David Hancocks | The Paradoxical World of Zoos

Renowned zoo architect, director and consultant, David Hancocks, has long provided controversial yet credible commentary on the captive animal industry. Having authored ‘Animals and Architecture’ and ‘A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future’, in addition to other works, he is currently heavily engaged in writing a new book but was gracious enough to take some time out to discuss his impressive career and, you guessed it, zoos. 

Please note: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the individual involved, and are not necessarily representative of those held by conservation Careers or the author. You’ve been warned!

Can you describe some of the key steps you’ve taken in your career?

“I learned different and important key steps at each of the zoos I have worked at. First, as an architect at London Zoo where I went to work, although I had never visited a zoo before. There I was surprised to learn that almost no attention was given to animal’s behavioural or psychological needs in designing their enclosures. This remains a common problem in zoos around the world. Then, at Woodland Park Zoo, where I was first the planning coordinator for their new Master Plan and then the Director to implement that plan, I was astonished at how simple and inexpensive it could be to make critical improvements that met those animal needs, but also how almost completely uninterested the zoo community was in those changes when we published and promoted them.  

The third key event in my career was when I went to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to serve as Director and discovered what a vast difference it was to work in a “zoo” that had real artists and, most particularly, real scientists on the staff, working together and sharing ideas in an institution with a deep knowledge of the region’s ecology, botany, geology, earth sciences, ethnobotany, and other aspects of Sonoran desert life and history, and a strong working connection with other specialists at the University of Arizona. I had not until then fully realized how shallow the science pond is in zoos generally, beyond veterinary science.

Finally, when I moved to Australia and became Director of the Victoria Open Range Zoo (VORZ), in Werribee, on a 225 hectare (556 acre) site, I was once again astonished; this time to discover how wrong I had been in believing that quality of space was the most important consideration for captive animals. At VORZ, the African Savanna exhibit alone is 36 hectares (90 acres). And I learned there that quantity of space is equally as important for captive animals’ wellness as is quality of space. Watching giraffes and rhinoceros actually running, for the sheer pleasure of it, was a markedly different experience for them (and for me) compared to the conditions in a typical zoo.”

The last time I tried running for the sheer pleasure of it, they asked me to leave the supermarket. 

You have been critical of zoos in the past. Have your feelings softened at all? 

“Sadly, the more I have learned about zoos the more disillusioned I have become.”

Is it that zoos are crippled by the fact they are essentially a Victorian construct, comprising of ‘stamp box’ style collections, overly reliant on charismatic megafauna?

“There is indeed too great a focus on charismatic megafauna. It is a lazy way of attracting visitor attention. But I think the postage stamp mentality is not as prevalent as it was historically, with more attention now given to mixed species exhibits, for example, although in too many zoo directors’ and curators’ souls there lurks the covetous heart of a collector who wants the rarest, the biggest, the most unusual species, and the cutest babies. There remains, too, the perennial problem of lack of proper spaces for zoo animals.

The exhibits today may now look more natural, but in terms of animal needs they are typically not much better than the old menagerie cages (which, incidentally, still remain in every detail in many holding facilities and off-exhibit zoo areas). Concrete trees, vegetation that is sealed off by electric wires, acres of fake rockwork that does not feel or act like real rocks in its thermal capacities, substrates that just get packed down harder and harder, are never tilled, and become like concrete. A few dead trees perhaps, that are dried up and hard as iron, and just as useless to the animal occupants. More disturbingly, nothing ever changes in these useless zoo spaces. Zoo animals step out into the very same unchanged space every morning day after day after year after year.

The zoo passion today for ‘enrichment’ is, to me, a public admission of defeat. In a space that gives the animal what they truly require there is no need to litter the place with junk and other distractions. Animals in the wild don’t require ‘enrichment’. They have agency and can choose to interact with the living components of their natural habitats (physical, living and social). They are able to engage the repertoire of behaviours that they evolved for use within their natural habitat, and to do so without being artificially enticed to mimic a few aspects of those behaviours by a keeper. Animals in the wild do not require a keeper’s stimulation to be active; they have places worth exploring, and have their natural, social mix of compatriots, and that is sufficient stimulus for them to be active. They can dig, fly, run, climb, soar and do all manner of natural things denied to most animals in most zoos.

The basic problem, I feel, is that zoos are still only focused on putting exotic animals on display for visitors to gawk at. That is what they have always done and what they seem to think is their basic purpose. They boast about their education and conservation successes but these highly exaggerated claims are very selective and hang on extraordinarily slender threads. In short, zoos need to move away from being places that essentially just put animals on show, and evolve into museums of life.

To be places that illustrate and interpret how all the components of Nature work together, to help the public better understand why interdependence is vital for survival, and to create a greater awareness of the truth that interconnectedness is the glue that holds everything together. But zoos are not even attempting to move in the direction of displaying and interpreting the full panoply of life, and certainly they do not have the credentials to do so in their present format, nor the content that could illustrate and amplify such goals.”

That will upset the zerds (zoo nerds).

In the wake of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, SeaWorld suffered public backlash, a decline in revenue and ultimately decided to phase out killer whales from their marine parks. Do you think it’s possible we could see a similar thing happen in Zoos with some of their species, especially considering high-profile incidents, such as Harambe the gorilla, sporadically occur and generate substantial public outrage?

