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First published: October 2000, revised February 2004.

The Zoo

by Michael Sones

Zoo Grosste Sehenswurdigkeit
Zoo Grosste
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The term 'Zoo' derives from 'zoological gardens' and it became an established term in the 19th century. 'Zoological' comes from the Greek word zoion which means animal.

For about 99% of our evolutionary history human beings were hunter-gatherers and, over the countless millennia, our minds, tastes, and preferences evolved in adaptation to that lifestyle. Animals were either prey animals to be hunted like the mammoth, elk, deer, horse, and bison or competitors in the hunt like the wolf and lion or fearsome predators like the jaguar.

The world was undoubtedly very different then both beautiful and dangerous. Megafauna ('giant' animals like the mammoth) were a bountiful food supply but hunting them was undoubtedly dangerous.

Scientists think that about 6,000,000 years ago we shared a common ancestor with the chimpanzees and it was about then that humankind began to slowly diverge from the natural world. Animals have attracted, fascinated, and frightened human beings for millennia. What is our relationship to animals and to the natural world? Are we just part of the natural world or are we part of it but also transcend it somehow? Is man just an animal? Or are we animals but also something more?The Inuit think of them as 'non-human persons'. The myths of the North and South America Indians and hunter-gatherers of today ascribe 'person' qualities to animals just as we ascribe animal qualities to some persons such as 'monkey', 'hungry as a wolf', and 'snake in the grass.' When we look into the eyes of an animal what do we see? What sees us? What kind of intelligence do animals have? What kind of feelings? It is certainly thought that some animals grieve. Do they grieve like we grieve? These days some people are seriously suggesting that intelligent animals should have rights. If intelligence is thought of as a continuum then animals are stupid compared to man but perhaps animals have a different kind of intelligence. For instance, some birds navigate by the stars. Others store food in caches and can remember thousands of different locations-certainly a feat beyond most humans.

Hansen, Sikker
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Nature has many anxieties for man and in our modern world zoos are part of our attempt to understand the natural world and they have both significant educational and scientific purposes. Many city dwellers have no opportunities to see animals either native ones or foreign exotic ones outside of zoos. Many animals are undoubtedly intelligent and by studying them we hope to both understand them and ourselves a little better and, perhaps, through controlling them also to control some of our anxieties about nature and ourselves,

However, zoos have not always been for conservational purposes. The domestication of animals like the goat, sheep, cows and horses probably began after the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago. The dog may very well have been one of the first animals to become domesticated (in contemporary primitive societies there are reports of women suckling infant wolf pups) and in an Ice Age cave in France there are, preserved in the dust as if it had happened yesterday, the footprints of a child chasing a puppy deep into the cave.


While hunter-gatherers may keep some animals such as pigs or chickens for pets and food. Zoos, however, have a unique connection with what is called civilization. Many cultures across different times and different continents have had zoos and the original purposes of zoos does not seem to have primarily been for conservational or educational reasons.

No one knows for sure when the first zoos were established but some of the earliest records are from the Chou Dynasty in China around the 12th century BC. when animals were kept near the Emperor's palace. The ancient Egyptians had captive animals and zoos as did the Assyrians and Babylonians.;[Click here for a picture of the Ancient Egyptians with captured animals]

Man was now clearly top of the natural food chain. Ancient competitors for food and predators of man were now controlled-safely in pens, pits, and behind bars. Nature was being tamed and man's anxieties about aspects of it being eased.


To own and control wild animals was also a social sign of wealth, power, and status. No one could expend the resources necessary to send men to capture wild animals and then look after them unless they were extremely wealthy and powerful. Zoos were the prerogative of the rulers.

Zoos were certainly well-established by the time the Greek city-states were in ascendance.The Egyptian king Ptolemy II (285-246 B.C.) had a polar bear in his private zoo in Alexandria. He had one of the largest collections of animals in the ancient world.

For the Romans owning a menagerie of animals was a sign of status and wealth. Wealthy Romans also had aviaries and fishponds in their gardens. They had collections of animals both to look at and for exotic entertainment. The Romans had polar bears fighting seals in a flooded coliseum in 57 AD. Elephants were brought from Africa for entertainment. Bears were trained to entertain or fight in the coliseums. To dedicate the Coliseum in 80 AD there was an enormous festival lasting one hundred days during which more than 10,000 prisoners and 9,000 animals were killed. Gladiators fought lions for the entertainment of the masses. The Romans admired the ferocity of the lion and to "feed Christians to the lions" is still an expression in use today. Lion Behind BarsCriminals and prisoners were undoubtedly fed to the animals in ancient times. This would certainly have been felt to reversed the order of things and evoked primitive anxieties originating in the ancestral past when humans were prey to the wild beasts.

The Spanish conquistadors who conquered Mexico in the early 16th century discovered that the Aztecs also had large zoos. At least some of the animals in these Aztec zoos were fed the remains of prisoners sacrificed to the Aztec gods. The Aztecs, who were cannibals, having eaten the choicest parts themselves.

Zoos have changed a great deal since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  In modern zoos animals are rarely kept confined in tiny cages.  Attempts are made to create as natural an environment for them as possible through the use of moats and other barriers to keep them separate from the visiting public.

As well as for the education and entertainment of the public zoos now play an important role in both the scientific study and conservation of wild animals. They are involved in many projects such as breeding programs to both prevent the need to capture animals in the wild but also to return them to the natural wild habitat where they are rare. The treatment of disease in animals is an important part of a zoo's work. Zoos often have specialist veterinarians.

To keep animals in a zoo is very expensive and they are an important and valuable resource. An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on February 18, 2023 reported an interesting change of policy. In 1990 the then new director of the zoo, Barbara Baker, decided that zoo animals would no longer be known by names given to them by humans. This policy is now being rethought. Baker said. "The original policy was intended to preserve the wild mystique of our animals and encourage visitors to admire them for their natural beauty as a species." However, new evidence is emerging that if zoo animals are named this helps children visiting the zoo relate to them better and this, in turn, may have a life long effect on these younger visitors' attitudes towards animal conservation. As a previous chairman of the zoo board said, " "Zoos evolve and change. As new evidence becomes available, it's only fitting that you adapt and change. I think Darwin expressed it very well."

The Ancient Egyptian wall painting clearly depicts a captured giraffe, baboon, and some monkeys.

Ancient Egyptians with captured animals

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