Zootopia. The new Zen zoo?

| November 10, 2014 | 0 Comments

The nature and function – or pros and cons – of zoos are worth discussing with your students, especially in the light of a new Danish venture.

Widely considered an architectural genius, Bjarke Ingels has caused a buzz with his plans for a ‘Zootopia’ in Givskud, which will, reports The Guardian newspaper, “avoid the usual Disney-ish approach of Sumatran temples to see the tigers and Chinese pagodas to see the pandas.”

At the planned 300-acre Zootopia, animals will roam the landscape to be ‘viewed’ by humans enclosed in underground and hidden bunkers, on bridges and in hollow logs. In addition, says Ingels: “Floating along a winding river through Asia, cycling across the African savannah, or flying above ‘America’ on a cable car system, visitors will be housed in little mirrored pods.”

As outlandish as the plan sounds, many conservationists believe that zoos are now necessary to prevent large-scale extinction of animal species, due to climate change. To succeed in their goal of public education, however, these institutions will have to pay more attention to visitor psychology. Says Ingels: “The impressions that a visitor leaves a zoo with are highly important. A significant factor affecting this is enclosure design.”

The first modern barless zoo – animals were, for the first time, marooned in ‘naturalistic’ enclosures by moats and other devices – was created in 1907 in Hamburg, Germany. Safari parks became popular around the world during the 1960s, because tourists could achieve relative proximity to animals in the wild from the safety of their vehicles. Today, different options include the Monkey Jungle in Florida in the US, where humans are caged during their visits; the Apenheul Primate Zoo in the Netherlands, where there is direct, unmediated contact between animals and humans; and Trentham Monkey Forest in the UK, where visitors can interact with their primate relatives whilst receiving information from guides about conservation.

Zootopia will be unique in that it will render humans invisible – in theory – to the animals. But, says Robert Young, professor of Wildlife Conservation at University of Salford in Manchester in the UK, how will either group respond to the mirrored pods? “To me, this concept sounds like the visitors are voyeurs and will not acknowledge their part in the natural world.

“Given the looming wildlife extinction crisis, it is more important than ever that zoos get the right message over to their visiting public. This requires balancing how we can learn about animals formally, as well as through the informal messages transferred through the experience of viewing animals.”

Category: Summer 2014

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