How Zoos Lost Their Bars

It makes us more comfortable with keeping animals captive, but as recent events show, that comfort is dangerous.

Is this really any worse? An African chimpanzee grimaces in a cage at a zoo in Dehiwala near Colombo, Sri Lanka, on March 3.

Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images

In the weeks after Harambe, the lowland gorilla, was shot when a 3-year-old boy fell into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, I began to notice peculiar news stories that otherwise wouldn’t have attracted my attention. A leopard in a Utah zoo slipped through the mesh that separated it from the public, forcing visitors to huddle in the gift shop until it was caught. A black bear cub briefly escaped its handlers while being moved between enclosures at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio (it was eventually sedated and returned). Georgian police killed a tiger that had, in its own turn, killed a man after escaping its enclosure. Just last week in Brazil, a jaguar exhibited in the Olympic torch ceremony broke free from its chains, moving freely until it too was shot after attacking a soldier. When animals and humans are close enough to one another, mishaps happen in both directions—humans get in, and animals get out. Invariably, both suffer.

Following modern traditions of zoo design, Harambe’s enclosure was separated from the public by a metal and wire fence of just three feet, though that sat atop a more severe 15-foot ledge. According to a 2015 video released by the Cincinnati Zoo, Harambe’s home was “the world’s first barless outdoor gorilla exhibit” when it opened in 1978. While it now seems this decades-old decision doomed Harambe, at the time of construction, the barless design was likely praised as a more “humane” way to house captive animals. It’s an odd adjective under the circumstances: Animals don’t care about bars—they care about boundaries, and even barless enclosures limit their range.

We tend to think of faux-habitats like the Cincinnati Zoo’s gorilla pen as somehow better for the creatures they house, when in fact they are most likely just the product of our own selfish desires.

Consider this video filmed at the Chiba Zoological Park in Japan: The transparent glass allows lion and child to consider each other warily. The cat seems to be stalking the child, and though it appears to sit for a brief moment, eventually it rears up as it lunges for him—only to slam into the translucent zoo wall that divides its zoo enclosure from the walkway where the child stands. The glass boundary is just as real to the lion as any cage might be.

The history of zoo design demonstrates that “natural” enclosures serve humans more than the creatures who live within them. We favor artificial habitats that follow aesthetic expectations about nature rather than purely natural conditions, as the sociologist David Grazian argues in his book American Zoo. They reflect our own fantasies about the animals we gawk at rather than the true needs of these nonhuman others. In the process of meeting our needs, they may erase the true plight of those animals, naturalizing nothing so much as the pretense of our benevolent dominion over nature.

Though the disappearance of bars at zoos might seem like a recent phenomenon, the shift toward what Grazian calls “nature making” has been underway for more than a century. The historian Nigel Rothfels connects this tendency back to one man, the 19th- and early-20th-century German animal dealer Carl Hagenbeck. When Hagenbeck first began to expand his family’s animal procurement business, it was enough to simply acquire exotic specimens for trade, often by killing the parents of the young or otherwise brutalizing wild populations. As competition grew, Hagenbeck was inspired to find new ways to show off these captive creatures. In 1907 he opened a private zoo in Hamburg that both anticipated and engendered subsequent replications. Hagenbeck’s animals roamed in enclosures that simulated their original habitats, separated from visitors not by bars but by moats much like the one in which Harambe met his end.

These novel design choices had troublesome origins, Rothfels writes in his book Savages and Beasts. Prior to transforming zoos, Hagenbeck had a profitable business exhibiting indigenous peoples throughout Europe and North America. He found that he could capture the public’s attention by showing them off in simulacra of their native garb, producing an impression of untouched otherness in the process. Rothfels argues that these manufactured performances helped to reinforce the larger colonialist project, contributing “to the idea that the efforts of the colonial societies were advantageous both to the indigenous peoples whose lands were being occupied and to the Europeans who were occupying them.”

According to Rothfels, Hagenbeck’s revolutionary Hamburg zoo drew both its inspiration and its ideological justification from these “people shows.” The merchant would reposition himself as a protector and lover of the natural world, a pose inspired by his perception of the public’s desires. “Ever since Hagenbeck,” Rothfels writes, “animals have been put in zoos increasingly because they are nice, healthy, safe places, and because the animals, we are told, might be better off there than in the real ‘wild.’ ” These kinder, gentler exhibits—exhibits that reflected a growing discomfort with more explicit spectacles of imprisonment and domination—allowed visitors to feel as if they were aiding the exhibited.

Hagenbeck’s most enduring legacy may be that his simulated environments make it easier for us to enjoy captive animals without having to question our entanglement with and influence on the animal world. The legal scholar Irus Braverman writes in Zooland, “The most crucial assumption underlying the entire institution of captivity is the classification of zoo animals as wild and therefore as representatives of their unconfined conspecifics.” To justify putting animals on display, we have to think of them as profoundly and totally other. Simulations of nature may actually contribute to that conceit. By encouraging us to see the animals as wild creatures, zoos help us forget that they’re no longer in the wild—a wild that’s often rapidly disappearing, even as we stare into their enclosures.

By showing us idealized images of animal habitats, zoos sometimes make it harder to understand just how much humans affect the world around them. Arguing that we need to question the sharp distinction between nature and culture, Grazian observes, “Nature is itself a cultural construction organized by human imagination and experience.” This asymmetrical binary helps to erase the fundamental strangeness of our modern zoos, with their synthetic environments and invisible barriers, letting us trick ourselves into believing that what we’re seeing really is normal. Rothfels proposes that this makes it all the harder to question these strange institutions, since it tells us that animals are contented and safe in their wild elsewheres. But as those repeated stories of escape and endangerment show, we don’t control these creatures, and they are not at home, however much we might repress the fact of their imprisonment.

We may not be able to justify this much longer. As Matt Soniak argues, the future of zoos should move away from housing such large animals in such barbaric accommodations, and move toward hosting local populations in need of recovery. Soniak suggests that such facilities would do well to focus on preserving local species, meaning that their enclosures might reflect their native habitats a little more honestly. Crucially, though, these future zoos would focus more dramatically on the needs of the animals themselves. Theirs would be a more immediate kind of imperilment, a product of changing conditions around us, not of the environmental degradation over there. Knowing just how fully they’re in danger, and recognizing that their burning world is our own, perhaps keeping them in cages with real bars would be the kindest thing for them. After all, it’s our own inclination toward destruction that endangers most species. Much as we love the illusion of proximity, more explicit prisons may soon be the safest habitats left.