How can today's "zoological gardens" reconcile the needs of the animals they keep (for comfort, natural habitat, and the like) with the expectations of the people who come to see them (for accessibility, activity, but also safety)?
Good question, and today's Washington Post Magazine feature article on the National Zoo does a good job of describing how today's zoos are trying to resolve the problem. It's worth a read.
Certainly, if like me, you return to a zoo you used to know after years of absence, you're going to find that a lot of things have changed in the interim. Zoos no longer try to emphasize variety, but to expand the space offered to those animals they do keep, and in some cases to breed them. At Washington's National Zoo, for example, they will no longer keep both kinds of elephants, and hippos have been banished altogether, in order to expand the room to roam for the Asian elephants, who will remain on site.
Most zoos now also expend a lot of effort to manage the animals' environment in ways that seek to provide more interaction with their environment, while also offering up the close personal observation that most zoo visitors seem to want. When all is said and done, though, everyone seems to agree that the denizens of modern zoos are neither truly wild (a surprising number weren't even born wild, but in captivity) nor really "tame."
For me the article raises as many questions as it answers:
Are efforts to accommodate the animals on both sides of the bars worthwhile? This is pretty easy: I'd say yes, we expect these days that the creatures will be granted living space and treated in a humane way; and the economics of keeping them means that the spectators have to come away with some sense of getting value from their visit.
Does the concentration on fewer species make sense? Over time, probably. The space available to any zoo is limited, so efforts to provide better "living quarters" inevitably mean they'll be fewer in number. It occurs to me the trend may even benefit zoos nationally -- if you go all the time to the Brookfield Zoo, there's hardly a reason to visit a zoo in another city when you're there, if you know they'll have pretty much the same animals. You might, however, if you can expect to see something different.
Should we bother with zoos at all? Do we need them, except as a handy word to use up a "z" in "Words With Friends?" This is a tougher one. In the internet age, you can see animals in the wild, unrestrained by zoo boundaries, any time you want. Still, for most of us, the closer, in-person experience adds considerably to our wonder, our understanding, or our interest. (Just as viewing a concert on DVD, or seeing a sports event on TV, isn't the same as being there.) On balance, I think we'll keep zoos around for a while but I wouldn't be surprised to see some of the smaller and more marginal ones begin to disappear.