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Most zoos define their aims as ‘Conservation, Education, Research, and Recreation’. Sometimes they substitute the word ‘Entertainment’, but note how they nearly always list it last. We all know that zoos are recreational places; this is the real reason that so many millions of us go to the zoo every year – to have a good day out. Yet fashionable opinion has taught us to be faintly ashamed of enjoying a zoo too much. We should not, we seem to believe, enjoy seeing animals deprived of their liberty. So zoos will often pretend that recreation is a subsidiary objective to all those noble ones.

Of course there is an element of humbug in this. Zoos have to survive, and unless they enjoy the patronage of a benevolent millionaire, they do it by offering us a good day out. Leaving aside all of the fringe attractions that a zoo can use to accomplish this – funfairs, discovery centres, camel rides, and so on – the real point at issue is the animal collection itself. Can this be made more attractive without compromising all those other ideals?

There is an old fashioned view which seems to hold that recreation and welfare are in conflict. Under this theory cages should not be too big otherwise they appear empty. Too many dens and hiding places conceal the animals from the paying public. Too large paddocks reduce the impact of herd animals to specks upon the horizon. Too little variety in the collection is unexciting for the visitor. Zoos that have been developed with this theory in mind tend to have large, diverse collections within small, simple enclosures. Let us call them Type ‘A’ zoos. They might include London, Washington, Antwerp,  San Diego … to name only a few.

But then there is a second point of view, almost directly opposed to the first. We could call this the Type ‘B’ attitude, which believes that an enclosure designed to offer the most to the animal is intrinsically more interesting to the visitor. Never mind that the animals might be hidden or far away. They look freer, happier, and the experience of the zoo is fundamentally more optimistic and encouraging. Few zoos are really Type’B’. Safari parks often try to be; so do wild animal parks like San Diego Wild Animal Park.  John Aspinall’s zoos at Howletts and Port Lympne in England also tend strongly towards this view, to the extent that visitors will almost certainly never see a clouded leopard in any one of Howletts’ numerous breeding enclosures: the animals just never emerge in daylight. A Type ‘A’ collection would shut at least one outside. If nothing else, it would prove they had one. At a Type ‘B’ zoo you need patience. They are not museums with exhibits on display. They are enclosed habitats, where, with luck, you might spot a wild animal.

So which strategy is right? Visitor statistics might suggest that the first is more successful; but the second surely represent the way that public opinion is moving. If this is correct, then the small city zoos have had their day, and the future lies with big estate zoos where, perhaps, binoculars will be loaned out at the gate as the best way to enjoy the day.

What does all this have to do with recreation? Well, ultimately the most enjoyable zoos are those which seem to care the most about their animals. This does not have to mean that the animals are all off-show; but it does mean healthy contented animals, not bored and listless ones. This guide judges the recreation value of zoos predominantly upon the satisfaction value of their animal collection. Yes, this does mean variety, but not variety at the expense of space, or at the expense of keeping animals in sensible numbers.

Of course there are many other ways in which zoos try to be recreational. There are several good zoos where you could easily imagine enjoying the walk even if there were no animals there at all.  La Palmyra Zoo in France you might enjoy for the trees and the parkland, Chester Zoo you might enjoy for the gardens, Dudley for the castle, and  Prague Zoo or Pretoria Zoo for the views. Some zoos take recreation to an extreme, like Walt Disney’s Wild Animal Kigdom  with its theme park setting. At others the animals are just one part of a whole package of entertainments, as at Longleat in England where you can lose yourself in the largest hedge maze in the world or visit one of England’s historic houses. We may take account of these when we consider the recreation value of any zoo; but bear in mind that at this extreme the recreation is really rather peripheral to the zoo.

Some zoos have found imaginative ways of integrating recreation into the zoo, to add value to the visit. Jersey Zoo provides children with a climbing frame alongside the gorillas, to encourage them to copy the gorilla behaviour. Marwell in England has periscopes alongside the giraffes – to ‘see the world from a giraffe’s height’. Several zoos have miniature railways, and the best tend to be those that also provide a good view of the animals. Pretoria Zoo and San Diego Zoo have cable cars; Chester Zoo has a boat ride and a monorail.

There is also a growing fashion for contact sessions with animals. London Zoo has regular meet-the-animals events in its open air marquee.  San Diego Wild Animal Park has an aviary where you can feed lorikeets, and puts on falconry displays. Many zoos with sealions make a big event out of feeding time, and Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, of course, has its penguin parade. All of these things enhance a day out at the zoo, and help to make it a more memorable event. So long as they do not unfairly exploit the animals, (and of course different people will interpret this in different ways), then they are helpful, educative, and yes, entertaining.

Zoos need to entertain. It need not conflict with their greater ideals. Good zoos become exciting and entertaining places to visit because their animals inspire awe and wonder, and because they help us to appreciate the animals with some variety, some beauty, some imagination. These are the elements that we look for in the Good Zoos in the Good Zoo Guide Online.


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Editor: Jon Clarke    Research: John and Sue Ironmonger, Ray Heaton, and the readers of goodzoos.com   Illustrations by G.L.Grandy. Thanks to John Ironmonger for the original idea of GoodZoos.com.

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