“I don’t know how to answer this question adequately without writing a whole book — which is what I am presently engaged in!”

Well then, how about a couple spoilers?

“I have arrived at the conclusion that there are many species, most of them traditional zoo animals, that are unsuited to a good life in zoos. Elephants are the most obvious examples, being large, intensely social, active, vigorous, highly intelligent, perceptive and emotional beings. But zoos are desperate to keep elephants, mostly for commercial purposes (a baby elephant can double the annual attendance) though also in part because they still believe that they can’t be a zoo if they don’t have an elephant. And simply because they want elephants. At present I think the public tolerate this because they believe what zoos say about their role in saving elephants from extinction. When the truth finally emerges, I think that could trigger major changes in public attitudes, as happened with Blackfish. I hear the bough creaking already in the winds of change that zoos seem to be blithely unaware of.”

What are you most proud of in your career so far?

“At one time I would have said the introduction of Landscape Immersion, because in my view it was the best option for giving zoo animals what they need, with landscapes they could interact with that were as close a replicated version as possible of their natural habitats, and for immersing the visitors in the very same sort of environment, in which they could engage all their senses, helping them to recognize the vital links between specific wild animals and specific wild habitats — and thereby, I hoped, the realization that saving and protecting wild habitats was the best way to save wild animals.

The first Landscape Immersion exhibit was the gorilla exhibit at Woodland Park Zoo, which opened in July 1979. Zoos were highly sceptical that it would work, telling me it would be a mud bath in the winter and a desert in the summer. I think it was 12 years before another zoo attempted to do such an exhibit. I believe Terry Maple, Bernard Harrison, and Randall Eaton were the only zoo professionals who came to examine and learn about what we were trying to achieve in Seattle.

When I presented the concept at an AAZPA (now AZA) Conference the response was very negative. I was told that the amount of money put into plants and landscaping was wasteful of space and money, and unwarranted. Zoo people in general hated the fact that the vegetation made the animals more difficult to see. They believed the animals were too far distant from the visitors and thought that allowing the gorillas to come and go as they pleased, or to get out of view if they wished, was nonsense. And they certainly did not want to be bothered with maintaining and/or replacing any live vegetation.

They ignored the treatment we gave to the holding areas, which the gorillas could enter or leave as they wished, and where we provided as much natural light as possible (I thought it especially important the gorillas could see the night skies), with hammocks to sleep in instead of on concrete shelves, and with careful attention to acoustical treatment to make the spaces soft and quiet. Mostly, the philosophy espoused by other zoos seemed to be that the only thing a zoo needed to do was to show what gorillas looked like. Ironically, the gorillas in the new Landscape Immersion areas at Woodland Park Zoo looked (and behaved) quite differently from what they were and how they acted in the bare concrete room of their old Ape House.

Eventually zoos found their own version of “Landscape Immersion” with exhibits that look sort of natural, but most decidedly aren’t. Typically, now, zoo gorillas are held in exhibits that cost many millions of dollars more than the $500,000 gorilla exhibit we built in Seattle, which was then the largest in the world (but ridiculously small by wild gorilla standards).

Nowadays too many gorillas are still confined in spaces much too small, with no contact with living vegetation, and absolutely nothing to interact with except huge clumps of fake rockwork and vastly expensive concrete trees that are of zero value to them. So I think my Landscape Immersion experiments have essentially been largely a failure.”

If you were to start your career over again today with the goal of tackling the biodiversity crisis which discipline or sub-discipline would you choose to be most effective?


Very descriptive…

Is there any advice you would offer to those starting a career in zoos and conservation or considering that path?

“The most difficult question of all. First let me say I do not believe there are strong links between zoos and conservation. Saving wild animal species in captivity is not going to achieve much beyond saving wild animal species in captivity. It benefits the zoos but achieves little beyond that. The species that zoos have been involved with for reintroduction are very few in number and have most often been the result of one zoo individual, or as a technical breeding component for a government agency conservation program, an aspect that zoos almost never acknowledge.

There are, however, examples of zoos working directly to save and protect wild habitats that encompass threatened and endangered plants and animals — in other words, whole ecological systems. This type of activity has most notably been led by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, based at Jersey Zoo, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at the Bronx Zoo. If more of the world’s zoos would focus more effort on such activities, instead of persistently misleading their visitors with exaggerated claims about how breeding zoo animals is saving them from extinction, the planet could be a much healthier place.

My view, therefore, is that if someone wishes to have a career in conservation they should find ways to become involved with conservation and protection of wild habitats, not just of a few animal species. In this regard there is a very wide range of specialties required for wild habitat conservation, from government law to fund-raising to any number of the sciences, and they should seek employment with either government agencies or non-profit organizations directly involved in conservation.”

So if you want a conservation career maybe don’t try to follow in his footsteps… There’s a first!

Thank you for reading everyone and thank you David Hancocks, now I’m off to find out how many of my Zoo Keeper pals have unfriended me.

 By Patrick Pester BSc, PGDip. Now on Twitter under the appropriate name of @pestpatrick

Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Wildlife