Zoos make me nervous. The first caged animal I ever saw was at a roadside gas station, back in the Forties when it was not unusual to find scruffy, badly nourished, miserable bears, deer, raccoons, porcupines and even skunks used as tourist curiosities. The kids could shove hot dog crusts and Popsickle sticks through the bars at them while their parents tanked up. My first experience was with a fox, which was paying no attention to anyone; it was simply pacing back and forth retracing its steps endlessly in a rigid, figure-eight pattern. I was a child, but I knew it wasn’t happy; I didn’t realize until much later that it was probably crazy as well.
It comes as a surprise to most people that animals can be driven insane just as people can, and by many of the same methods. Imagine yourself in a small dirty cage with little room to move around, no one to talk with and nothing to do. You get fed the same boring meals at the same hours every day and a noisy crowd is constantly outside your cage yelling, pointing and sometimes throwing things at you. Now figure out how long it would take before you would lose all interest in anything, retreat into a corner to tear out your fur and chew your toes or start running in circles. The exhibition of crazy people as a popular entertainment went out with bearbaiting and public hangings, but — due to lack of space, money and sometimes lack of knowledge — the exhibition of animals that have been rendered crazy by human beings continues.
This is the kind of thing Toronto’s new Metro Zoo is trying to avoid. The traditional zoo was a cross between a circus freak show and a museum with the animal “exhibits” arranged side by side in little cubicles. This kind of zoo was essentially a Victorian institution and the Victorians were great collectors and classifiers; so they put all the cats together in the cat house, all the monkeys in the monkey house, all the birds in the bird house and so forth. Unfortunately, the animals might as well have been
stuffed and kept in glass cases; all you could see was what they looked like, as they rarely had the chance to display any form of natural behavior. The arrangement was convenient for people — with all the animals crowded together, not much walking was involved — but hell on the animals.
The Toronto Zoo, however, was planned for the welfare of the animals as well as that of the viewers, and as ranging animals are given lots of space to run (away from people, if they feel bothered) you have to do a lot of hiking to get around to see the place. Fences and bars have been kept to a minimum, replaced by moats filled with water or by steep-walled ditches. Instead of having a Victorian style floor plan, it’s laid out according to “zoogeographic regions,” which means that animals from the same part of the world are exhibited together in habitats resembling those they came from. A number of other zoos, including the Alberta Game Farm, have open ranges, but the Metro Zoo is the only zoogeographic zoo in the world.
It’s like a small-scale Expo 67 but with only six “countries”: Africa, South America, Indo-Malaya, Eurasia, North America and Australia. More areas are planned — a Canadian one, the World of Oceans (a giant aquarium) along with a South American pavilion and auditorium.
Each zoogeographic region has both large outdoor enclosures, where big animals resistant to Canadian winters can live all year round, and indoor pavilions, where smaller animals and those who need warmth are kept behind acrylic panels rather than bars. Every pavilion displays fish, plants, birds and reptiles as well as mammals, and some add films and human artifacts: Africa, for instance, currently houses several cases of native tools, clothing and sculpture. The pavilions themselves were designed with
Margaret Atwood is the author of two novels, several volumes of poetry and Survival, a study of Canadian literature.
Dr. Gunter Voss spent four years putting the zoo together. He was forced to open prematurely, things went wrong, and he was fired
the animals in mind. First the space needed by each animal was determined, then an environment consisting of plants, flowers, vines and trees was mapped out; the walls and roofs were added last. Instead of fitting animals into buildings, the zoo has fitted the buildings around the animals.
When 1 went to the zoo for the first time I realized that I couldn’t see everything; it’s simply too big. In fact it took me two visits to see it all. Parts of it, at that time, still looked like an unfinished housing development; there were mounds of raw earth, huge stones (carefully selected by a geologist) being moved around, an assemblage of pipes and cement destined to be a giant waterfall, and the occasional large puddle where someone had driven a fence post into a water main by mistake.
