Historical Trends

A great deal of pride is taken in historical "firsts," such as which zoo was the first established in a particular country, which zoo had the first exhibition or first birth of a particular species, which zoo developed certain kinds of exhibits first, and so on. Pride aside, what is more important are the trends, of which the firsts are just the beginning. Institutions, such as zoological gardens, do not begin fully developed and, in fact, are never fully developed. Zoological gardens are still evolving and today's state-of-the-art facilities will appear crude to future generations. Some individuals do not recognize this and prefer to disparage earlier collections rather than understand them, criticizing them based on today's standards rather than on standards contemporary with the period. Institutions must be understood within their historical context and are, at any particular time, merely snapshots of broader trends contributing to that historical context.

"We have a responsibility to our captive animals, brought from their native wilds to minister to our pleasure and instruction Much as has been done in this direction, we must all admit that there is still more required. The buildings of today will ... some day seem to our successors what the former ones seem to us."9 The "today" of this statement could easily be 1987, but it is not — the today of this statement is 1887. And the truth of this century-old statement has become evident with the often-heard, disparaging remarks about menageries. Our successors in 2087 will, no doubt, also agree with this statement as they look back on the zoological gardens of the twentieth century. One hopes they will be more understanding and appreciative of our efforts than we are of our predecessors' efforts.

This comparative view of zoos over time can be undertaken because of many institutional trends that have occurred. Private, privileged collections have evolved into public, cultural institutions. An emphasis on private, personal pleasure first gave way to public entertainment and recreation, and then to educational, scientific, and conservation concerns. Improved knowledge and technology were used to improve the husbandry and exhibition of animals in the collections. Workforce diversity, both in job responsibilities (based on improved knowledge and skills) and in types of jobs, transformed what was essentially agricultural work into a zoo profession. The regional uniqueness of collections has turned into global conformity.

Zoos and aquariums have also been a part of other, broader trends in wildlife biology, conservation, veterinary medicine, technology, education, park and recreation development, human sensibilities regarding nature, and many other facets of cultural change. Reflecting these many influences, zoos have evolved from mere collections (with individuals interested in wildlife as managers), to menageries (with naturalists as managers in an era of natural history), to zoological gardens (with zoologists or veterinarians as managers in an era of specialized science), to conservation parks (with conservationists as managers in an era of endangered species), to what is now emerging at the beginning of the twenty-first century — the environmental center (with business administrators as managers in an era of marketing, public relations, and fund-raising). Zoos are returning to the integrated, environmental animal parks of ancient Mesopotamia, but in a more sophisticated manner. And at the same time, wild nature itself is becoming a megazoo — just a different kind of captivity.

All of the trends affecting zoos and aquariums need to be studied as we move beyond the accumulation of basic information about these institutions. However, a great deal of basic information remains to be discovered in this neglected arena of history. Many good institutions, animals, and people have made our existing zoos and aquariums what they are today, and many more have labored at institutions that did not survive. We still know very little about many of them.

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