Scripta Varia

The Context of Zoos and Aquariums

Thomas Kauffels[*]


Zoos and aquariums look back at a long history. Just like the interests, needs, and cultural practices of humankind changed over time, the roles of zoos and aquariums altered throughout history. This contribution discusses in the following the development of zoos and aquariums and points out how the expectation of the communities these institutions serve interacts with the activities that zoos and aquariums display. For this purpose, the evolution of zoos and aquariums is explained in four stages. A first section shortly lays out the history of zoos and aquariums as animal-keeping facilities. Subsequently, the change from passive observation of animals to breeding and helping species is elucidated in a second section. The third section focuses on the relationships between different zoos and describes how the character of these relations changed from rivalry to support for cooperative breeding. The first three points partly cover common perceptions of the core role of zoological gardens, but there are also activities and connections outside this remit, which will be touched on in the fourth section discussing the status quo of zoos and addressing the question of what makes a good zoo. This contribution closes on an outlook on the role of zoos and aquariums within the so-called West and on an international level, and highlights our joint responsibility to engage and make a compelling argument for a bountiful future for nature.

A short history of animal-keeping facilities

The history of keeping wild animals in human care[2] reaches back more than 5,000 years. Already in the time of the Pharaohs in Egypt, royal animal collections included elephants, giraffes, antelopes, and ostriches, to name a few, and a Chinese Emperor in the 12th century BC established a “park of knowledge” (Hoage et al. 1996, p. 9), showing tigers, tapirs, rhinos, and snakes.

What is better known is the keeping of wild animals in the Roman Empire – be it for food or more infamously for staged fights with gladiators, prisoners, or each other. Lions, hyenas, leopards, giraffes, and rhinos were presented and, in most cases, killed. The scale of this slaughter was enormous, with 5,000 or so animals being transported and kept alive for a single event: the opening of the Coliseum in Rome in 80AD. The end of the Roman Empire also called a halt to the import of exotic animals into Europe for centuries. Imports started again with the crusaders and the early explorers. At this point, the animals were kept in so-called menageries, which were connected to the aristocracy as the animals were considered symbols of power and wealth. Concurrently, the growing cities started to keep endemic wildlife like deer or bears, and the ruling classes established big game parks for hunting.

In the early 18th century, King Louis XIV was the first to incorporate a new kind of menagerie into the designs for the transformation of the Palace of Versailles, in which there was a small central pavilion for the royal family, and the enclosures for the animals were built in a circle around this pavilion. This menagerie was the template for the oldest extant zoological garden, which is the Tiergarten Schönbrunn in Vienna, Austria, established in 1752.

In the 19th century, the first zoos were founded, which declared themselves institutions for leisure and the education. They were open for all people, not only for aristocrats. The first zoo of this new generation was located in London. It had opened in 1828 following advice from “Sir Stamford Raffles, a colonial administrator and founder of the colony of Singapore, … [according to whom] there was a need for a collection of animals for scientific purposes” (Mullan & Marvin 1999, p. 109). While access to the Zoological Gardens in London was restricted to members and their guests, it was the opening of the facilities to the public that first established the term “zoological garden” on an international level (Mullan & Marvin 1999).

Unfortunately, the term “zoological garden” is still not adequately defined. The definition in the “EU Zoos Directive” (European Union 2015), according to which a zoo is defined as an institution with more than six species of exotic animals and open for the public more than seven days in one year, leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and fails to cover the common public perception.

Back to the history of zoos: The new development changed the reason for keeping wild animals from status seeking to educating a public thirsty for knowledge. The aim of these zoological gardens was the compilation of scientific understanding of animals; thus, they strove to collect as many species as possible. This ambition inescapably led to overstocking animals in inadequate facilities, giving the impression rather of a living museum than of a zoological garden.

This changed in the beginning of the 20th century when a new concept of animal presentation was established first by Carl Hagenbeck in Hamburg and subsequently by the Tiergarten Hellabrunn in Munich. Hagenbeck had the goal of presenting animals as openly and freely as possible. In 1907, he opened the first zoo without bars and used concrete copies of habitats to show the animals in a simulacrum of their natural environment. This progressive action was the beginning of a change from animal collections acting as taxonomic catalogues to illustrating animals in a near natural context (Reichenbach 1996).