In the finished sections, I often felt more like a casual stroller in a natural landscape than a zoo-goer. There was something on a hill I couldn’t quite see and it vanished before I could identify it. Occasionally, I would glimpse a pair of ears, then a head lifting cautiously from the long grass; of 15 wallabies, I could see only one that had chosen to make itself visible. I began to wish I’d brought my binoculars. The amount of space allotted recreates the conditions of the wild, not only for the animals but for the watcher who must sometimes be not merely a passive spectator but a bit of a stalker and hunter as well.
Inside the pavilions I found myself walking among the animals rather than being separated from them. Birds, flying loose, drifted over my head and scuttled among the ground-cover plants; in the primate areas, huge by traditional standards, gibbons and monkeys clambered through their metal or wooden jungles and stared at me across a narrow moat. The paths for people are winding rather than linear; the barriers are upright logs rather than metal railings. I’d always associated zoos with trash — greasy french-fry papers, half-eaten candy-apples, broken bags of popcorn, halfmelted ice-cream cones — but there was a surprising absence of litter at the Toronto Zoo, partly because the snack bars and restaurants (carefully designed to blend with the scenery) are ringed by unavoidable ramparts of garbage cans, but also, I think, because most of the visitors are proud of the zoo. Many of them helped to build it and they don’t want it treated like a dump.
I started both my visits early in the day, which is one of the best times to go. Many animals, especially those from
warm climates, doze in the afternoons — morning is a more active time for them. One of the tigers had recently had cubs which were up and playing much like kittens, although their meows were in the baritone range.
In “South America,” I was in time to hear the whitehanded gibbons letting out short whoops, oddly like ambulance sirens, a morning custom they’ve retained from their days of living in the jungle; later in the day they were silent.
The orangoutans — the zoo is lucky enough to have two pairs of these rare primates — were getting ready for the day; one female was busily constructing
a nest out of hay; when I passed their enclosure later, she had retired into it for a nap. Her mate, his round face like a black leather moon with curiously childlike front teeth, was hanging upside down beside the acrylic plastic barrier, gazing placidly up at the few early visitors. Behind that serene pose I knew he was alert and mischievous; he’s 40 times stronger than a man and would relish the chance to prove it. I managed to see some of the animals getting fed: a hornbill tossing grapes up in the air and catching them in his gigantic beak, the elephants drinking their milk labeled, ambiguously, ELEPHANT MILK. During the early hours I found the walks almost deserted, the viewing areas adequate; but later in the day when the crowds had arrived, I sometimes had trouble finding a vantage point.
Since the zoo opened, it’s had more than its share of problems — with the experimental design, finances and with animal-human relationships. They all culminated in the controversial firing of zoo director Dr. Gunter Voss (above), who spent four years helping to design the layout — some of the ideas simply didn’t work out. A whole troop of baboons learned to scale the wall around
their enclosure and raided a nearby apple orchard. The lowland gorilla’s decorative rocks had to be cemented to the floor of his cage so that he couldn’t fling them through his window. It also became apparent that the lions could leap from their picturesque boulders across a moat and into the watching crowd. The aardvarks promptly dug a hole in the sandy bottom of their enclosure and disappeared into it. The polar bears’ huge pond sprang a leak and they had to be confined to the maternity ward pending repairs. A black swan attacked a little girl though perhaps not without provocation. The animals have been remarkably inventive in finding ways to wiggle, dig, push, jump, fly or swim their way to temporary freedom. Whenever there has been a story about one of these abortive jailbreaks, the zoo has been flooded with calls from people who think they’ve seen the animal. “Ghost animals,” the zoo calls them. “I’ve never seen an aardvark before,” one woman reported, “but I’m sure I passed it just now on the 401. 1 think it was dead.”
More disturbing than the escapes, is the health hazard to some of the animals which has developed from the design problems. For instance, the earth floors in the animal quarters, an attempt to recreate a more natural environment, could not be properly cleaned and are being replaced by cement which can be hosed down. Dust from gravel walkways covered the zoo’s exotic vegetation so the walkways are being paved.
