Apparently, there’s something captivating about captive animals.
Every year, North American zoos have greater attendance numbers than all professional North American sports teams combined. They are prominent cultural institutions found in nearly every major city; you are brought to them when you are young and you bring your own young to them when you are old. Indeed, Winnipeg's 103-year-old zoo is the oldest zoo in Canada. The first Canadian zoo, however, was a privately owned one established in 1847 in Halifax, but it closed in the 1890s.
“What is it about these places that bring people out in droves?” Bonnie Hallman, environment and geography, asked.
Hallman and Mary Benbow, associate dean academic of the Clayton H. Riddell Faculty of Environment, Earth, and Resources, are studying zoos. Both examine zoos from different angles, but often their work overlaps and they have recently begun collaborating on new studies.
The rich repository of environmental, social and cultural information held in zoos, and disseminated by them – from maps and signs to souvenir stuffed animals and conversations at an animal’s cage – is being tapped and examined by Benbow who wants to know what impacts zoos have on people. Such information is valuable to conservationists.
“It’s been stated that, for many people in Western countries, their only contact with biodiversity is in zoos. I thought if that’s the case, then that contact means people get a fundamentally different view of nature,” Benbow said. “What are the implications of that?”
To learn more, she studies maps because they reveal how zoos portray themselves. Zoo maps from the late 19th century, like Philadelphia's, were designed to be formal and convey an image of a scientific institution. By the 1930s, animals on zoo maps were portrayed using symbols and even cartoons. These images reveal how the animals were viewed; for example, gorillas were once depicted as brooding and monstrous but recently, and more appropriately, as sensitive and nurturing creatures.
Meanwhile, Hallman is looking at how people, with a particular interest in families, interact within the zoo. She has also received funding from a Centre on Aging Research Fellowship to examine the ways zoos can be more inviting to seniors – important future clientele.
Current zoo goers, Hallman said, are mostly mothers with their children.
“A zoo helps define who we are and it helps people grow into the role of being a good parent,” she said. “It gets an unquestioned stamp of approval for a good family outing.”
To shed more light on their work, Benbow and Hallman recently studied photographs taken by families in zoos because a zoo, they’ve noticed, is one of the top spots families take photos of each other with surprisingly consistent formulaic compositions.
Benbow said this is just one example of the wealth of research opportunities zoos have to offer.
“If you look around, you realize there are essentially so many projects that the big challenge is figuring out where we want to go next,” she said.
“There are so many untapped areas,” Hallman added.
Homepage photo by Mat Hayward. Creative Commons licence.