By Ian Mount
Posting in Architecture
BUENOS AIRES -- What makes a zoo in the modern age? Argentines debate the value of emptying an aging Victorian zoo and turning it into a park.
BUENOS AIRES -- On July 15, scores of Argentines turned out to give the Buenos Aires Zoo a ceremonial hug. They didn't want to save it, however. In a very basic sense, they wanted to kill it. The idea? To empty the zoo of captive animals and turn it into an ecological park.
The support for the de-populating of the Buenos Aires zoo--or any zoo--is debatable. Eduardo Murphy, who heads the Argentine Center for Animal and Enviromental Rights (CADAA for its initials in Spanish), claims that 500 people showed up for the ceremonial hug, while zoo director Claudio Bertonatti says barely 70 people attended the event and notes that during the day of the protest some 8,000 people visited the zoo.
But while the two men disagree on very important issues, they do agree philosophically on one important point: that zoos must redefine their mission. In this, the Buenos Aires zoo is on the cutting edge of an international zoological debate: what will the new zoo look like, and does it even have a reason to exist?
The Buenos Aires Zoo--a once beautiful but now decrepit space spotted with grim-looking exotic large animals--was founded less than a century after Argentina's birth, in the Victorian era at the end of the 19th century. Like most New World zoos of the era, it aimed to collect a Noah's ark of wildlife and introduce locals to creatures that they had only read about. Animals were brought from far and wide and housed in buildings that hearkened to the architecture found in their countries of origin (the 1904 elephant building resembles an Indian temple, for example).
But since then, the zoological mission has changed. "When they created this zoo, Argentina was a young country and they wanted to show its diversity and natural wealth, and put it in an international context," says Bertonatti. "But that was for a public that did not have access to the Internet or TV or documentaries, that only had books which themselves were barely illustrated. The zoo was almost the only source of 'illustration,' if you will. Logically, today's emphasis cannot be the same."
The question, then, is what the future of the zoo should be.
"Zoos used to be like stamp collecting," says Dr. George Kollias, professor of zoological medicine at Cornell University. "Having a hippopotamus and a giraffe and a lion doesn't make a lot of sense unless they use an exhibit of a hippopotamus to teach about river ecosystems in Africa, and if we lose the ecosystem we lose the hippopotamus. Just having a hippopotamus in a cage doesn't serve much of an educational purpose and isn’t really responsible."
For the CADAA's Murphy, that means emptying the zoo of all animals save for those being rehabilitated from injury or from the illegal exotic animal trade, and turning the space into an ecological park where students can learn about this--but not by looking at animals in boxes.
"Our fundamental motive is a radical opposition to Victorian zoos that show animals in tiny cages and make money from it," he says.
That is a clear stance against zoos in general, and the aged Buenos Aires one in particular.
But in a basic sense it mirrors the outlook of zoo director Bertonatti. According to Bertonatti, who took up his post in January of this year, his mission is to turn the zoo from its past as a Victorian stamp-collecting style institution into something with a strong ecological and educational mission that treats sick animals and informs its visitors about what is happening in the natural world.
"This is not a theme park. This is not a collection of animals and nothing else. If it were I would close it," he says. " Until not long ago, zoos were judged by the number of species they had. But the number of species does not represent quality. The zoo must be a educational tool, as well as a conservation tool that can aid or alleviate or rescue a good number of animals each year."
To this end, Bertonatti points to the zoo's recently remodeled bird case--which houses native species in an large open habitat through which visitors walk--as well as to an old-style chimpanzee house, made of tiny jail-like cages, that he recently had closed.
He also expresses the heretical opinion (for young zoo visitors, at least), that he would be happy to replace the zoo's depressed-looking but immensely popular polar bear with an exhibit of giant otters--which, while less "charismatic", are a local species that was eliminated but could be reintroduced.
Most importantly, he notes that the zoo has recently returned six injured condors to the wild, as well as several hundred other animals, and has just taken charge of rehabbing 157 birds confiscated from wild animal traders at the Buenos Aires airport.
While Bertonatti says he understands the aims of animal rights advocates, he does not understand is the idea of eliminating zoos.
