 

A drawing by Albrecht Dürer of the rhinoceros exchanged between the Sultan of Malacca, the Portuguese Governor of India, and the King of Portugal (left). An early 19th century advertisement for George Wombewell’s Royal Menagerie, a British traveling menagerie show that included a variety of African, Asian, and South American animals (right).

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as nation-states replaced kingdoms, the bursting menageries evolved from private collections to public collections, supported by taxes instead of individual coffers.

At this moment of intense population growth, industrial revolution, urbanization, and the creation of a European and American “middle class” with expendable income, public animal collections acquired new symbolic meanings. They also acquired new names. Known as zoological gardens, zoological parks, and colloquially as “zoos,” public animal collections still symbolized wealth, empire, and power.

 Carl Krone’s circus exhibit, the Continental Menagerie of the Crown, in 1884 (top left). A traveling menagerie in Germany around 1800 (top right). An 1894 painting of a German menagerie show by Paul Friedrich Meyerheim (bottom left). A 1762 painting of a lion exhibit in Italy by Pietro Longhi (bottom right).

However, zoos were also legitimated as institutions that would enrich citizens by providing them with a scientific education, with a place for amusement and entertainment, with a garden for escaping the noise, pollution, and bustle of the city, and with a nationalizing experience. As citizens strolled through a public zoo, they symbolically strolled through a nation and its possessions, economies, sciences, and “civilizing” pursuits.

The evolution of menageries into zoological parks took a century, and in some places, much longer. In 1793, after the French Revolution, this process began when the Jardin Royal des Plantes (the former menagerie of King Louis XIII) was transferred from royal to public ownership. In a few decades, other zoos opened their doors in cities like London, Dublin, Antwerp, Melbourne, and Philadelphia. And by the end of the nineteenth century, zoos had spread the world over.

Even though zoos began to replace menageries, elements of the latter remained commonplace: especially the simple cages of confinement and the symbolisms embodied in their bars. The lions who paced the perimeter of their zoo cages (a common sight in zoos until the last quarter of the twentieth century) would not have known that their captivity was centered in a “new” institution.

 

The elephant exhibit (left) and the monkey cage (right) at the Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna, Austria around 1910 and 1898.

Nonetheless, as public zoos become common sights in cities, they became large and complex institutions compared to their privately owned predecessors. They grew in size, housed more animals, and established international markets in those animals.

They employed more humans—staff, professionals, laborers, veterinarians, and zoo keepers. They built more buildings. They organized events. They designed advertising campaigns. They purchased the latest technologies. They opened restaurants, rides, concessions, and souvenir shops. They waved banners for the “advancement of knowledge”—scientific, medical, artistic, technological. Indeed, by the turn of the twentieth century, any pursuit labeled “modern” could have been found on display in the zoo.

The Animals

Zoological collections had long needed exotic creatures, spectacular animals from distant continents rarely seen by urban publics. Exotic animals served as the lifeblood of the zoo. When the London Zoo acquired Obaysch in 1850, it not only obtained a large male hippopotamus to add to its zoological collection, but it also received a new representative of empire.

Obaysch had spent most of his life as imperial currency, for he only ended up in London after the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt gave him to the British Consul General in exchange for some greyhounds and deer. Obaysch became a London celebrity instantly, and zoo attendance doubled during the year of his arrival.

Sheet music for “The Hippopotamus Polka” published in the early 1850s (left). Crowds watching Obaysch, the London Zoo’s first hippopotamus in 1852 (top right). Adhela, Obaysch’s partner, and Guy Fawkes, their only surviving offspring in 1873 (bottom right). 

The story of Obaysch is the story of countless zoo animals. Some of these—especially members of the largest and most popular species (known as “charismatic megafauna”)—received individual names and became local stars. The London Zoo, at various times in its pre-1950 history, displayed Jumbo (a male African bush elephant), Winnipeg the Bear (an American black bear), Guy (a western lowland gorilla), and Brumas (a polar bear).

Not only were zoo animals baptized with names, but they were also given cultural lives that transcended their own. Jumbo became the famous circus elephant of P.T. Barnum. Winnipeg became the prototype of A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. Guy became a London attraction for more than 30 years and was studied for the production of the classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey. And Brumas attracted 3 million visitors to the zoo in 1950 alone, an attendance record that still has not been topped in London.

