Why SHOULD WE INITIATE a historical assessment?

Historical assessment helps us learn from cultural history in order to forge a fundamental basis to interrogate the essence, nature, reputation and importance of social institutions.

In this particular case, the examination of the history of zoos draws us closer to understanding the relationship between animals and humans. Due to culture, history, economy and politics, drastic changes have occurred in the way(s) animals and humans have been framed within an interactive context.

Roughly, zoos have a history of around 4500 years.

Animal keeping dates to ancient civilisations and that means the practice of animal keeping has been part of human culture as far as civilisation goes. Since hunting has been a popular economic activity, the relationship between man and animal is definitely weaved into culture and history.


Zoos and Animal Rights (1993) Bostock Stephens and internet articles and blogs.


In ancient Egypt animals kept were divine representations. They were revered and that guaranteed special treatment like having the best of food.

As time went by, the emphasis on attempting to domesticate indigenous wild species was later replaced by a taste for animals from abroad. For instance, Queen Hatshepsut, of the 18th Dynasty, sent five vessels to Somalia to collect ebony, ivory and gold, and also some exotic animals. The earliest portrayal of the practice of animal keeping in ancient Egypt is found in the lining of the tomb of a wealthy nobleman called Ti in Saqqara (5th Dynasty, 2495–2345 BC)


A hunting scene from ancient Assyria.

A hunting scene from ancient Assyria.

In this culture, research shows that there was a proclivity towards construction of holdings for large herds of animals that included elephants, gazelles, camels, antelopes, deer, and onagers (Asiatic wild ass). Predators were also part of the collection entailing cats and other hostile animals.

Babylonian and Assyrian kings received wild animals as tribute or gifts, probably sometimes ordering them. Some of the animals were ordered from outside because hunting affected their numbers domestically.

For more info: Animal keeping in Mesopotamia.


Bostock Stephen in Zoos and Animal Rights (1993) reports that “There were sacred menageries also in Greece, but the Greeks’ most striking animal involvement was a widespread enthusiasm for bird keeping, songbirds especially. Some birds were sacred to Aphrodite, and were given as presents with love letters carried beneath their wings, or bathed in scented water, so that they spread perfume as they fluttered about.”

There were other animals too. Stephens points out that “Aristotle’s remarkable biological writings were assisted by observations in a Greek zoo stocked by animals sent back by his famous pupil Alexander the Great from his military expeditions. The main evidence is a comment of Pliny’s, written 350 years later. It is probable that animals were actually available for observation in Greece following Alexander’s military exploits. For example, a group of his elephants came to the Macedonian court; about this same time the Athenians received a tiger which Seleucus, King of Syria, had given to Alexander.”

For more info: Animal Keeping in Ancient Greece: Ancient Greeks on the cultural identity of animals.


A depiction of ‘the wild hunt’ performed in the Colosseum in Rome.  Brutality towards animals as a form of entertainment.

A depiction of ‘the wild hunt’ performed in the Colosseum in Rome.

Brutality towards animals as a form of entertainment.

In ancient Rome, there was a lot of brutality elicited in the Colosseum. Research states that the first exotic animal spectacle recorded at Rome was the appearance in a triumph of four elephants captured from Pyrrhus, who was defeated in 275 BC. Twenty-four years later more than a hundred elephants captured from the Carthaginians were similarly brought to Rome.

In the second century BC Rome’s power in northern Africa enabled nobles to display African animals in large numbers.

It is accounted that there was a spectacle of slaughter of twenty elephants in 55 BC in a show laid on by Pompey that ended up revolting not only Cicero (A Roman statesman and orator remembered for his mastery of Latin prose (106-43 BC)) but also the ordinary spectators.

Augustus recorded that 3,500 African animals, mostly lions and leopards, were killed in his twenty-six venationes (was a type of entertainment in Roman amphitheatres involving the hunting and killing of wild animals), and this appalling level of animal slaughter continued into the first century AD. And sometimes, animals were sometimes simply displayed, as for example rhinoceros, tigers, and serpents that were considered extraordinarily long were exhibited to the public by Augustus.


The available historical source that shows there was a practice of animal keeping is a collection of ancient Chinese poetry known as the Chi-King (or She-King). There appears to have been a famous Intelligence Park of ‘Emperor Wen-Wang’ around the eleventh century BC.


