Caged In

An edited version of this article first appeared on The B-Side, May-June 2014 issue.

Sick of shopping malls, my girlfriend and I escaped to Zoo Negara. We wanted to feel nature in the city. The zoo was crowded and lively: children were pulling their parents who were busy snapping photos of their children. Every face beamed of joy. Oh wait—even the faces on the other side of the barriers?

Our Sundays had been assimilated into shopping mall reruns of sales, mannequins, and more sales. Walking in a mall felt like hamsters exploring the guts of a python—cold, and not much fun. Instead, giraffes and monkeys sneaked into our imagination. We decided to look for wild animals at the zoo.

On the zoo map, a large green field labeled “Savanah” beckoned on the far left corner. My girlfriend cocked her head at me and grinned. Africa, here we come!

The “Savanah” was a wide grass field. A herd of ostriches were pecking at the grass, while two young giraffes lingered at the farther edge of the field. Suddenly, the giraffes took off, one after the other, galloping across the field, their heads bobbing as waves travelled down their necks. Their skin, stretched like a dry river bed, rippled with muscles beneath.

Then they broke their gallop, slowed to a trot, and turned around. They had hit the end of the field. They would not cross the 1.2 meter high barrier.

Giraffes galloped across the field. credit: YHLaw

Giraffes galloped across the field. credit: YHLaw

Globally though, giraffes and many animals of Africa have found themselves traversing much larger natural barriers. Giraffes, lions, rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses—they are kept and bred in zoos across the world, each living several thousand miles out of Africa in places they could not have gone if humans hadn’t brought them there.

These African mammals are now exhibited in every major zoo. These zoos strive to develop a strong identity and advertise a unique experience for their visitors. They also offer a staple set of animals: the African big game, tigers, penguins, dolphins, sea lions, orangutans, and—the star—panda. It reminds me of seeing the same thirty brands in every shopping mall.

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Zoos cannot afford to forego these animals. Visitors pay to see them. “Without people coming through the gates,” said Edward Maruska, former director of Cincinnati Zoo in United States “we are nothing.”1

Herein lies the conflict faced by modern zoos. On one hand, modern zoos have transformed from the Victorian-age exhibits of bizarre creatures into centers that educate the increasingly urbanized public about nature2 and facilitate animal conservation, welfare, and research.

On the other hand, a zoo is a business. It will fail if it falters in its fifth and traditional role—to entertain. The London Zoo, which needed donations and volunteers to save it from financial disaster in the 1990s, serves as a stern warning3. Too many visitors however, can undermine animal conservation and welfare.

Over at the primate cages, gibbons stirred up a breeze as they swung like hairy pendulums. Outside the cages, children stirred up a ruckus as they yelled like cheerleaders at a final game. Should I tell the kids that their excitement might scare the gibbons?


Visitors affect zoo animals in various ways, but many studies reported negative effects. In a review of studies that examined visitor effects, 16 out of 29 records showed that zoo animals were stressed by visitors4. When visitors increased, jaguars paced more; lemurs and monkeys turned aggressive and refrained from social activities that tighten bonds between individuals;  orangutan infants clung on tighter to adults.

Zoos mitigate visitor impacts on animals by using enclosures that reduce visitor intrusion or improve animal privacy. For example, enclosures can be fitted with one-way viewing glass or refuges. Zoo Negara, to their credit, have moved many animals out of cages and into large enclosures with refuges that are more naturalistic. Unfortunately, most visitors prefer to get up close with the animals or see animals in action5. A sleeping tiger at a distance, though beautiful, would hardly thrill any child. Disappointed children, and their disgruntled parents, do not make future ticket sales.

A zoo is more than welfare and conservation—it is a difficult business. The cages might not be in the zoo, but the zoo itself is caged. Neither the zoo nor its animals should expect an easy time.




1. Cohn, J. Decisions at the zoo. Bioscience 42, 654–659 (1992).
2. Ginsberg, J. R. Can we build an ark? Trends Ecol. Evol. 8, 4–6 (1993).
3. Maddox, J. Sad tale of an endangered zoo.pdf. Nature 350, 457 (1991).
4. Davey, G. Visitors’ Effects on the Welfare of Animals in the Zoo: A Review. J. Appl. Anim. Welf. Sci. 10, 169–183
5. Benbow, S. M. P. Zoos: Public places to view private lives. J. Pop. Cult. 33, 13–23 (2000).

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