The Enclosure

Of course, zoological parks sought to control animals’ independent action and freedom. Throughout the history of animal display, individual animals—whether monkeys, panthers, ostriches, or bison—were showcased in cages, like items of a museum display, polished and arranged neatly for the human viewer. These cages were cramped, pitiful, and soporific. And the lives lived in these cages were always monotonous, defined by lethargic pacing and dreary inactivity, and unsurprisingly these lives were frequently short.

Animal cages at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington in 1915. In the foreground, a guest reaches out to touch the bears.

Not only were caged animals made subject to the relentless gawking, teasing, poking, prodding, feeding, and abuse of human onlookers, but they were also vulnerable to the relentless diseases that swept through cities. Cages are nearly universal in the long history of animal display, and they still fill many zoological parks today.

Yet near the close of the nineteenth century, as zoos took on an environmental mission, a new, less-containing, and seemingly more naturalistic type of enclosure arrived at the zoological park. This type of enclosure had no bars—at least no visible ones. In the 1890s, German entrepreneur and Hamburg zoo owner Carl Hagenbeck prompted a shift to “naturalistic” enclosures with the creation of the Panorama.

A lion caged in New York’s Central Park Zoo around 1900 (top left). Bears labeled as Russian in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Highland Park Zoo around 1900 (top right). Schoolchildren gathered around a birdcage at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. in 1899 (bottom left). A woman feeding a camel in the Central Park Zoo (bottom right).

In Panorama exhibits, animals from the same ecosystem were displayed together in what appeared to be a unified enclosure, complete with appropriate plants, painted backdrops, and fake rocks that all modelled a “real” landscape. The exhibition, though, was in fact composed of a series of separate enclosures divided by invisible moats, allowing Hagenbeck to create a display, for example, that appeared as if seals, walruses, reindeer, and polar bears occupied a single habitat.

The Hagenbeck revolution marked the first attempt by zoos to create naturalistic enclosures that gave visitors the illusion of observing animals in the wild. After Hagenbeck popularized enclosures that modeled environments, zoogoers could imagine animals in their natural worlds instead of simply gazing at animal objects paraded outside of these worlds.

A 1907 postcard from the Hamburg Zoo in Germany. Started by Carl Hagenbeck, the Hamburg Zoo was the first to use open enclosures instead of barred cages.

Not all “naturalistic enclosures” were designed like Panoramas. Others, more simply, replaced cages with larger enclosures made to look like fields or forests. As the twentieth century progressed, zoogoers increasingly desired to see animals in settings that appeared to be “wild.”

Constructing these naturalistic environments for zoo animals proved challenging. Just because a zoo desired to place a bison, polar bear, or mountain goat in an enclosure that provided grasslands, polar waters, or rocky precipices, respectively, did not mean that this desire always led to successful outcomes. Zoos forged exhibits through trial and error, continuously learning what animals needed to survive captivity.

These exhibits also required visitors to suspend their disbelief. Clearly, no single spot on earth could simultaneously possess natural arctic, desert, marine, forest, savannah, steppe, mountain, and swamp environments. No matter how healthy and happy their inhabitants remained (and frequently they were sick and miserable), zoo enclosures and their environments remained artificial.

The visitors’ path is meant to recreate a jungle and thereby improve visitors’ experience in the Asian Elephant Exhibit in Seattle Washington’s Woodland Park Zoo (1989).

The shift to naturalistic enclosures increased the size of zoo enclosures, and thus did improve the conditions in which animals were held captive. Nonetheless, these enclosures were (and are) anything but natural.

Throughout the last quarter of the twentieth century, “landscape immersion” enclosures became popular within zoological parks. Through landscape immersion, zoo exhibits sought to achieve an even more faithful re-creation of an animal’s natural habitat and then extend this habitat into the area viewers occupied. Rather than display and “overexpose,” in the words of one zoo critic, animals as individual specimens, these exhibits sought to teach zoogoers about the interdependence of animals, plants, and places.

These enclosures sought to teach zoogoers to think ecologically. First developed through the gorilla and African savanna enclosures of Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo in the 1970s, a landscape-immersion exhibit attempted to give an accurate portrayal of an animal’s environment and then transport zoogoers into that environment.

The Visitors

For much of its history, the zoological park was a place of violence. Locked in cages, trapped in enclosures, held in aviaries, and contained in aquariums, animals (when they could not attack or run away) could do nothing but endure the behavior of zoogoers.

Zoos were places where humans could take advantage of captive beasts. Visitors poked at zoo animals with parasols and canes. They spat tobacco juice at them. They fed them, poisoned them, and handed them cigars. In 1895, for example, a man unintentionally poisoned a Diana monkey in the National Zoological Park of Washington, D.C., when he handed it a laurel sprig (deadly to primates) as an incentive to continue the “funny antics” that were entertaining his son.


Visitors at the Leipzig Zoo in Germany in the 1960s were able to view polar bears without bars (left). Onlookers could get very close to the bears in Memphis Tennessee’s zoo around the turn-of-the-century (right).

Zoogoers tossed lit matches and rocks into cages. They jeered, mocked, whistled, mimicked, and laughed at the zoo’s captives. For most, zoo animals were mere objects of entertainment. Exerting violence toward lions, tigers, and bears gave visitors a sense of their own power and mastery over the animal kingdom.

Not all zoogoers, though, were (or are) so cruel. Surely, those who actively taunted animals remained in the minority. Most who strolled through zoological parks did so harmlessly, as one might breeze through the pages of a magazine or cycle through pages on Facebook. For the majority of zoo-goers, animals remained ironically in the background of the experience.

