From Royal Prisons to Leaders in Conservation: A Brief History of Zoos

Zoos have taken many forms since they first appeared thousands of years ago. What started as a collection of animals purely for the sake of royal entertainment has gradually evolved into a public source of education, conservation, and entertainment. When you ask someone to picture a zoo, they no longer picture an animal behind bars. However, it’s taken a long time for zoos to become bastions of conservation from their starting point as hallmarks of animal cruelty.

The very first zoos, called menageries, were private collections of exotic animals on display for wealthy rulers all around the world. There is evidence of rulers in Egypt having menageries for their personal enjoyment and to flaunt their power as early as 2500 BCE, and the trend continued for quite some time throughout history in many different cultures.

One of the most fascinating historical examples of a menagerie is the one owned by the Aztec ruler Montezuma the Second, who was in power in the 1500s in modern-day Central America. Montezuma had a large palace complex, complete with aviaries for birds, ponds for fish, and sections for mammals and reptiles, which made it one of the most impressive collections of its time. However, it was far from a paradise. According to accounts by visitors, Montezuma’s menagerie was comparable to hell, for animals and humans alike. Animals collected from all over the world were housed in different areas, and while they had plenty of attendants (over 300, in Montezuma’s case), their care was questionable. Whenever someone was sacrificed or taken prisoner, there was a chance that they would be fed to the carnivores. Another example of Montezuma’s cruelty was the section holding captive humans with various disabilities and deformities. Montezuma’s zoo saw its end when the Spanish took over, and many of the captive animals were eaten by starving locals. 

Montezuma’s Menagerie (Image Credit: ‘The ruler’s animals’, Florentine Codex, Book VIII, https://www.loc.gov/item/2021667853, CC0 1.0)

In these menageries, while there were staff to care for the animals and maintain their enclosures, there were numerous issues that would be far from acceptable today. The animals were taken from their natural habitats, and often not housed with an appropriate community (others of its species, for instance). Enclosures were small, did not resemble natural habitats, and had no forms of enrichment. They were kept for entertainment and appearance alone, rather than education or conservation. While the next form of a zoo was better, it was still not quite what it is today. 

As society began to focus more on scientific research in the 18th century, the focus of animal collections shifted towards science rather than entertainment. People became curious about wildlife, and soon, the first true zoo was created. In 1828, the London Zoo was opened as the first zoo meant primarily for public enjoyment and scientific research. 

Almost a century later, zoos underwent another key transformation when a man named Carl Hagenbeck introduced the idea of training using positive reinforcement rather than negative reinforcement, which made animal training far less cruel. He also pioneered keeping animals in barless enclosures using moats instead of fencing to keep animals contained. In 1924, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an organization meant to enforce standards for zoos, was founded. Animal enclosures in zoos finally began to resemble their natural habitats, and zoo visitors could begin to picture what the animal might look and act like in the wild. Quality animal care, called husbandry, ensured that animals stayed healthy. These changes galvanized the development of zoos, and from that point on, they have changed rapidly. Today, there are many zoos that provide an immersive and educational experience for visitors. 

Zoo Standards

While we’ve come really far as a society in improving our care of captive animals, there are still some facilities that put entertainment first and do not follow standards for animal care. This can make it difficult for people to know if the zoo they’re visiting is helpful or harmful for conservation. Today, we have set standards for zoos in order to ensure that they are having a positive impact rather than a negative impact on nature. For instance, in the US, legislation includes the Animal Welfare Act and the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, just because a zoo meets these standards, does not necessarily mean that it treats its animals humanely. 

Zoos around the US that meet higher standards than the simple ones outlined in legislation can be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (or the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums for facilities outside of the US), which is one thing visitors can look out for. Accredited zoos generally contribute to education and conservation while providing quality care for the animals in captivity, whereas non-accredited zoos, like roadside petting zoos, may not. Regulations for zoos are constantly evolving, and many people believe that we still have a ways to go before all wild animals in captivity are receiving the best possible care.

