Origins and Definitions

What constitutes a zoo and which zoos were first are points of contention that continue to be debated. The approach taken in this history is a broad one, beginning with the first efforts to keep wild native animals. This period (ca. 10,000-3000 b.c.) was dominated by the gathering of wild animals for what turned out to be utilitarian purposes, regardless of whether this was the original intention. Since domestication is a biological process requiring many generations, these early efforts involved keeping animals that remained wild for quite some time. Some species continued to remain wild and were never domesticated. These wild species may have formed the precursors of later collections, but they could not be considered collections themselves (at best, they may have been proto-collections). Rather, these early experiences with wild animals were simply the important first steps leading to animal collections.

These first efforts evolved into keeping wild native and exotic animals for nonutilitarian purposes. During this period (ca. 3000 b.c.-a.d. 1456) Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and possibly India were the first societies known to have animal collections. The epicenter of these collecting activities then shifted to the Greco-Roman regions, to the Persian and Arabic regions, and later to Medieval Europe. Meanwhile, collections continued to exist in China, India, and other Asian countries. Large collections also existed in Central America (the Aztec collections) and South America (the Inca collections).

Animal collections evolved into menageries during and after the European Renaissance period (1456-1828), and then into zoological gardens beginning in the nineteenth century (1828 to present). In hindsight, however, earlier collections may also be considered menageries or zoos. Modern usage of these words applies to any collection of wild animals, including those collections existing in the past. The idea that collections evolved first into menageries and then into zoological gardens has generated a great deal of discussion. As collections changed from private to public entities, as they shifted from the domain of the wealthy to that of the general public, as individual ownership switched to government or society ownership, as individual collections became cultural institutions, and as animal husbandry and exhibition standards improved, collections have certainly become different kinds of places. These evolutionary changes have prompted the use of menagerie and zoo to acknowledge the differences, but there is no consensus on the criteria to be used for defining the differences. In contrast, aquarium evolution is less complicated since it sprang forth as a relatively modern concept during the 1850s.

There is no precise definition for a menagerie, but in determining that animal collections evolved into menageries, certain characteristics may be recognized. In a menagerie, as many species as possible are exhibited, animals are exhibited in taxonomically arranged rows of barred cages, staff is somewhat knowledgeable about animals, and there are limited education and science programs; the main emphasis is on recreation or entertainment. Menagerie, as a word, did not enter the European vocabulary until it was first used in France in the early eighteenth century, and it was some time before it was used to refer to a collection of wild animals. However, menagerie is not a well-defined word and the above characteristics are not precise criteria. Menagerie tends to be a concept that individuals, including zoo historians, view differently.

Neither is there any precise definition for a zoological garden, but in determining that menageries became zoological gardens, certain characteristics may again be recognized. In a sense, zoological gardens are simply sophisticated menageries. Nevertheless, they have more naturalistic animal exhibits arranged ecologically or zoogeographically, staff that is increasingly knowledgeable about animals, and improved education, research, and conservation programs. Conservation parks (or bioparks) are similar to zoological gardens, but with an increased emphasis on immersion exhibits that re-create natural habitats and on conservation (in situ field programs, as well as ex situ captive management programs).

Moving along the continuum from menageries to zoological gardens (and on to conservation parks), it is difficult to pinpoint any clearly defined transition points. However, it can be said with some degree of certainty that particular institutions led the transition from menageries to zoological gardens, such as Schonbrunn (Vienna), the Jardin des Plantes (Paris), the London Zoological Garden, and the Philadelphia Zoological Garden. Other institutions of the world have performed similar roles for their regions.

Whatever definition one chooses, modern zoos may include a variety of facilities: zoological parks, conservation parks, aviaries, herpetariums, safari parks, insectariums, butterfly parks, and endangered species rehabilitation centers. Aquariums and oceanariums are unique forms of zoological gardens and are here distinguished from the other terrestrially oriented facilities (as the aquarium profession generally prefers). All of these variations are considered in this history under the umbrella term zoological gardens. In addition, other modern institutions are merging with the zoological garden concept. National parks and wildlife reserves are becoming so intensively managed that they are becoming zoogeographic megazoos.8 Examples of this trend are presented in some of the chapters. Although they are not bona fide zoos, they do resemble the ancient royal animal parks, and as natural habitats decrease and management of the remaining park areas increases, these park areas may one day be included in the zoological garden concept.

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