How to keep animals in modern zoos was well explained in 1956 in the founding document of the Georg von Opel Freigehege für Tierforschung (Georg von Opel Sanctuary for Animal Research). It clearly speaks in favor of keeping animals in social groups, in naturalistic exhibits and wherever possible without bars between the visitor and the animals (Georg von Opel – Freigehege für Tierforschung von Opel Hessische Zoostiftung 2016; see also Kauffels 2010).

This was quite ambitious for 1956, but it is standard for zoos today.

Change from passive observation of animals to breeding and helping species

The previous section focused more on the architectural changes in animal-keeping institutions, but the evolution of exhibits also reflects the change in human attitudes to animals.

Before the drive for scientific inquiry at zoos, animals were brought in to satisfy human curiosity, and zoos operated at the same level as other public spectacles of the time. Their mode of operation primarily relied on the import of single zoological specimens that lived their lives on show, and were then replaced by single specimens when they died. Due perhaps to the enormous expense of importing wild animals one by one and driven also by the increase in scientific knowledge about the animals in question, zoological gardens learned to breed animals, and therefore had to create enclosures that could house pairs or groups of animals.

The building of this expertise led to the realization that zoos could help mitigate the phenomenon of human activity leading to the extinction of species, which was becoming increasingly visible. One of the first examples was the rescue of the Père-David’s deer by the Duke of Bedford in the early 20th century. This deer species was known to be extinct in the wild in their home region in China, but was known from the garden of the Chinese emperor in the Forbidden City in Beijing. In the 1870s, a few specimens found their way to the Zoological Gardens of London, Paris, and New York, where they were kept and bred. After the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, during which all animals in the Chinese Emperor’s garden were killed, the species was entirely extinct in China. In the years following, the Duke of Bedford collected all specimens of the Père-David’s deer from all zoos which had been keeping them and bred the species in his private estate (Baratay & Hardouin-Fugier 2004). These few animals led to an astonishing recovery of the species – to a current worldwide population of more than 3,000 animals today, including in China.

This success was led by a single person, who had the resources and the desire to make a difference; yet there are few such people. However, we also know now that you should not place all your animals in one location where the entire species could be wiped out by a single outbreak of disease. This realization, however, occurred late in the history of zoos such that cooperation between different institutions started from a different source, as explained in the following section.

Change from rivalry of zoos to cooperative breeding

At this early stage in our development, zoo decision-makers were just beginning to understand that working together to make a difference for endangered species was more important than trying to collect every possible species for exhibition to the public. A very good example of this realization is the rescue of the European bison, which was achieved by a few zoos in Europe that started to work together in 1923, exchanging animals for breeding and founding the first studbook records of any species ever in 1932. The last European bison in the wild was shot in 1927 (Baratay & Hardouin-Fugier 2004).

Around that time, the Swiss citizen Prof. Dr. Heini Hediger, zoo director in Basel, Berne and Zurich, postulated the four pillars of zoo biology, two with a local or regional focus, namely leisure and education, and two with a more global focus, namely conservation and research (Hediger 1965). Today the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) alone runs over 400 population management programs for different species, all based on cooperation between a similar number of institutions, and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) has explicitly dedicated itself to sustainable population management for the purposes of both animal welfare and species conservation (WAZA 2005, 2015a, 2015b).

Arguably, the early development of zoos was based strongly on enlightened self-interest – to ensure that species were available to be shown to the public. Nevertheless, the logic of saving species was becoming unavoidable: Prof. Dr Bernhard Grzimek, the well-known former zoo director of the Frankfurt zoo, helped establish the concept of zoo-led in situ conservation work by drawing an explicit link between the animals in the Frankfurt zoo and their conspecifics in the natural habitats of their region of origin.

In the last 25 years or so, zoological gardens have become increasingly involved with in situ conservation, and many related projects continue because of financial and staff support from zoos. Zoos aim to provide their support in connection with globally acting partners like the Species Survival Commission of the International Union of Conservation of Nature, the world’s largest conservation organization, which has observer status at the United Nations. EAZA zoos alone, with their annual attendance of over 140 million visitors, spend millions of Euros on in situ conservation, making this association a powerful contributor to conservation, even above WWF or Greenpeace.

Where do zoos stand today and what is a good zoo?

I will try to answer this question using six short questions and answers.

Today, zoos are among the most successful leisure destinations almost everywhere they are located. EAZA zoos are visited by more than 140 million visitors annually (EAZA 2019). In Germany, the member zoos of the German Association of Zoological Gardens (Verband der Zoologischen Gärten, VdZ)[3] have had an annual attendance of over three times that of the federal soccer league (Bundesliga) for many years. Zoos are therefore some of the most successful cultural institutions in most European urban societies.