When he planned the commencement of the marvellous tower,

He planned it, and defined it;

And the people in crowds undertook the work,

And in no time completed it.

When he planned the commencement [he said], ‘Be not in a hurry;’

But the people came as if they were his children.

But the people came as if they were his children.

The king was in the marvellous park,

Where the does were lying down—

The does, so sleek and fat;

With the white birds glistening.

The king was by the marvellous pond—

How full was it of fishes leaping about!

On his posts was the toothed face-board, high and strong,

The oldest collection of Chinese poetry entitled Chi-King (or She-King).

The park itself, the tower, and the pond are described by a word translated as ‘marvellous’. In a later translation the park attains a status of sanctity.

A royal menagerie

A royal menagerie

Menagerie—A collection of live animals for study or display, or a facility where wild animals are housed for exhibition.

In medieval and later Europe large exotic beasts tended to be the property of kings. The animals were often gifts from one monarch to another. And were housed in menageries or in deerparks.

Historically, we first hear of the British royal menagerie (at Woodstock) during the reign of William II (reigned 1087–1100), from a chronicler who speaks of his master’s receiving a bear from the king.


Venetian Marco Polo (1254–1324) provides an account of the spectacular nature of the palace in Xanadu (the capital of Kubilai Khan’s dynasty in China) that once housed Kubilai Khan, Mongol Emperor of China. Polo states that the ‘huge palace of marble’ was joined by a wall which ‘encloses and encircles fully sixteen miles of park-land well watered with springs and streams and diversified with lawns’.

Kubilai is said to have rode through the park time and again preceded by a ‘leopard’ (presumably in fact a cheetah) while sitting on his horse following behind. The leopard is alleged to have been released to catch prey whenever Kubilai felt like it.

Polo points out that Kubilai’s winter palace situated at Khan-balik was surrounded by luscious parkland. There, one would find white harts, musk-deer, roebuck, stags, squirrels, and many other beautiful animals. Polo adds that there were ponds with ‘a great variety of fish’. This can be taken as animal keeping within the context of zoos.


The term ‘deer-park’ possibly stood for ‘animal park’, up to 1490 or so, the name ‘deer’ connoted an ‘animal’.

deer parks.jpg

Deer-parks were primarily for hunting and food. Ian D. Rotherham in a lecture on the ‘Ecology and Economics of Medieval Deer Parks’ identifies that “Medieval parks provided hunting, foodstuffs, and wood and timber for building and fuel. Alongside deer, medieval parks contained wild boar, hares, rabbits (reintroduced to Britain by the Normans), game birds, fish in fishponds, together with grazing for cattle and sheep. In the case of parks such as Bradgate, pannage (feeding pigs on acorns) from the oaks provided revenue in rents. Parks generally had large areas of heath or grassland (called launds or plains) dotted with trees, along with woodlands (called holts or coppices, and if for holly (Ilex aquifolium) hollins).”

Additionally, hunting with hounds was not only reserved to the king and nobles but to a great extent was a privilege of the king alone-only he could hunt.

Deer-parks were only set up with royal permission. However, other wild and semi-wild animals were kept in medieval times in extensive areas without being there to be hunted.

For more info: British Deer-parks.


Animal keeping at this time was popular at the royal courts.

Philip VI of France is said to have had lions and leopards at the Louvre (an art museum that is a famous tourist attraction in Paris). Monkeys and apes were held in royal courts, often retrained with a collar and a chain attached to a little roller—as seen in French fifteenth-century tapestries, along with various other collared animals — or to a heavy ball.

Parrots were very popular, as in the Vatican in the fifteenth century. The Vatican menagerie housed a vast number and types of animals. Pope Leo X (1513–23) is said to have been impressed by some exotic animals like the snow leopard, elephants and the arab horse. Gustave Loisel tells us that at the Vatican, the elephant was a celebrity, and the fascination about it made it be sought out by portrait painters and addressed by a number of poets.


Hernan Cortes, a Spaniard who conquered Mexico (1517 and 1521) and his lieutenant Bernal Diaz del Castillo, account that Montezuma II (the Aztec emperor at the time) had a magnificent palace. In their varying accounts, they mention a zoo where large collections of birds of prey and of water birds, and also of large cats and dog-like carnivores.

