A Siberian tigress and her cub acting according to their natures at the Buffalo Zoo. Photo via Wikipedia.
At the now Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnett Park but was then called simply the Burnett Park Zoo, where we spent a lot of time when we lived in Syracuse and the Mannion guys were bite-size, the tigers used to like to sit right up next to the thick plate glass windows in the concrete fence at the top of their enclosure and look out at the humans looking in. I think they were looking at us. Who knows? They might have been looking right past us or at their own reflections. And who knows what they were thinking. It did not appear to be “Mmmm. Lunch!” To me, they seemed to be affecting a studied indifference, as if they were thinking, “I see you looking at me. I can see you’re excited and curious and want me to be the same about you, but, frankly, you bore me.”
In other words, they were acting like what they are.
Sometimes they would stretch out and go to sleep right there with their backs---long backs, very long backs. Tigers are big big cats.---up against the glass. Which I took as an expression of another cat-like attitude. “Oh. You want to see my face? Watch me move? You came here hoping to see a tiger acting tiger-y? Sorry, I’m busy with more important matters.”
In case you’re worried about the effect of Syracuse winters on jungle cats, these were Siberian tigers, not to be confused with their slightly smaller and leaner but more notorious Bengal tiger cousins. Siberian tigers call the birch forests of far eastern Russia and parts of northern China and North Korea home, places where a typical Syracuse winter would get shrugged off as a mild spring. Siberian tigers know from snow.
At the zoo, the landscape inside the tigers’ enclosure was wooded and rocky, the ground bumpy, knobby, gullied, and creased by ravines as it sloped steeply downward from their window on the footpath around the zoo. They might have found the space a bit confining. Wild Siberian tigers like to roam. They’ll range over territories of 1200 to 1600 square miles. And they might have liked more ground cover and underbrush to camp out in. Otherwise it might have reminded them of the the Northeast Asian mountainsides they call home, except that Northeast Asia was not their home. North America was their home. They were born and raised in captivity.
The spaces zoo animals are confined to should be as open, un-cage-like, and natural as possible.
But here’s the question.
What is natural to an animal that has lived all its life in a city zoo?
That’s why I wonder about the redesign underway of the Givskud Zoo in Denmark.
Zoos have traditionally been built a certain way: Animals on the inside, humans on the outside, peering in. This separation is good in theory—humans and animals need to be protected from one another—but terrible in practice, as animals end up stripped of any semblance of a natural habitat. A new plan for the Givskud Zoo in Denmark wants to reverse those roles, giving animals more freedom in captivity while effectively placing humans inside protective barriers.
Called Zootopia, the conceptual design comes from danish firm BIG. The firm began working with Givskud Zoo a couple years ago with the goal of turning the safari style zoo into a place where animals dictate interaction—not humans. “Try to imagine if you asked the animals what they would like. What would they decide?” says Richard Østerballe, director of the Givskud Zoo. “They want their nature back, so to speak, and we are going to try to create that.”
To make that happen BIG is looking to invert the traditional safari park. In this design, animals will roam free around the perimeter while humans observe, hidden away from view in underground passageways and naturalistic architecture structures. Visitors can watch lions through an underground enclosure disguised as a hill. They’ll peek out at giraffes through windowed lodges built into the side of a hilly savannah. Outside of the main circular entrance, there will be no traditional buildings. Even the stables will be disguised as natural habitat, with the elephants lolling about a wide open rice field that camouflages the shelter below and bears that find shelter in a stable disguised as a pile of logs. “We want to take away human influence,” says Østerballe.
Sounds like it will be an interesting and fun place to visit, but I’m not sure what’s actually gained by it. The whole conception is based on a not completely groundless but still debatable and sentimental idea, that Nature is more natural when human beings keep out of it. Do the designers really think the animals will act more like their true animal selves if they don’t feel themselves being observed by human beings? That strikes me kind of like thinking the famous Far Side cartoon is an accurate depiction of the lives of cows.
Animals and human beings have shared habitats and interacted for millennia, with so much mutual adaptation that it’s nearly impossible to make a distinction between the natural, that is animal, world and the human world. There are very few places where humans can’t live and few where animals don’t. Mostly we share the planet and try to get along. Well, they try. We’re only still learning to try.
There are animals best interacted with at a distance. Siberian tigers, for instance. But also Great White Sharks and Grizzly Bears, although people share the water with more Great Whites and more often than they know, and other bears, like the black bears who seem to be making themselves at home in the suburbs around here, are not only comfortable in the (somewhat near) company of human beings, they have adapted themselves to it to the point that it’s natural to them, if not to to us quite as much. Take away the presence of people and they would have to re-adapt, that is, make a change in their natures they might not like. The bears in Givskud are getting quarters that look like piles of logs. The black bears here might prefer a nice split-level or a cozy Cape Cod.