The zoo was designed so that some animals could go into hiding if they wanted to get away from visitors. And there were strong complaints that too many of the animals couldn’t be seen. The tendency of the shyer creatures to avoid scrutiny frustrated a certain kind of zoo visitor who wants the animals to pay attention to him, to perform like trained circus bears.
Confronted by a poor attendance record (the zoo opened earlier than Voss wanted it to, unfinished and right in the middle of a transit strike) and a daily dose of adverse publicity, the zoo directors fired Voss and embarked on a twomillion-dollar program to force some of the animals out of hiding.
The zoo’s troubles have not affected the staffs basic concern for the welfare of its citizens, such as the gelada, a baboon-like primate. He’s a handsome animal, with an impressive beard and colorful fur, and before his arrival he behaved normally. Since then, however, he’s killed two of his wives, mauled a third and no one knows why. “What
about the psychotic gelada?” I asked Lawrence Cahill, a veteran of London’s Regent’s Park Zoo who’s superintendent of animal acquisitions. “I wouldn’t go so far as to label him psychotic,” he said reflectively, “There’ve been times when I’ve felt like killing my wife.” “But you didn’t do it,” I said. “Well, he probably had three better reasons than I did,” Cahill replied.
His tolerant attitude is typical of the zoo’s staff; the animals come first and rather than being condemned for his unruly behavior the gelada had his teeth filed and is no longer on exhibit.
When I asked Cahill how you rate a zoo, what gets top points, he said that in his opinion it couldn’t be size or numbers of specimens; it would have to be animal husbandry. And the Toronto Zoo policy reflects this attitude. Animal injuries are treated by two full-time veterinarians (few zoos even have one), who have at their disposal an operating room, a laboratory, a post-mortem room, an impressive array of nets and tranquilizer guns, and three technicians. The vets also work with the head nutritionist in devising proper diets and watch for mental health problems. Part of their strategy is to keep the animals from getting bored, so the menus are varied and the food is often served in different places. Sometimes it’s even hidden so the animals must search for it as they would have to in the wild.
Behind the scenes the zoo resembles a luxury hotel. Five million dollars worth of water mains and power lines are buried beneath the surface. The zoo raises its own plants in its greenhouse. It has a giant kitchen where food is prepared for each individual animal according to precise recipes. Its large storerooms and freezers contain many things, such as honey, corn syrup, cereals, milk and fruit, that you could find in your own kitchen, though there are a few items such as frozen mice and day-old chicks that you probably couldn’t. Prudence Emery, in charge of public relations, used to do PR at London’s ritzy Savoy Hotel. “Watching the camels arrive,” she said, “was like watching a very, very important guest arrive at the Savoy. All that fuss.”
Zoos still make me nervous. There’s something about animals in cages, even the luxurious non-cages of the Toronto Zoo, that hints of prison. But I’m reassured by the thought that the jungles are not being depopulated to fill this zoo; most of the animals come from other zoos. And it’s a sobering fact that many of the species have a much better chance of surviving inside a zoo than they do out of it. Some animals like the Père David’s deer and the European buffalo, or wisent, are extinct in the wild. Part of the zoo’s program involves breeding: it
plans to increase the populations of rare animals, and, if conditions improve, to release them back into their natural habitats. It’s disturbing that in Canada alone there are 66 endangered species. The Red Data Book of world endangered species fills four volumes.
Why do we do it? Why does mankind construct zoos at all, why do human beings lavish enormous amounts of money, time, and expertise on preserving and peering at creatures that other human beings are just as busy hunting, killing, skinning, stuffing for
trophies and eating? Perhaps it’s the insatiable curiosity of homo sapiens, a generic curiosity that’s reflected by his cousins staring back at him from the primate enclosures. Or perhaps, the zoo is finally a work of art, a symbol, an attempt to create a healing vision of an Eden-like Peaceable Kingdom, to preserve in artificial form-a time when men and animals lived in a more balanced harmony than they share now, a time before the big-headed monkeys invented agriculture and began to crowd the earth. O
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