Officials at the zoo in Sydney, Australia allowed famed director Alfred Hitchcock to ride a turtle in 1960.

In this sense, the zoo was also a place to display one’s class, one’s leisure time, one’s cultural refinement, one’s mobility, one’s sensibility toward Nature, one’s dating rituals, and one’s engagement as a parent in front of other human animals. The zoological park was, for most, a public stage. While a deviant minority enacted violence upon zoo animals, the majority simply paid them little mind. They were busy pursuing other social agendas in the zoo. The story of the zoo, then, is both a story of tragedy and apathy.

Yet, the story of the zoo is also one of transcendence. A small minority of visitors did pass through its entrance gate armed only with curiosity. Upon entering the zoo, many saw the world’s exotic species for the first time. And they learned to take animals seriously as they interacted with them along zoo walkways.

They read the educational placards and zoo guidebooks that provided information about the natural history, systematics, biology, ethology, and ecology of animals as diverse as hyenas, Java porcupines, and prairie dogs. They listened to the lectures that often took place on zoo grounds—like “Cats Ancient and Recent—their Place in Nature, Science and Art,” or “Protozoa; or, the Lowest Forms of Animal Life,” both delivered by famous biologists in the Philadelphia Zoo in the winter of 1877.

Children excitedly look at bears through iron bars at Washington, D.C.’s National Zoo in the 1950s.

They studied the animals, asking questions about them. What do they eat? Why do they grow antlers, have tails, or stay awake at night? Do they have personalities? Predilections? Language? Cultures? Souls? Yet, more significantly, this small minority of zoogoers listened to what animals had to say.

The Encounter

Like the history of any institution, the history of the zoological park is complex. Not only does each zoo have its own story, but each zoo houses hundreds of histories. Every exhibit, every enclosure, and every life enclosed in the zoological park possesses its own unique biography, stretching back centuries or millennia. To stroll through a zoological park is to stroll upon the pages of a deep multispecies story.

Though zoos are places of captivity, they are also places of encounter. Of course, these zoo encounters never happen on common grounds or middle grounds. On zoo grounds, as symbolized by the very idea of enclosure itself, human-animal encounters are always controlled and contained.

Yet, these encounters—as evidenced by the recent controversies about Marius and Harambe— also always move beyond the walls of confinement. Zoo animals always run away, literally and figuratively. Zoo animals always act in unpredictable ways. They always make demands of their onlookers. But few zoogoers pay attention. Few zoogoers listen. And few respond. As is too often the case, in most encounters, power deafens.


Tatiana and Tony, two Siberian tigers in the San Francisco Zoo (left). Updated enclosures to the San Francisco Zoo after Tatiana escaped from her open-air enclosure and killed one zoo visitor and injured two others in 2007 (right). Police shot and killed Tatiana during the incident.

Yet the history of zoogoing points us toward future possibilities. How might a zoogoer attempt to walk through, rather than upon, the hundreds of stories woven into the zoological park? I’d like to conclude by offering up a new ethic of zoogoing, a new map to hold while navigating your zoo.

Next time you stand before an enclosure—a bear den, elephant house, seal pond, monkey island, or aquarium—and exchange glances with one of its inhabitants, ask yourself:

1. Who is this individual and why is she here? Was she born and bred in this zoo? Was she acquired from a human institution—a circus, another zoo, a refuge, a wild animal dealer, etc.? Was she rescued? Was she captured? Is she here temporarily? What larger forces place this animal here? What is her story?

2. To what species does she belong? What are her species’ characteristics? Life spans? Behaviors? Diets? Habitats? Mating rituals? Reproductive needs? Communications and languages? Movements? Biogeographies (distribution over geographic space)? Predators? And in what ways does captivity alter these, especially over time?

Even after “naturalistic enclosures” became popular, animals were still literally paraded for visitors, such as in this penguin parade in Edinburgh’s Zoo in 1989.

3. Where is she? How is her enclosure designed? Note every structure and item in the enclosure. What does the enclosure provide? What does it not provide? What other living beings does she cohabitate with—plants, animals, microbes? How does she respond to each of these? How does she move about her space? How has this enclosure been shaped, or not, by history?

4. Where would she be? What would her environment look like in the wild? What would her ecological relations look like? How would this individual impact the lives of other animals and plants? How would this animal shape its physical landscape? And vice versa?

5. What does this individual’s species mean to us? How have Homo sapiens interacted with this species over time? How have humans changed this species? How has this species changed humans? Why is this species in this zoo? How has this species evolved and changed outside of, or before, human presence?

6. What does this individual symbolize? Humans have always projected their beliefs, values, and ideas onto animals, transforming them into symbols. In fact, all animals possess many (often contradictory) symbolisms at any given moment in time. When you look upon this animal, what comes to mind? What stereotypes do you have? What feelings? What ideas? What does she mean in your culture? What might she mean to other cultures? And why?

The simplest of answers to these questions are complex, lying at the intersection of biology, ecology, ethology, zoology, and history. They require creative and critical thinking. Many of the answers may prove elusive, wild. Yet it is the questions themselves that serve as cornerstones of a new zoogoing ethic.

Next time you find yourself before the countenance of a zoo inhabitant, I challenge you to have a more unsettling type of encounter. Use these questions as a guide to the zoo, and see where they might take you.

Listen to Origins for more on Zoos: Caged: Humans and Animals at the Zoo.