The agents of the New York Zoological Society are constantly on the watch for an opportunity to procure and send hither a good specimen of this wonderful creature; and whenever one arrives, all persons interested are advised to see it immediately - before it dies of sulleness, lack of exercise, and indigestion."
One of the biggest zoo and aquarium stories as of late has been the short-lived career of a great white shark as an exhibit animal at the Okinawa Aquarium. Accidentally captured in a fishing net off the coast of Japan, the shark was taken to the aquarium and immediately placed on display, where it proceeded to do what almost every great white in captivity has ever done - die. I say "almost every" because the exception to the rule has been the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which over the course of several years kept a series of young great whites on display, returning each safely to the ocean after a period of time.
The aquarium has since been upbraided by critics on all sides, and not just the usual suspects (animal rights activists). Many zoo and aquarium professionals expressed their disapproval of the whole scheme, citing that, as history seems to confirm, great whites just don't do well in captivity.
Now, to be sure, the Okinawa shark had a lot of strikes against it, especially when you compare it to the young sharks of Monterey Bay. It was an adult, for one thing - young animals, like those MBA displayed, tend to adjust much better to the transition from wild to zoo or aquarium. Secondly, it was caught in a fishing net, so it was already highly stressed. Thirdly, it was a surprise acquisition, so it's not like the aquarium had been planning on acquiring one, and had researched their protocols. Fourth, and most important, perhaps, it seemed like it was put on exhibit immediately after capture. No adjustment, no settling in, one minute you're the top predator in the ocean, the next there's a wall of glass with people behind it.
In other words, lots of mistakes and bad planning that would have been detrimental to any species. It just keeps coming down to "Great whites don't do well in captivity." Drop the mike, walk off stage.
The thing is, while many zoo animals have been kept for thousands of years, there are plenty of others which, at some point early in their history in captivity, were considered impossible to keep alive. The quote at the beginning of this post, the one by Hornaday? The "wonderful creature" that he refers to? That would be the gorilla, today a fairly common animal in zoos. At a quick glance online, I found about 300 gorillas in over 40 institutions in the United States alone. In Hornaday's time, they were considered impossible to keep alive; attempting to breed them would have been considered lunacy. I wonder what Hornaday would think today if he were to visit the Bronx Zoo and see TWENTY gorillas, babies included, that inhabit the zoo's Congo Gorilla Forest.
Gorillas aren't unique in this respect. Some were deemed impossible to keep alive for any length of time; okapis were notorious for their delicacy, especially their vulnerability to parasites. Before climate-controlled exhibits were possible, Antarctic penguins would succumb to diseases that would never have survived to plague them in Antarctica. Other species were possible to keep, but impossible to breed; cheetahs are a prime example, with hundreds of years of efforts resulting in a single captive litter prior to the late 1900s. Others still you could keep, maybe even breed, but were considered hopeless for display or educational purposes. One species that was generally held to meet all of these criteria was the platypus.
With all of these species, the challenges were eventually overcome. Gorillas and okapis and king penguins are seen at many facilities. Cheetah cubs, while not as frequent as lion or tiger cubs, are not uncommon. New and exciting methods are developed for displaying a wide variety of species - underwater viewing, nocturnal viewing, etc. In all of these cases, experimentation, observation, and patience were rewarded.
The thing is, though, with the great white in Okinawa, there was no experimentation, no patience, only observation... as in, let's put this shark in a tank and observe what happens. Contrast that with Monterey Bay, where young sharks were specially collected, gently acclimated, and carefully monitored, with care protocols that were thoroughly researched and constantly adjusted.
Many of the terrestrial vertebrates - mammals and birds, reptiles and amphibians - have been maintained in zoos or aquariums at least a few times; if they haven't, they may not differ too much from another species that has been. Many of the animals that we have no - or very little - experience with in captivity are marine species. No coelacanth in captivity. No giant squid in captivity (outside of James Bond novels). No baleen whales. No great white sharks.
I'm not saying that none of these species could be kept successfully, if time, money, research, and, in the case of whales, a tank the size of a mid-sized metropolis were made available. I think it is important to consider, however, that experimentation sometimes ends in failure, and the results are far worse for the animal in question that for the keeper or aquarist or curator. An effort to maintain an animal which has never successfully been maintained in captivity should only be made if there is a compelling reason to attempt it (i.e., a specimen has been found that can't be returned to the wild) and the holding institution has reason to believe that it has a protocol that will work for that animal. "Let's just give it a shot" or "because we can" are never valid reasons.