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What's happening at the zoo?

Published Oct. 1, 2005


The Story of Zoos: Past, Present and Future

By Vicki Croke

Scribner, $25

Reviewed by JULES WAGMAN

Zoos have an impossible job: They display wild animals in captive settings. Granted, the settings are becoming as natural as possible, but they still are cages of one type or another.

Vicki Croke, who writes an animal column for the New York Times News Service, offers a sensitive look at zoos, wild animals and the wildest animal of all, humans.

Collections of wild animals date back to the times of the pharaohs, but the zoo as we know it came into existence in the 1820s, spurred by Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore colony, who wanted his zoo in London to be a scientific venture. Old time zoos, which displayed animals in small cages, drove their charges crazy _ literally.

Big animals in small cages _ elephants, lions, bears _ develop bad habits and anti-social behavior. Croke describes head-bobbing, pacing, leaping, regurgitating food and worse. Some have said that the most dangerous animal is the zoo's architect, she notes. A great setting for wild animals can be bad for zoo-goers because animals like to hide behind things _ but if they are hiding, how can the public see them? Sadly, only a third of the country's zoo exhibits are "naturalistic and enriched _ and that may be a generous estimate," she writes.

Croke blames Walt Disney for confusing us because elephants are not always lovable Dumbos. Nature is not always pretty or kind; predators still kill other animals to eat them, she reminds us.

Some elephants, however, apparently are talented. Ruby, the Phoenix Zoo's elephant, for example, is a successful painter. According to Croke, Ruby picks her own colors and knows when a painting is done. Her works bring in as much as $1,000.

Another interesting story Croke includes in The Modern Ark concerns a Przewalki's horse. The Topeka Zoo bought the rare animal from a West German zoo in order to breed it. The horse performed enthusiastically, but there were no foals. Further examination showed that the stallion had undergone a vasectomy before shipping. Unfortunately, the story ends there and we don't know if the Topeka keepers got their money back, sued, reversed the operation or just stamped their feet.

What will the zoo look like in the future? Croke suggests that it may well be a television channel that would offer viewers live shots of animals in the wild.

The Modern Ark offers the casual zoo-goer a look behind the scenes and into the thinking of modern zoo keepers. It also helps us draw several conclusions about zoos and their inhabitants: Zoos need help. Endangered species need special help. Natural habitats need protection. But, above all, human beings _ the most dangerous animals of all _ need to mend their ways.

Jules Wagman reviews books in Jacksonville.