Monday 16 April 2012

All zoos are not created equal

I just got back from an over-night trip to Seattle. My primary goal was to see the exhibition "Gauguin in the South Pacific" at the Seattle Art Museum (it was terrific), but en route I stopped at an old childhood haunt: the Woodland Park Zoo, a place to which we journeyed for occasional family outings when I was growing up. As good as the Gauguin exhibition was, it is the zoo that I keep thinking about.

As an individual who has a strong personal interest/affinity for animals, and as an artist whose practice revolves around depictions of animals, I have a love-hate relationship with zoos. I'm drawn to them as a way to see/experience spiecies I would never have a chance to encounter in the wild. I appreciate that they have become havens for species whose existence in the wild is tenuous, and I am particularly pleased when zoos engage in programs that help bolster wild populations. I also feel that zoos can give children unique opportunities to experience animals and can be important to helping them build empathy and understanding, and thereby offer hope for the safety of future generations of wild creatures. After all, zoos were important to me as a child and contributed to my development as an artist. However, all-too-often I am repulsed and saddened when I see animals living sad lives of captivity in conditions that range from less-than-ideal to downright horrific. Thankfully, this was not the case in Seattle. I have visited zoos in many places but rarely have I had such a positive experience as at the Woodland Park Zoo this week.

Giraffes in their "savannah" enclosure.
I think the really unique thing about this zoo is that the comfort of animals appears to be the number one priority. The enclosures I observed do a good job of emulating natural habitats and they are, for the most part, spacious and allow the animals room to move or to seek out areas of privacy should they wish to. Monkeys can be seen perched high in trees where they nibble on foliage; giraffes stroll around their "savannah" tasting twigs from high branches and comfortably sharing their space with ostriches, zebras and the like; birds in the tropical rainforest fly about, courting and nesting. Lush vegitation throughout the park makes the journey from enclosure to enclosure often feel like walking through a forest. The fences, moats and barriers are often integrated into the exhibits in such a way that, in many cases, viewers are oblivious to their existence. While I wasn't able to see the entire park, what I did see gave me warm, fuzzy feelings that this is a good place for animals - at least as good as possible in a zoo environment. 

South American toucans interacting (notice the grape in
the bill of the bird on the left - a gift from his/her mate).
A magnificent Russian eagle - larger than a bald eagle and endangered in wild.
The Woodland Park Zoo engages in a breeding program to help support wild populations.
One of the most striking experiences I had was observing the brown bears (aka grizzlies). There are two of them and they were actively engaged in gnawing on what they obviously found to be delicious raw bones. Their large enclosure is designed to emulate a river valley (and I'm told by a local Seattle-ite that it's going to be expanded). One bear gave up his bone and slipped into the pond, which is enclosed by glass that allows viewers to see below the surface of the water, and he actually went hunting for large, nervous-looking fish (trout?). He splashed and swam, stole the bone of his grizzly companion, toyed with a huge log, and appeared for all the world to be as happy and content as such a magnificant creature can be in a captive setting. The children on the scene were delighted, as were the adults, and I felt privileged to have the experience of being within inches of a very lively grizzly without the concern that he would be the last thing I ever saw!

It's been several decades since I last visited the Woodland Park Zoo but I know I'll be going back soon, camera and sketchbook in hand, to again observe its residents. I offer kudos to the zoo society, its staff and volunteers, and the people of Seattle for supporting this exceptional place.

If you are interested in visiting the Woodland Park Zoo, it's located on the north side of Seattle and only a two-hour drive from the Lower Mainland of BC. Visit for more information.

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