Global Observer

In Buenos Aires, debate rages over aging zoo

In Buenos Aires, debate rages over aging zoo

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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.

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Ian Mount

Correspondent (Buenos Aires)

Ian Mount is a freelance writer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He has written for the New York Times, New York, Slate, Monocle, the Telegraph (UK) and Food & Wine. He has also produced pieces for public radio shows such as The World and Marketplace, and is the author of The Vineyard at the End of the World: Maverick Winemakers and the Rebirth of Malbec (W.W. Norton, 2012). Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure