The end of zoos or the revival of human stewardship: public attitudes, visitor perceptions and management implications for zoo tourism in a changing world

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by guestauthor Prof. Dr. Dirk Reiser from Cologne Business School

While the later part of the article focuses on wildlife parks and zoos in Australia, the first part turns around zoos in Germany and the history of zoos to later argue that many of the mentioned issues for Australian zoos are also valid for the around 600 zoos and wildlife parks (Verein der Zoodirektoren 2014, online) displaying animals in Germany. But: Are zoos significant recreation and tourism resources in Germany? The answer can only be yes. In 2013, every third German resident visited a zoo, especially family with kids (61%) seem to love this attraction (Statista 2014a).  Moreover, the Association of German Zoo Directors (Verein Deutscher Zoodirektoren) estimates that around 35 million people visit zoos every year, with an additional 12 to 13 million frequenting animal and wildlife parks and a further 20 million other attractions that display animals. This amounts to more than 65 million visitors per year, including local, domestic and international visitors (VDZ 2014). Those visitors went mainly to zoos in urban centres such as the oldest (since 01.08.1844) continously run German zoo in Berlin (3.1 million) as well as institutions in Stuttgart (2.4 million), Leipzig (1.8 million), Cologne (1.7 million) and Hamburg (1.7 million) (Statista 2014b; Zoo Berlin 2014). But what do visits to such institutions express about our relationship with animals?

The human relationship with other animals symbolises many aspects of the link between humans and nature. Just the thought about this connection moves humans out of their comfort zone as it calls a number of their ethical behaviours into question. Just writing “the human relationship with other animals” seems to be wrong, out of place, not correct as it questions the exceptionality and superiority of humans as well as their treatment of animals. However, the uniqueness of human beings within nature has continuously been eroded in the last few decades (Sommer 2012). The way humans treat other animals is consequently more and more questioned. This includes the caging of animals in zoos and wildlife parks for a variety of reasons such as conservation, education and entertainment. That has a long history.

For more than 150 years observing wild and domestic animals in captivity has been a prominent leisure activity, but keeping such animals is much older. Egyptian pharaos and Chinese and Roman emperors kept captive animals for their royal enjoyment and as status symbols. Historically, the first humans settled around 12,000 years ago and started to domesticate animals. They did this out of economic necessities: animals were available all year round making the survival of human kind much easier. This is the origin of the power relationship between humans and animals (Morgenthaler, 2013). Archaeological findings suggest that it started with dogs 12,000 to 14,000 years ago, followed by cats around 9,000 years ago (Lieckfeld 2013). Throughout history the differences between humans and animals seemed justified in a variety of ways.

Aristotle argued that humans have the ability to speak and to build states while animals would not be able to do this. Later, Descartes believed that humans have a soul in contrast to animals, while Kant’s main distinction was reasoning and Hölderlin’s differentiation was built on human’s awareness of the own, inevitable death (Lieckfeld 2013). In general for more than 2,500 years human culture knew one central answer about the main difference between humans and animals: Humans are rational beings who can reason (Eilenberger, 2012). Spirit, culture and language count as the sign of uniqueness of humanity. Even so the molecular biologists Charles Sibley and John Alquist DNA analysis of human, chimpanzee and bonobo genetics in 1984 came to the surprising result that the difference between these species DNA is 1.6% (Morgenthaler, 2013).

Being entertained by wild animals in captivity is not a new concept. Historical texts (Jamieson, 1985, Bostock, 1993, Tribe, 2004) suggest that as far back as the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs (e.g. Queen Hatshepsut), animals were kept in menageries for the royal pleasure as were animals for the emperors of China (e.g. Wen, the first emperor of the Zhou dynasty) the Aztecs, Rome (McAlister 2003; Fennell 2012) or Germany (Emperor Charlemagne as a symbol of his power) (Miller, 2005). In some cases the world’s ‘royal’ houses collected these animals, while in others they were the gifts of “a grateful people”, such as the Bengal tigers from Indian Maharajas as a gift for Queen Victoria. This ‘tradition’ continued well into the 20th century, when for example Yugoslavian leader Tito maintained a private zoo on Brioni Island (Fennell, 2012).

However, as the perception that menageries were solely a royal prerogative changed, the idea that zoos should be for the ‘people’ emerged, leading to the creation of the concept of the public zoological garden (Tisdale 1993). Consequently, zoos as formal institutions developed as a change away from exotic collections of Renaissance princes (Boehrer, 2007) representing the absolute monarchy. This is closely linked to the conditions of European societies during the Age of Enlightenment, when ideas by Rousseau, the French Revolution and the works of Descartes and Newton lead to more educational components to the use of animals (Altick, 1978). Fennell (2012, 77) argues that ‘the modern zoo has its foundation in the Versailles menagerie in France, although even before this a zoo had been established at the Schönbrunn Palace of the Habsburg monarchy’ that was opened to the public in 1765. London Zoo, the world’s first zoo incorporating a scientific component into its mission opened in 1828 with a collection of exotic animals that were studied by the eminent scientists of the day. Even though, it did not open its doors to the public until 1847 (Tisdale, 1993).

Following the success of the London Zoo, many major cities throughout Europe and the United States opened zoos based on the London Zoo model. Zoos continued in their general popularity but it was only after World War Two and the rise in the popularity of the use of the private car for excursions that one saw a dramatic increased interest in zoos (Reichenbach, 2002). As has been previously stated many zoos were on the outskirts of cities and so a zoo was seen as an excellent distance for the 1950’s motorist to take the family ‘for a ride’.

As zoos became more open to the public the scientific element was pushed aside in favour of the idea that zoos should become a place for recreation and amusement, as well as the showplace for what were once viewed as ‘freaks of nature’. Thus the simple viewing of animals subsequently gave way to the use of animals for entertainment, such as the feeding of animals, animal rides, animal petting and animal performances. Zoos became pseudo entertainment venues, and because of the perceived exotic nature of zoological gardens, both public and elite social events were staged in the zoo’s grounds, including sporting events and ballroom dancing (Tribe, 2004).

Though gradually zoos changed their roles from providing privileged access to allowing the general public to gaze upon those animals. In conjunction, the expectation of the visitors and the offers of zoos changed as well. Today, the role of zoos and wildlife parks is based on a complicated concept that is riddled with contradictions closely linked with fast changing public attitudes and visitor perceptions that move between traditional, modern and post-modern values. These have a variety of impacts on the management of wildlife parks and zoos.

Today, the relationship between humans and non-human animals is a constant source of debate. Recent publications in German journals such as the Philiosphie Magazin’s How much animal am I? (Wie viel Tier steckt in mir?) or Geo Kompakt’s How do animals think? (Wie Tiere denken) or Geo’s  What you really need to know about animals (Was Sie über Tiere wissen sollten) or die Zeit’s The ethic of the ham sandwich (Die Ethik des Schinkenbrots)  confirm the relevance of this topic in today’s societies.

To be continued…


Das Team von COMPASS widmet sich in diesem Blog inhaltlich den übergeordneten Themen Marketingbüro, Europa, Tourism & Peace, Nachhaltigkeit und Marktforschung.

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