Zoo: A Brief History Part 2

The “cabinets of curiosities”, traveling displays of imperialism and private collection of the aristocracy remained the norm for the display of animal life until the second-half of the eighteenth-century, when the diversity of animals increased and fixed menageries began to appear…

This summer Travis San Pedro, our very gifted research assistant has composed a brief history of the Zoo for Animal Architecture. While AnArch. doesn’t make a pointed focus to study zoos or zoo architecture it is one of the most researched and searched terms on the website. We hope the following serialized posts will prove to be insightful, enlightening and answer a few of your questions.

Menagerie at Versailles (18th Cent.)


Education, Naturalism and Nationalism: 18th – 19th CENTURY

by Travis San Pedro

The history of the zoo is both expansive and detailed. Culled from Eric Baratay’s and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fougier’s “Zoo A History of Zoological Gardens in the West,” what follows is a very broad look at the zoo’s development throughout the ages with the hope that one receives a general understanding of its evolution into its present form.

Continued from Part 1.

The “cabinets of curiosities”, traveling displays of imperialism and private collection of the aristocracy remained the norm for the display of animal life until the second-half of the eighteenth-century, when the diversity of animals increased and fixed menageries began to appear in the largest towns throughout Europe. It was also the age of enlightenment and there was a growing respect for science and the natural world along with the birth of a new area of study called biology. For scholars, it was incredibly important during this time to have establishments to view animals as mistrust from naturalists about written accounts by explorers grew. Naturalists were also fed-up with the badly organized specimens in the cabinets and often poorly preserved remains of the exotic animals that did make its way into their hands.

Scholars would soon get their chance however, as the Enlightenment brought opposition to the exclusive menageries. Starting in France, the public saw these spaces as extravagant. This ushered in their decimation and led to creation of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris meant to serve an entire nation, its model spreading throughout the continent during the eighteenth-century under a cry of nationalism and democracy. What emerged was the zoo as a mark of civilization, with European cities striving to have one of their own.

Menagerie at Schonbrunn (18th cent.)

In the United States however, zoos did not crop up until after the Civil War. During this time, both in Europe and the U.S., urban expansion led to fewer public spaces. Coupled with a desire by the working class, bourgeoisie, and the aristocracy for temporary escapism and the sociocultural/physical benefits that walking provided, zoos became integral to life at this time, as it provided a place to exercise while engage with others in a public forum. Yet it was precisely because of these benefits which also led to the zoo’s transformative property in the urban landscape; because zoological gardens were such desirable places, they not only were markers of wealth but also when established on the outskirts of cities, managed to change the surrounding area into residential areas for the well-to-do. Resultantly, this divided the population geographically by class, characteristic of nineteenth-century urban planning. Entry restrictions to thus zoos resurfaced at the first-half of the nineteenth-century but by the second-half, democratization came into vogue once again under the hope that zoos could provide wholesome entertainment and moral instruction for the working class in tandem with a decline of interest in animals by the elite.

The effect of a stationary and accessible zoo was paramount for the scientific community, for the provision of a place for the permanent collection of animals allowed for not only more accurate study of them, but for their inventory and classification, a goal for zoology which had been pursued throughout the eighteenth-century and would continue into the twentieth. Though many still served as a place of entertainment rather than a place dedicated to serious scientific study, the zoological gardens became symbolic for science as a place for academic work to take place.

In the Menagerie, Paul Meyerheim (1852)

Right before the turn of the nineteenth-century in 1792, French writer and botanist Bernardin de Saint-Pierre proposed the exhibition of animals in recreations of their natural environments. In the eighteenth-century, architects J. Molinos and C. Verniquet implemented the idea into the program of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, though it was only partially realized. Modifications to the Muséum’s exhibits in the second half of the nineteenth-century did take place, though they simply gave the impression of the respective animal’s environment rather than improve the quality of life for the animal. During this time, zoos were intent on creating the most diverse collections possible, with those with the most ambitious scientific aims focused on a systematic presentation, the approach fueled by the presence of scholars and the recognition of man’s domination over nature. Yet it was the large failure of the acclimatization of animals, the idea introduced in 1861 by Saint-Hilaire, which eventually was the end to the scientific goals of zoos, paving the way for it to be a place entertainment.

Hippo at Regents Park, London (1891)

And indeed, come the mid-nineteenth century, zoo design was focused on the the satisfaction of its visitors. Buildings were focused on creating a spectacle, with small enclosures ensuring visitors of animal sightings; while the utilization of circular and hexagonal cages allowed for 360° views, they simultaneously endangered the inhabitants as it gave them a sense of being surrounded. Such a push to be as close to the animals as possible fueled the evolution of the cage with thin wire giving way to glass towards the end of the century, allowing visitors even more access to the animals they came to see. In terms of layout, the zoo’s most prized species were placed at its center, illustrating the animal’s objectivity and the zoo’s objective of creating an experience for its guest. Revolutions in design however did not take into account the health of the animals, prioritizing instead the entertainment of the public – for instance, sloping channels and concrete floors to aid in the cleanup of animal waste prevented regular animal activities such as digging yet promoted such ideals as hygiene which the public demanded. Resultantly, studies at this time confirmed noticeable negative changes to the physiological and psychological states in combination with high mortality rates for the animals. Current culture did not help matters, for as far as Europe was concerned, zoogoers went not for the observation of domestic species but for those which came outside of the continent. Romantic literature of the second-half of the nineteenth-century only fueled the public’s present desire for escapism, the zoo providing a physical encapsulation of their dreams. Fascination with exotic animals inspired sculpture and ethnographical architecture, creating a theatric and museological, even fine arts display of animals.

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