The first zoos that we know of existed in the Sumerian city of Ur. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Chinese also had zoos, although the motivations and practices of these ancient peoples differed widely. The Egyptians, for instance, deified certain species and kept them in temples. Yet they also slaughtered and mummified so many of these sacred animals—ibis, falcons, and crocodiles—that nearby populations were completely exterminated.
David Hancocks, director of Australia’s Open Range Zoo, argues that today’s zoos are doing little better. Stating that he would like to “uninvent zoos as we know them,” he would eliminate the cramped and dreary quarters that he sees far too frequently. In their place he would build enclosures that allow animals to live longer and healthier lives. Hancocks singles out a handful of enlightened institutions—the Bronx Zoo, England’s Jersey Zoo, and Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo—but damns most others for their uncaring and unimaginative treatment of their charges.
Hancocks also criticizes most zoos for their recent espousal of “conservation,” arguing that what is needed is preservation of endangered habitat, not programs aimed at breeding a few photogenic species. Pointing out that fewer and fewer people have first-hand experience of the wilds, he believes that zoos should take the lead in educating the public in the richness and variety of the rapidly vanishing natural world, encouraging us all to “live more lightly on the land.”