Entertainment may still be a goal of accredited zoos, but these days it’s far from the main priority. Many zoos exist primarily for conservation, whether that consists of direct conservation work or education to promote conservation. A day at the zoo may consist of seeing animals in a replica of their natural habitat, meeting a zookeeper and learning about how animals are cared for, getting to interact with ambassador animals, and discovering what individuals can do to help save wildlife and their environments. There are no animals in cages; each exhibit has plenty of space and opportunities for animals to express natural behaviors. 

The Role of Zoos in Conservation

So far, there’s been a lot of talk about zoos having a goal of supporting conservation, but there’s not always an explanation for how they’re actually doing that. There are two forms of conservation work: in situ and ex situ conservation. In situ conservation is conservation work that takes place in the natural habitat of a species, whereas ex situ conservation takes place somewhere else, like a zoo or wildlife center. In situ conservation can be difficult due to the price tag associated with traveling to a remote location with limited resources, and it often takes a lot of collaboration and valuable time. In situ conservation can consist of habitat restoration, research, and community outreach. Work like this often benefits more than one species, since many species inhabit the same environment. When people think of conservation work, this is probably what they picture. 

Image Credit: Shiva Shenoy, CC BY 2.0

In contrast, ex situ conservation in zoos and other facilities can consist of breeding programs, research, and public education. Ex situ conservation is better for when a species is no longer abundant in the wild. There have been instances of a species going extinct in the wild, but still surviving in zoos, which is when ex situ conservation becomes vital in order for the species to continue to exist. The Arabian Oryx was considered extinct in the wild in 1972. However, a collection of public and private parties from all around the world worked together to round up some of the Arabian Oryxes in captivity and send them to the Phoenix Zoo, where breeding efforts took place. After years of hard work, the species was reintroduced into the wild in 1981, and is no longer endangered. 

Ex situ conservation allows for a more controlled environment, which is sometimes necessary for research and captive breeding work. For instance, in captivity, zookeepers and scientists can study the genetics of individual animals and determine which animals should mate in order to maintain genetic diversity and ensure healthy offspring. Ex situ conservation is a common component of accredited zoos around the world, and has contributed to the well-being of many species. 

Zoos today also contribute to conservation in the form of education. Most people will never be able to fly to remote places all around the world in order to see different species in the wild, so a visit to the zoo gives people the opportunity to see the species that they otherwise would never get to see. Getting to see and potentially interact with an unfamiliar species allows you to form a connection to that species, and feel invested in its well-being. Without that opportunity, it’s difficult for people to understand the threats that species face and feel empathy for them. Many zoos have dedicated education departments for running educational programs at the zoo and out in the community, like at schools and parks. These programs can teach people about sustainability, climate change, animal welfare, evolution, animal behavior, poaching, wildlife trafficking, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, the scientific method, and so much more. 

Having those experiences allows people to gain a deeper understanding of and connection to the natural world, which is valuable in our efforts as a society to take care of our planet. Equipped with this knowledge, people of all ages can develop a better relationship with the world around them and take steps to support conservation efforts.

Looking back, zoos have come a long way since 2500 BCE. What started as a way for wealthy rulers to flaunt power is now an opportunity for everyone to learn about wildlife and leave feeling inspired. As science becomes more and more advanced, our standards for animal husbandry and conservation work are continuously improving in order to give animals longer, healthier lives, both in the wild and in captivity. Zoos have become a significant component of our efforts to take care of the world around us, and we should be excited to see where they go over the next couple of decades.


Holly Albrecht is currently an educator/zookeeper, and holds a Bachelors degree in Conservation Biology from the University of Arizona. She is passionate about ichthyology, herpetology, and using education/outreach to get people interested in conservation and the natural world. 

Title Image Credit: Carol H. Highsmith, CC0 1.0, Image Cropped


Read More

The Ethical Evolution of ZoosKeri Phillips

How Did Zoos DevelopDaily History

Montezuma’s Zoo Mexico Unexplained

Saving Species: Arabian Onyx – Phoenix Zoo

New Worlds, New Animals – Hoage et al.

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