Cortes points out that there were also containment zones for human albinos and deformed humans kept (quite humanely, it seems).

Castillo goes on to describe the keeping of vipers and poisonous snakes. These serpents were kept in jars and great pottery vessels with many feathers. Castillo opines that the snakes fed on bodies of human (Indians) who were offered as a sacrifice. The scenario of having snakes feed on humans as food strongly suggests that the snakes were kept for religious reasons.

Castillo and Cortes accounts strongly point to ritualistic connection between animals and humans in this civilisation.

menageris 1795.jpg


From 1770’s on wards, menageries were becoming popular. They contained a vast variety of animals. Famous among these was the George Pidcock’s travelling menagerie.

The various animals found in these menageries would be paraded in the open and it is alleged that some received special treatments than others mostly when the crowds were not familiar with them.

In a number of instances, some characters (various kinds of animals) were well known among the audience members. There was a theatrical/performative aspect in the nature of royal menageries because all manner of incredible and rare animals, some never seen before were displayed. Menageries were places of fascination where people came to see these rare animals who apparently embodied an exotic enchantment with breeds not known in their culture.


However, it is worth mentioning that the treatment of these exotic animals attracted public attention.

The case of Chunie/Chunee (a famous elephant who appeared at Covent Garden in 1811) was very controversial. The elephant got gunned down when he apparently became agitated during a period of musth (an annual phase of heightened sexual excitement in the males of certain large mammals (especially elephants)) in February 1826.

This event ignited a lot of public unrest thus depicts a typical example of how the treatment of animals has for a long period been a point of contention.


Sir Stamford Raffles.JPG

It was founded after Chunie’s/Chunee’s death in 1826 by Sir Stamford Raffles.

One of the reasons of its establishment was to function as a scientific institution.

The term that referred to the operation and essence of the institution was zoological garden which then gave the birth to the name zoo.

The term zoo emanated from a concert by Great Vance (a music hall artist) when he sang:

 Weekdays may do for cads, but not for me or you, So dressed right down the street, we show them who is who…

The O.K. thing on Sundays is the walking in the zoo.

(Brightwell 1952:97; Cherfas 1984:15)

However, Bostock Stephen in Zoos and Animal Rights (1993) accounts that as a new institution, the zoological garden did not succeed that much because “The life expectancies of the big cats at the Gardens was about two years, because of their poor housing, and there was extremely strong contemporary criticism.

Most contentions voiced at this period were about the conditions and what the animals were missing from their wild existence.

The English writer and social reformer Henry Salt later launched a revolutionary outcry in a text entitled Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress (1892) igniting the consideration of the of principle of animals' rights. The text placed into question the cruelty of shutting up a wild animal in a cell. The animals were incapable of accessing sufficient space to even turn around. Salt questioned the state of the containment because he considered the nature of the spaces inadequate to an extent of making the animals lose every distinctive feature of their character.

After the founding of the Zoological Society of London, there followed the formation of other major zoos like Dublin, Bristol, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Basle, Philadelphia and many others.  

However, German animal trainer and trader, Carl Hagenbeck greatly influenced the conversation through his animal collection and training. In his activities it is noted that the collection methods must have been hostile although he emphasised conservation and sympathy for animals which he practised by befriending them. He considered some animals delicate (like chimpanzees) factoring in their treatment and exposure to some unfamiliar environmental conditions.

In 1907 Hagenbeck founded his own zoo at Stellingen near Hamburg. He created what can be considered a modern zoo with animal enclosures without bars that were closer to their natural habitat. The enclosures were moated rather than being barred . Unfortunately, the zoo was destroyed in the night of 25 July 1943, by a gale of inflammable phosphorus bombs. This among other numerous examples is a case that shows how human activities like warfare have been detrimental for animal life.

Due to his influence, German zoos have gone on concentrating a lot on animal training, even when the engagement progresses to the case of circus performances.


Other Relevant historical mentions


The Duke of Bedford (Herbrand Arthur Russell, 11th Duke of Bedford) is highly recognised for the preservation of Pere David’s Deer (large Chinese deer surviving only in domesticated herds) from extinction. Their extinction back in their homeland (China) came after a flood in 1894. A detrimental breach into the Imperial Hunting Park where they were contained annihilated them.