The bears are oddballs, though. From most animals’ points of view, the species best kept at a distance is homo sapiens. Siberian tigers didn’t become endangered by eating each other.
Still, which is the more “naturally” pachyderm-ish? The Asian elephants in the jungles or the ones living and working and getting along with humans in the villages?
I’m convinced the tigers at the Syracuse zoo knew we were there and eagerly watching them, waiting for them to show us their tiger-y-ness, and deliberately refused to play along. But like I said, they’re cats and I’m a bigot when it comes to cats, a virulent anti-felinite. (Don’t be offended. Of course I love your cat.) It may be that sitting around looking bored is what tigers do best. Surprisingly, they aren’t particularly good hunters and have to wait patiently for hours even days for easy and unsuspecting prey to wander by and then, after gorging themselves, which they do because it may be a week before they get a chance to feast again, they lie around lazily, letting their stomachs settle.
But there was a gibbon at the zoo who who almost every hour on the hour would climb to a platform on top of a tall pole and start hooting---I swear, a gibbon’s hoot can drown out a firehouse siren and be heard at a greater distance---until he decided he’d drawn enough of a crowd of humans. Then he would swing down to a slightly lower network of ropes and poles and begin a spectacular acrobatic routine that sure looked well-rehearsed and designed to elicit the maximum of thrilled Ooohs and ahhs and applause from his audience. I don’t know if like Alex the Lion in Madagascar he thought of himself as the star of the zoo, but he clearly enjoyed wowing the paying customers.
And then there were the markhors.
Markhors are wild goats from northeastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. In our Syracuse days, I was writing feature stories for the newspaper and the zoo was one of my beats---another of my beats was the theater scene and there’s a joke in there that I never made out loud and still refuse to make.---and covering the zoo was one of my favorite jobs. Reporting and writing those stories made me feel like the kind of New Yorker style journalist I wanted to be, a regular John McPhee. The best part, though, was getting to go behind the scenes and meet the animals up close and personal.
By the way, sloths come by their names deceptively. They do spend a lot of their time hanging from branches with no apparent urge to move for hours on end, but when they decide to move they move fast. And they’re mean. The zookeeper who introduced me to the zoo’s two-toed sloths had long, ugly scratches on her forearm from when a sloth she normally got along with decided to assert himself.
The markhors were brand-new to the zoo when I met them. Their exhibit hadn’t technically opened yet. A small herd had been brought in and they were all young. Mature males are remarkably ugly beasts. Mature females are just plain goatish looking. But kids are cute as can be and seem to know it and present you with their cuteness as a gift. “I’m being adorable just for you!” They’re frisky and playful and friendly, almost like puppies. When I was entered their enclosure, the whole herd surrounded me and jostled with each other for the privilege of standing on their hind legs with their front hooves against my chest to be petted. When the zookeeper and I took a tour around their enclosure they followed us close at heels, impatient for us to stop so they could do the whole meet and greet and pet routine all over again.
The point is, these markhors hadn’t had time to get used to being gawked at yet but they were already happy to have the attention from a couple of human beings, probably because humans had been involved in their raising since birth. To them, it was natural to have people for company.
Anyway, even if you could recreate an animal’s “natural” habitat in someplace like Givskud or Syracuse---really, never mind maintaining a jungle or a tundra in a temperate zone, how do you give a Siberian tiger several hundred square miles in which to roam?---you’d have to do more than keep human beings out of sight. You’d have to let other animals in to mix and mingle as they do in the wild, which is not something you’d necessarily want human children or human adults, for that matter, to see. An exhibit of lions and gazelles, for example, would soon turn into an exhibit of lions.
Zoos are like living encyclopedias---zoopedias---good places to start to learn. A Zootopia sounds to me like a theme park.
If the zoo back in Syracuse had been converted into a Zootopia, with human visitors suddenly turned invisible, the gibbon would have been heartbroken, the markhors bereft, and even the tigers might have missed their audience. They’re cats, after all, and that’s part of cats’ nature, feigning indifference while desperately craving our complete and doting attention.
Be sure to read the whole story of the Givskud Zoo’s redesign, A Zoo Designed to Trick Animals Into Thinking You Aren’t Watching, by Liz Stinson, at Wired.
Another hat tip to Mike the Mad Biologist.
Here’s a reason for thinking nature is more natural when human beings keep out of it: Century After Extinction, Passenger Pigeons Remain Iconic—And Scientists Hope to Bring Them Back.
And here’s a sign we might be learning to change our nature, and it involves markhors: Tajikistan Brings Endangered Wild Goat From the Edge of Extinction to the Peak of Hope.
Ken Mannion, age 8, Oliver, 6, two of Ken’s school friends at the Burnett Park Zoo, and a Siberian tiger acting naturally, Spring of 2002.