Zoos are visited by people of all social and economic backgrounds, all religions, all nationalities, all educational levels and all ages. Zoos have a huge potential to integrate all these social groups and they have the means at hand to initiate a change of mentality in their visitors to appreciate nature and biodiversity. Let us not forget either, that zoos are one of the few leisure destination types which can be experienced as a family.

Why do they have this potential? Because all these zoo visitors want to see animals! This seems obvious, but I would like to explain further why I emphasize this point.

Question: What are the strengths and the weaknesses of our Zoos?

The overall professional strength of our zoos is the practical ability to manage small populations of wild animal species, especially those on the brink of extinction. This is our main expertise and no other body, institution or association is able to do that. We have the animals and with them we can generate empathy, carry out research, and educate the visitors, both actively through specialist programs and/or passively by piquing their curiosity. In this sense, the strength of zoos comes from placing wild animals and visitors in proximity.

I strongly believe that the number and diversity of zoological institutions is an important factor here in that the European public is never far from a zoo. Because of this, our public influence is more evenly spread, meaning that every zoo has the opportunity to play a role in promoting nature to its local community. A model that prioritizes regional mega-zoo hubs cannot have the same local influence, and will therefore have less effect on the behavior and attitudes of visitors.

While our visitors and their interactions with our animals are our strength, they are also our weakness. Judgement of zoos by the public is often based on factors that are not specific to zoos. We cannot base our presence solely on the animals in our care or on the good work we do for conservation and scientific research alone – why? Because the visitor experience has to be a pleasant one, including facilities that are clean and well maintained, staffed with friendly faces and easy to reach. A good zoo cannot neglect its duty to its visitors, because a visitor that is not cared for will not be receptive to our messages.

Question: What makes our zoos unique?

Only good zoos and aquariums have the expertise to provide high standards of welfare and husbandry to the animals in our care, and to use those skills for the conservation of species as well as for the promotion of zoological science. Moreover, all this has to take place in full view of visitors who we help to learn about the intrinsic value of nature and who we influence to behave more sustainably in their daily lives. If they see the animals their actions could destroy, they are more likely to reconsider their choices.

Question: What is expected from a zoo?

The expectations of zoos differ depending on whom you ask: visitors, media or professionals.

Visitors expect a pleasant day in nature with their children, seeing animals that have made up a large part of their childhood imaginations. They want to learn, experience, and enjoy. They expect us to provide the best possible welfare, but they still expect to see the animals in their exhibit, they want to be close, and sometimes even want to touch the animals. Increasingly, we recognize that visitors also want to see proof of our commitment to in situ conservation.

Concerns for welfare and conservation are often driven by the media; in our societies, the media is the hungriest beast of all, and zoos are expected, like any other publicly visible institution, to live up to an ideal that is often impossible to reach. Moreover, the media thrives on division and controversy, so that zoos need to work tirelessly to prove our commitment to both the individual animal and to the species itself. We welcome this pressure.

Zoo professionals have their own expectations: We want to educate visitors on conservation issues in their widest sense. Given that most visitors arrive only with the expectation of an interesting day out, we run the risk that the intensity of our expectations will overwhelm them. Thus, we need to understand clearly the context in which we operate – and work to overcome its limits.

This leads to the fifth question:

Question: What is a successful zoo?

I am convinced that a successful zoo has a very good bond with its community both with the public and with the authorities. It is respected for its animal husbandry, for its animal welfare, for its appearance, and for the impression it gives to visitors on both the animal and attraction level.

Being successful on the global scale should be the aim of every zoo, but if that is not possible, due to the scale of the institution or its community, it should still be possible for that zoo to make a valuable contribution. It should not be judged as lesser than the large zoos, which already have a global influence. We need all types of institutions to help us realize our responsibilities to society.

Question: What is our overall (realistic) goal and how can we reach this goal?

In my opinion, a realistic goal for zoos is to meet the expectations of their visitors, even as those expectations change over the generations. When my parents visited zoos as children, their expectations were different from mine, which are different from those of my sons, and will be different for their children. What remains constant is our presentation of animals. In Germany, only 2% of the population has the resources to travel to see our animals in their natural habitats. Consequently, without zoos, the empathy for animals and the desire to see them protected can never be maintained; it is this goal that we must strive to reach.