"Their proposal to me looks like a delirium," he says. "I share the spirit and the desire, but it's not realistic. To say to close the zoo is nonsense. What should I do with the minks? Call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and ask if I can release them in Yellowstone? They'll ask me if I was drinking whiskey."
In the end, the Buenos Aires Zoo is in a situation faced by most smaller zoos that want to evolve. It has a budget that is a small fraction of that of the industry leading San Diego Zoo. What it can do to treat its animals well while designing a friendly environment and educating the public will be determined more by how much money it has than by how much it wants to change.
Jul 26, 2012
They kept some of the cool old Victorian buildings (As I remember the Gorilla exhibit of my childhood is now an educational office. Hmmm) and expanded into the existing park, but also expanded to areas outside the city and they do species restoration. The educational importance of a zoo cannot be overemphasised (especially in American where various idiots refuse to believe in science). You cannot stress the value of animals for teaching enough (I do think the health and happiness of the animals must be considered, but those leopards in the zoo (and the cart covered with contraband leopard pelt items) have probably saved the lives of more leopards in the wild than many a magazine article.
!.With this world deforestation,in zoo will be the only place we will see animals in the future.2.Can stop having animals out of the environment and have animals which belongs to Argentina it self,I have a small animal garden and the people enjoi looking at the turtles and the land turtles and the iguanas and the rabbits.
As society is more urbanized it is essential that children be brought up with a broad sense of the worlds diversity. Modern zoos with large open air animal enclosures offer people a vanishing glimpse of the real world. Crowded, cramped and inhumane zoos need to be upgraded and or replaced with displays that give people a better sense of nature. It is all part of preserving and sharing the worlds beauty. Properly operated zoos have helped bring some species back from the brink of extinction. Someone with more time on their hands or a deeper informed knowledge can fill in the details, but I know there are some African species that have more animals living on US game preserves and zoos than exist in the wild. While sad that forces destroy these animals in the wild, it is a reality that zoos can be our arks to save animals from oblivion. It all comes down to how well the animals are treated. As designed and opened this Victorian style zoo was state of the art. Today it needs a lot of work or replacement to be a proper zoo.
As a vegan and animal rights advocate I often hear the drone of chiding comments regarding the very existence of zoological parks. And I understand the rhetoric and in general am in favor of the overall objective. However, my perspective and experience is colored by my long history, during my formative years, with the San Diego Zoo, where I spent many days communing with the animals in the 1950's and 60's developing my love and understanding of animals and the environment. Granted the San Diego Zoo is a hard act to follow. And unfortunately perhaps the majority of worldwide zoo's, including those miserable roadside attractions, have little in common with what a modern, ecologically aware, and animal friendly zoological society has to offer both humans and the other animals who are trapped in their environments. For the most part I have mixed feelings about zoos in general. However, I learned to develop my love for animals while strolling the walkways of a well managed zoo at an early age which has led to my advocacy for the rights of animals in my later age. With this in mind, I do not blindly follow the chorus to close any and all zoos for the rights of animals. Zoos can provide a valuable environment for both the safety and viability of many animals with the side benefit of education for the humans who have a curiosity about "exotic" animals in general. It does however, require a major commitment from people who understand and respect the rights of animals, and to fulfill their obligation to treat the animals as equals. Where this happens, the zoos have a positive impact for all concerned. But unfortunately such organizations are difficult to come by. Zoological parks do have a role to play in our society. There are good examples and there are bad examples, and everything in between. Parks that focus on the quality of life of the animals for which they care, which provide valuable educational experiences for people, and are economically viable to operate; these represent the best example of a positive experience in the zoological realm. Harmful environments for animals must be avoided at all costs, and where such environments exist, it is our obligation as compassionate humans to mitigate the harm for the benefit of the animals. Closing down bad zoos is a moral imperative. If the principals at the Buenos Aires Zoo are serious about protecting the rights of the animals within their park, and will formulate an environment that fosters the enrichment of the animals under their care, then I am in favor of this effort. It sounds like this is the approach being examined. If the better course of action is to free the animals in some manner that will lead to a superior life existence for them, then I would be more in favor of that alternative. The bottom line is, given the current situation, what is the best way to protect the rights and lives of the animals at this facility. That is the question for the people of Argentina.