A trip to the zoo – education or entertainment?


While we were on holiday at the cottage, we took a day trip to the zoo. It was only 90 minutes away, so it was a reasonable drive. More importantly, from M’s perspectives, there were penguins.

As a child, I loved the zoo – lots of exotic animals and space to run around. Where else could I see real lions, monkeys and hippos? I read National Geographic and watched Wild Kingdom (it was on just before the Disney movie at 6 pm on Sunday night), but I instinctively knew it wasn’t the same as seeing the real thing. Zoos in those days were much different from today – the animals were often kept in small concrete enclosures, often with bars to separate them from the admiring crowds. I didn’t really take too much notice of their living conditions. I was too enthralled with seeing an elephant and a lion up close.  As far as I was concerned, it was much more fun to learn about the habits and characteristics of various animals while wandering around the zoo, rather than just reading a book (remember the dreaded book report on kangaroos?)

As I walked around the zoo, I felt vaguely uncomfortable. I enjoyed seeing the animals – I admired the elegance of the giraffes and laughed at the antics of the lemurs. But the fact that they were captive animals, on display for the enjoyment of humans, left me feeling a bit conflicted.

The zoo we visited is a large accredited facility. The animals are organized by geographic area and efforts have clearly been made to approximate each animal’s natural environment to the greatest extent possible.  The zebras and antelopes have lots of space to roam around. The African penguins have a big pool to play in, as well as rocks to rest on.

Penguins taking a break

Penguins taking a break

But there are limits, both spatial and financial, it terms of how much space a facility like a zoo can provide for the animals. There are ongoing discussions as to whether or not really large mammals like elephants should even be housed in zoos – in the wild, elephants have a huge range which is almost impossible for a modern zoo to replicate.

Elephant walk

Elephant walk

According to some critics, many zoo animals develop compulsive habits and will often pace in their enclosures. We watched a polar bear swimming into the deep end of a tank and then floating to the other side on her stomach.  To our great amusement, she did this over and over again. Hopefully, this wasn’t a sign of mental stress, but rather an attempt to stay cool on a warm summer day.

Floating polar bear

Floating polar bear

In addition to providing human conditions for their animals, this zoo is heavily involved in conservation, including educating the public about endangered species and habitat loss. There were numerous placards explaining what individuals could do to help prevent further harm to iconic species like the tiger and the orangutans – recycle more, buy certified wood products, eat less red meat. M spent 10 minutes waiting in line to go on the Gorilla Climbing Gym and then another 30 minutes climbing around the apparatus.

Gorilla gym - kids need harnesses

Gorilla gym – kids need harnesses

I expect the climbing gym was installed right beside the gorilla exhibit in order to help children understand how gorillas move around the forest. Since M only spent about 30 seconds looking at the real gorillas, I’m not sure how much he actually learned. Unless it was by osmosis.

This particular zoo has an active breeding program – everything from chameleons to orangutans. Given the threats faced by many species around the world, captive breeding programs, would seem to be important link in the battle to ensure the continued existence of many animals. However, I’ve read that very few of the animals born and bred at a zoo are ever released into the wild – most of them are sold and traded to other zoos.

As we walked around the zoo, I realized that as much as they are about educating people, they are also about entertainment. Zoos have not inexpensive endeavours and they need warm bodies through their gates. They’re competing with lots of other attractions, especially in an urban area. So it’s not enough just to have lions and tigers and bears. They need a big draw – the animal equivalent of a blockbuster.

This summer, the zoo’s star attraction is a couple of pandas on loan from China. The zoo has built a huge panda attraction, including a very large interpretation centre visitors have to pass through before they actually see the animals. There’s lots of interesting information about pandas, including a very impressive pile of poo (hopefully, fake) which represents the daily output of a single animal (lots of roughage in bamboo) The afternoon of our visit, the exhibit wasn’t busy and we didn’t have to line up to see the pandas. As it turns out they were both asleep, so we watched the male roll around for a few minutes and then moved on. Upon leaving the panda enclosure, visitors pass by a large gift shop, stuffed with panda paraphernalia, including writing paper and enveloped made from panda poo (talk about recycling!). M didn’t seem too interested in the various panda tchotchke, although he asked for $2 to get a souvenir panda penny (he has a pretty good collection from various places we’ve visited). Considering the prices, we got off fairly lightly.



While the pandas are obviously the A-team, the zoo also has several while lions. They don’t warrant bill boards or their pictures on garbage cans, but they were impressive. We wondered if they were albinos, but apparently, their colouring is the result of a recessive gene. The male was sitting quite far away from the viewing area but I managed to capture a good picture with my camera – a magnificent animal.

White lion

White lion

There was a gift shop conveniently located near the while lions, but it’s offerings were much more modest than those of the panda shop – mostly stuffed animals and t-shirts. The lions did not rate poo paper.

Judging by the number of cars in the parking lot on the day of our visit and the crowds around some of the animal enclosures, the zoo is doing a pretty good job of attracting visitors. It’s not inexpensive outing – tickets for 3 people and parking cost us about $100. I expect cost-wise, the zoo stacks up pretty well against other large attractions. It’s definitely geared towards families and has enough variety to keep everyone entertained for the better part of a day, even electronics-obsessed 12 year olds’ like M. But underneath the cute factor of baby lemurs and the relative rarity of seeing a panda up close, there’s an uncomfortable tension. In order to educate people about the threats facing many animals and what needs to be done to protect them and their natural habitats, zoos need to bring in large numbers of people. Since giraffes and gorillas aren’t enough, a zoo needs to be constantly introducing new features and exhibits. Pandas may well do it for a couple of years. And then what? I’m sure the zoo administrators are already grappling with this issue – maybe they’ll be able to successfully breed the pandas or one of the other large mammals. Everyone loves baby animals.

After some reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not anti-zoo. As entertainment options go, a zoo is highly family-friendly. Kids can run around and with few exceptions, make as much noise as they want. Kids soak up information like sponges, so even if they aren’t actually reading every sign, many of them will go home with a greater appreciation for wild animals. This may well lead to a greater awareness of the need to protect animals in-situ, rather than just contain them in zoos.

As for me, I think I’ll skip the zoo next summer and donate money directly to on-the-ground habitat conservation.

Giraffe out for stroll

Giraffe and friend






One response »

  1. I very much enjoyed reading this post. To be honest, the last time I went to the zoo it left such a bad taste in my mouth that I have not gone back, and that was more than 15 years ago. Mind you, this was not the Toronto Zoo (which is arguably an excellent facility) but a very small zoo in Guyana which housed, among other animals, a pair of tigers in a 10 x 10 cage. I just could not deal with the crammed space and ever since then have felt uneasy about returning to a zoo. While I can see the merits of a research and breeding zoo, like you I would prefer to donate my money to habitat conservation. By the way, signs for the panda exhibit are EVERYWHERE in Toronto. Their advertising budget must be huge.

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