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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Geographic Fatigue

All good things which exist are the fruits of originality”

- John Stuart Mill

To the best of my knowledge, no zoo has ever attempted a major exhibit of New Guinea wildlife.  Plenty of zoos – particularly those with large bird and reptile collections - have Papuan animals in their collections, and lots of zoos have Australian areas, but I’ve never seen an actual New Guinea exhibit.  On two separate occasions at two zoos that I worked, I tried convincing management to consider the possibilities – cassowaries and birds-of-paradise, crocodile monitors and tree kangaroos, a lorikeet aviary as a revenue-generator...  No one ever did show much enthusiasm, and eventually I dropped it.  It’s a pity, I thought at the time… it would have been nice to have tried something different for a change.

Ever since zoos began making the transition from taxonomic-based exhibits (Cat Houses, Monkey Houses, Bear Dens, etc) to geographically-themed areas, a few trends have arisen, some of which have become borderline clichés.  At any given major zoo, there will be an African savannah, complete with giraffes, zebras, and lions.  There will also be a rainforest – either Latin American or Southeast Asian – the climax of which will often be a tiger or jaguar lounging on some temple ruins.  Australia became trendy a few years back (especially among smaller zoos, which don’t have the room for the larger African and Asian species), with kangaroo walk-throughs and lorikeet/budgie aviaries becoming increasingly prominent.  The zoos that can afford to do so have added Arctic areas, starring the ever-popular polar bear.
Focusing on these narrow geographic areas helps zoos feature most the charismatic mega-fauna (big, popular animals) that the public craves, and they are tried-and-true crowd pleasers.  There are, however, problems with these constant repetitions of exhibit ideas.  For one, it can be boring, and as much as we may hate to admit it, the promise of entertainment is one of the main ways that we coax guests into the gate.  When I travel around the country, I always make a point to stop in at the local zoo or aquarium; half the time, that’s the main reason for the trip in the first place.  Many people do not, of course, largely with the belief that zoos are basically the same.  If we turn every zoo or aquarium into a carbon-copy of the next, we will fulfill that expectation.  
Obsession with a few geographic exhibit areas also threatens conservation efforts.  Some endangered species do not belong to these favored exhibit regions, and zoos may be unwilling to add them to their collection for that reason.
Lastly, I would question whether some of these geographic regions really are that educational anyway.  Animals from all over a continent – especially a very large and diverse one – can be lumped together, but what does that tell anyone?  One zoo that I visit fairly often has gazelle from the Sahelo-Saharen region of North Africa, okapi from the DR of Congo, and penguins from the coast of South Africa lumped together as part of an Africa section.  Another zoo I visit often has a South American aviary; all the birds are from South America, but some aren’t found with a thousand miles of the others.  If we’re going to use geographic zoo exhibits to teach visitors, shouldn’t they at feature animals that would actually live together, both in terms of geography and habitat?
Some adventurous zoos have broken the mold.  Minnesota Zoo opened its “Russia’s Grizzly Coast” a few years back to critical acclaim.  The Ethiopian Highlands at WCS’s Bronx Zoo remains a standard bearer of excellence.  Madagascar exhibits have begun popping up all over the place (the next fad?).   
Who knows, maybe there's hope for New Guinea yet…

1 comment:

  1. I agree! It's hard to convince zoo directors that "different" can actually bring in more visitors when lions and giraffes are proven money-makers. Our big cat area is "Asian Highlands" and it's fun to introduce people to Pallas cats and the fact that there are leopards in Russia!