 

Jumbo, the male African Bush elephant who had long been a popular attraction at the London Zoo, had a post-zoo “career” as a skeleton on display with P.T. Barnum and the Great London Circus in the 1880s (left). Polar bears at the London Zoo “Bear Pit” (right).

Every “modern zoological park,” whether in Frankfurt or Tokyo or Moscow or Budapest or Philadelphia, had its own celebrities, its own versions of Jumbo, Winnipeg, Guy, and Brumas (and zoos still do today).

Zoo animals also came to serve increasingly as symbols of conservation. During the two decades before and after 1900, as conservation and environmentalism spread throughout the West, zoological parks and their animals gained a new significance. Zoos came to be viewed as refuges for species facing extinction, the animals valued not only for their exoticness but also for their rarity and vulnerability. On these grounds, “endangered” animals found homes in zoos.

American zoos, especially, sought to save North American animals—like elk, beavers, condors, bison, moose, passenger pigeons, caribou, antelope, mountain sheep, manatees, mountain goats, grizzly bears, elephant seals, and walruses—from annihilation. 

 

The only living quagga, a now-extinct subspecies of zebra, ever photographed (left). This quagga lived at the London Zoo from 1864 to 1870. Quaggas went extinct in the wild in 1878 and the last quagga died in captivity in the Netherlands in 1883. William Temple Hornaday with a bison in the New York Zoological Park in 1886 (right).

Worldwide, though, zoological parks collected (and in so doing, sometimes further threatened) animals on the brink of disappearance. Some species’ last representatives, or “endlings,” (like the thylacine, known as the Tasmanian tiger, the passenger pigeon, the quagga, the Carolina parakeet, and the heath hen) died in the confines of zoological parks.

However, expiration was not always the fate of these species. As early as 1903, for example, zoo director William Temple Hornaday acquired 40 American bison to form a zoo-herd in the New York Zoological Park, located in the heart of the Bronx. As a longtime conservationist and nature writer, Hornaday directed public attention to the near-decimation of American bison at the hands of white hunters during the second half of the nineteenth century, and he devoted a career to advocating for their protection.

After acquiring the zoo-herd, Hornaday utilized the NYZP as a place to rehabilitate the species by not only breeding bison in captivity, but also by releasing them onto the Great Plains. In 1907, Hornaday spearheaded the first successful reintroduction of bison when his zoo sent 15 of them to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

Polar bears around 1910 in the Belle Isle Park Bear Pit in Detroit, Michigan.

Over the course of the twentieth century, zoological parks increasingly bred animals on site. While the vast majority of these animals would not (and could not) be introduced or reintroduced into natural habitats, this trend did mean that the populations of zoo inhabitants would become more captive-bred than captured.

No matter what they meant to their human captors, zoo animals always had their own intentions. Zoo animals attacked. They ran away. They made demands. They resisted control. They refused to live out the scripts they were given.

The zoological park was an unpredictable place, as a quick look at the first eight years of the Philadelphia Zoo, from 1874 to 1882, shows. A bison trampled the fence surrounding its pasture in order to charge the elk in the neighboring exhibit. A seal climbed over the railing surrounding the seal pond and wandered into the neighboring pond. A kangaroo broke one of its legs attempting to jump out of its enclosure after being frightened by the sound of a nearby locomotive.

Two zookeepers restraining an elephant who had broken out of the New York Zoological Park in 1908. This was the elephant’s second escape attempt. The photo was originally captioned: “The end of the rampage. ‘Alice’ under control and thinking it over.”

“Jim,” the Bengal tiger, grabbed the tail of the tiger in the adjoining cage, “dragged it in until he could seize its leg,” and ripped the thigh-bone from its socket, killing the victim. A Macaque, or pigtail, monkey tore another primate in half with its hands, and had to be quarantined in its own cage marked with a sign warning zoogoers to keep a safe distance from the bars. An elephant tried to “crush” his keeper “against the bars” of the exhibit. And a young boy climbed over the railing of the open cages where the lions sunned themselves, and barely made it out alive. The global history of zoological parks is composed of countless events like these, wherein zoo animals assert themselves.