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The Once and Future Zoo

by Christopher Kuhar, Ph.D.
Curator of Animals, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

The following essay is a summary of Dr. Kuhar's presentation to the Cleveland Association of Phi Beta Kappa at its October 13, 2012 "Rhino Encounter!" event. We thank Dr. Kuhar for providing this essay for our web visitors who were unable to attend!

For almost 2000 years zoos were the domain of the wealthy: private menagerie collections that could be seen by local community as a curiosity. But beginning shortly after the industrial revolution, zoos began to take on a social/community function. The Industrial Revolution provided, for the first time in history, free time for the masses and the public began to seek out entertainment and diversions. At the same time, having moved into increasingly urban environments, they sought out the natural, open-spaces that that were no longer easily accessible. Enter the age of the Victorian Zoo, where women in dresses and men in suits and hats came to see animals in sterile cages with concrete bottoms and large steel bars containing animals. This period lasted for nearly 200 years and with most medium to large cities opening a zoo. During this period zoos became part of our psyche and the civic institutions they are today.

However, in the early 1970s zoos began to change. With a change in mindset akin to an Environmental Revolution, the United States began to change. Burning rivers, silent springs, and acid rain lead to a number of changes in law, including the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, that mirrored a growing environmental and biological conscience. Zoos began to question their mode of operation and everything began to change. Exhibits became more open as we focused on welfare and natural behaviors. Breeding of exotic species improved with a new emphasis on nutrition, health care, and new exhibits. More and more information was brought in from field scientists all over the world. This information drove decisions about how to build exhibits, what to feed animals, and what the proper social groupings should be. This information from outside began to improve zoos exponentially but that wasn’t all. Zoos began developing their own research departments, sending out their own scientists to the field and studying the animals in their own collections. Zoos began funding conservation work and enabling those field scientists that were protecting the environment. Today, zoos continue to evolve at an amazing rate, but much of that is not visible to the general public. While we still fund-raise to update those old Victorian era remnants, the focus is on HOW animals are managed and what the potential of zoos really is. The changes that have occurred in the past 30 years are mind-boggling.

Today, more than 175 million people attend an accredited zoo in North American each year, and that number is thought to be between 500 and 750 million people worldwide! As a result, zoos have the potential to be the most powerful and influential conservation organization in the world. Zoos reach an audience of people who aren’t necessarily engaged in thinking about animals or the environment, something that traditional conservation NGOs cannot accomplish. Today, zoos continue to grow and change, but the primary focus is on positively impacting the world we live in, through education and conservation work, while still providing that much needed green-space to allow people in the urban environment to be connected to the world they live in.



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Missing from History: Black Suffragists and the Right to Vote

The Cleveland Association of ΦBK Endowed Forum

Join us as Paula J. Giddings, the Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 Professor Emerita of Africana Studies at Smith College, discusses the 19th Amendment: the political tradition of African American women, their struggle to be enfranchised, and how their activism led to the influence that Black women have on today’s electorate.

  • DATE: April 16, 2021
  • PLACE: City Club of Cleveland Virtual Forum
  • TIME: Livestream beginning at 12:30 p.m.


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