One last question: Who is paying our bills?

This is a very important question. Each of our zoos has to pay all its bills at the end of the day. Throughout our community of (European) zoos, there are different models of how a zoo operates: As a zoo you do not have to compromise on anything if you are privately owned and earn at least 1 coin of your currency more than you cost. If, however, you have a subsidized zoo and you depend on a board whose composition is affected by political elections, it is a lot more difficult to fulfill the overall agenda agreed by EAZA or, on the global scale, by WAZA.


There is no ideal way, no template, which will work for all zoos worldwide or even within the EAZA region, but there are “essentials”, which each of our member zoos should be aware of and follow. Therefore, associations like EAZA or WAZA are umbrella organizations and these umbrellas have to be open in order to be functional and protect instead of being used as a stick.

We as zoo professionals who grew up in the Western European context after World War II have to consider the different approaches and attitudes towards animals in the different regions of the world. We can offer our knowledge, but we cannot expect the growing societies in the developing world to have a comparable attitude towards animals in the short term. European cultures needed decades, not to say centuries, to develop this understanding for animals.

The attitude of our zoos should be: Our professional expertise and our passion can contribute to a rich and bountiful future for nature and should do so wherever possible. We need to be proud of what we have achieved and of what we can achieve, and we must continue the search for ways and means to contribute more. We need to bring our communities into the heart of our mission, transmitting our passion to those who seek it by entering our institutions, and seeking to influence those who do not. We need to work together across communities, regions, nations and continents to form a network of science-based, value-driven expertise to protect species and to help humanity to hold nature in their hearts with love.


Baratay, E. & Hardouin-Fugier, E. (2004). Zoo – A history of zoological gardens in the West. Reaktion Books: London.
EAZA (2019). Members. Last accessed on October 17, 2019.
European Union (2015). EU Zoos Directive Good Practice Document. Last accessed on October 17, 2019. 
Georg von Opel – Freigehege für Tierforschung von Opel Hessische Zoostiftung. (2016). Forschung im Georg von Opel Freigehege für Tierfoschung – eine historische Betrachtung. Meso Magazin 32, 6-7. Last accessed on October 17, 2019.
Hedinger, H. (1965). Mensch und Tier im Zoo: Tiergartenbiologie. Albert Müller Verlag: Zürich/Stuttgart/Wien.
Hoage, R.J., Roskell, A., & Mansour, J. (1996) “Menageries and zoos to 1900”. In R.J. Hoage & W.A. Deiss. New worlds, new animals: From menageries to zoological park in the nineteenth century. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore and London, pp. 8-18.
Kauffels, T. (2010). Opel-zoo Kronberg – Der Zoo im Taunus: 50 Jahre Georg von Opel-Freigehege für Tierforschung. Societäts-Vlg: Frankfurt am Main.
Mullan, B. & Marvin, G. (1999) Zoo culture: The book about watching people watch animals (2nd ed.). University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago.
Reichenbach, H. (1996). “A tale of two zoos: The Hamburg Zoological Garden and Carl Hagenbeck’s Tierpark.” In R.J. Hoage & W.A. Deiss. New worlds, new animals: From menageries to zoological park in the nineteenth century. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore and London, pp. 51-62.
VdZ (n.d.). Verband der Zoologischen Gärten e.V. Last accessed on October 17, 2019, at
Verband Deutscher Zoodirektoren (ed.) (2012). Gärten für Tiere: Erlebnisse für Menschen. J.P. Bachem Verlag: Köln.
WAZA. (2005). Building a Future for Wildlife – The World Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Strategy. WAZA Executive Office: Berne. Last accessed on Sept 10, 2019.
WAZA. (2015a). Caring for Wildlife: The World Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare Strategy. WAZA Executive Office: Gland. Last accessed on Sept 10, 2019.
WAZA. (2015b). Committing to Conservation: The World Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Strategy. WAZA Executive Office: Gland. Last accessed on Nov 4, 2019.


[*] Director, Opel-Zoo, Kronberg, Germany, and Chairman, European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), UK.
[2] For an overview of the history of zoological gardens, which exceeds the chronological outline presented in the following, see Baratay and Hardouin-Fugier (2004) and Verband Deutscher Zoodirektoren (2012).
[3] For information on current numbers of zoos which are members of the organization, on visits paid to these zoos and on vertebrates kept at these zoological gardens, please visit


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