The Duke managed to form a herd of eighteen animals at Woburn between 1893 and 1895 entailing animals mostly from Paris and Berlin. This herd significantly grew to 88 animals but at the commencement of the First World War (1914), the numbers fell.


Monkey hill baboons.jpg

In 1903, Chalmers Mitchell became Secretary of the Zoological Society of London. He enforced a thorough examination of the animal records tracing Hagenbeck’s insistence on the need for animals to have access to fresh air and the urgency to accommodate the ability for animals to adjust to cold climates. His are measures are considered to have greatly extended the life expectancy of animals in the zoos.

Around this period, there was a lot of discussions about the creation of naturalistic conditions for the animals (Hagenbeck’s suggestions).

The creation of naturalistic or semi-naturalistic conditions in zoos has become an ethical evolution of the culture of zoos.

Notable developments entail the opening of Monkey Hill in 1925 with about 100 Hamdryas baboons (a baboon species native to the Horn of Africa).

The twentieth century has marked a significant transformation of zoos. Amongst many major developments is the creation of large animal parks that provide a much friendlier environment for animals in captivity. Almost in every major city, there are one or two zoos for instance in New York, San Diego, Melbourne, Antwerp, Bristol and Edinburgh.

A major conversational changer has been the access to funding leading to the mounting of large, naturalistic displays. These displays recreate the outlook of certain places within a museum setting. Among others, they entail enormous aviary (a building where birds are kept) at the Bronx, New York, or a model Antarctic setting at San Diego with real snow and purified air.

Additionally, there are other notable (zoological) sites like the polar bear display at Tacoma. The advancement in technology and access to financial resources had aided in the replication of these places thus providing an experiential enjoyment.

To further the discussion, we need to pay homage to the Federation of Zoos in Britain. It was founded by Geoffrey Schomberg in the year 1966 mainly to raise standards for zoos. The federation thus introduced compulsory inspections for its members.

In 1966 Jimmy Chipperfield, in association with Lord Bath, set up the first safari park at Longleat. The safari parks were highly supported because conceptually, they represented the idea of having animals accessing a vast space in which they’d roam. On the other end, they served the function of containing hostile animals (carnivores) in ‘deerparks’.


The Riverdale Zoo in Toronto (established 1887) was Canada's first.

The Metro Toronto Zoo, Canada's largest, opened in 1974. Others include Stanley Park Zoo, Vancouver, 1888 (scheduled for closure); Assiniboine Park Zoo, Winnipeg, 1905; Calgary Zoo, 1917; Moose Jaw Wild Animal Park, 1929; Provincial Wildlife Park, Shubenacadie, NS, 1947; Vancouver Aquarium, 1956; Jardin Zoologique de Montréal, 1957; Valley Zoo, Edmonton, 1959; Aquarium de Québec, 1959; Aquarium de Montréal, 1967; African Lion Safari, Rockton, Ontario, 1969; Parc Safari Africain, Hemmingford, Québec, 1972; and Salmonier Nature Park, near Holyrood, Nfld, 1978.

Canadian zoos range from very modest collections to facilities exhibiting more than 3000 animals of over 400 species (invertebrates excluded). Costly housing requirements during the winter season may limit the number of tropical species. More than 15 million visitors are estimated to visit Canadian zoos annually.


Specialised Institutions

Zoos have become avenues for research and thus elevated access for funding,. There are now zoos concentrating on specialised care/study . These so-called specialised institutions house a specific breed/category of animals. Among many others, they include;

·         Aquaria (a tank, pool or bowl filled with water for keeping live fish and underwater animals)

·         Aviary (birds)

·         Insectarium (an insectarium is a live insect zoo, or a museum or exhibit of live insects. Insectariums often display a variety of insects and similar arthropods)

·         Dolphinaria (an aquarium for dolphins)

·         Most recently, butterfly displays (closely related to insectarium).

·         Microbe Zoo (Zoos for microorganism)

An insectarium

An insectarium

A dolphinaria

A dolphinaria

An example of an aviary is Virginia Lake Aviary, Whanganui

Officially opened on August 12, 1979. It is created with a concept of free-flight design, which allows visitors up-close walk-through access to the birds. It was a novel idea in the late 1970s, and led the development of other such aviaries in New Zealand.

Here is a video of the place.