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Zoo animals lead different lives than they would outside. What is it like–what has it been like since the early 1800s–to be in a zoo? What do they tell us about us, our society, history, and our attitudes?

This history of zoos is told in photos, reflections, and stories of zoos and their unique relationship to humans.

Please be part of this ambitious project. Read “About Us”

The editor:

Family History, San Francisco Zoo, n

I don’t like animals overly much. I don’t like people much more than that. Both are fascinating, though. Animals don’t kill people often now, but people kill more animals than ever before. Individual animals and species. Sometimes we keep them in zoos because they amaze us. That elephant could crush us by accident, that tiger could eat us, that panda could cuddle us. So we keep them in cages. I grew up, and live, in a city that had a zoo until 1996. Sometimes the penguins were paraded down to the public pool to cool off in summer. A polar bear saved a kitten once, apparently. That zoo is gone, but many more live on. Continue reading “Welcome”

Featured post

Xmas Orca

Tidings of Comfort & Joy . . .

‘Xmas Luna’ is an orca of shining Christmas lights on English Bay. She’s 7 metres long, and she visits Vancouver at this time of year every year. She looks out over the beach to the Salish Sea. She’s seasonal and festive, and it’s that time of year, but she shows us less about orcas and more what we believe about them.

Xmas Luna would be frustrated if she looked for kindred in the ocean in front of her. There are only 74 resident orcas left, but Luna doesn’t seem at all concerned.

What if  Luna and the local orcas aren’t kin at all? They look somewhat similar, but this Luna is lying on her belly with her head in the air and her flukes to the sky. Millions of people have seen that pose–but they happen only in aqua-zoos. Wild orcas don’t do it.(1)

Continue reading “Xmas Orca”

Run Away!

Nyack’s Post Mortem

[Zuni, a lioness, killed Nyack, the lion, at the Indianapolis Zoo on October 22, 2018. The media describes the event–the information below is from public media–but these are his conjectural last reflections]

I tried to run away. Zuri was “aggressive”—even the humans knew that. I’m “submissive” and “laid back”—and I’m dead.

If we were on the savanna I wouldn’t be dead. I’d run. She’s fast and she’s my size, but I would be faster then. But we were in a zoo. There was nowhere to run. A cage is a cage is a cage.

How was I supposed to be courageous? The lion on the yellow brick road in the “Wizard of Oz” got to be brave just because he wished for it. I should be so lucky. I’ve lived in a zoo my whole life. Outside the zoo—in the wild—I would have learned to be arrogant and dominant because I would have fought all those aggressive young bastards who were after my “pride” of lionesses and cubs. I hardly have a pride here at all. My pride was only 1 lioness, Zuri, and 3 cubs. I would have done better outside.

People tell strange stories about me. They couldn’t account for my death because, after all, Zuri had been my “long term companion” for 8 years, and she and I had 3 cubs. So? They make it sound like we’re people. Male people generally have one wife. If people have a few kids they don’t usually kill each other, especially when a kid is in the room.

Should lions be like that? Put 2 lions and 3 cubs in a cage for years and years, and you might expect the unexpected. It’s ‘unexpected’ for people’s behaviour, of course. At least Packer, from the Lion Research Center, knew that “it’s something that can happen”, that “these animals are unpredictable moment to moment”.

The people at the zoo think my death is sad. Apparently I was “just like a family member.”

I would rather be treated like a lion.


Postcard above, nd (1940s?), depicts former practice of raising lions and dogs together to facilitate lion training.

All data is from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/lioness-killed-father-her-cubs-rare-attack-indianapolis-zoo-180970621/ and general information. The attitude is supplied by the editor.

Kiss Off!

Fiona is a famous artist. And she’s a hippopotamus. She was born at Cincinnati Zoo in January 2017, and she became an artist fast. Fiona was an adorable calf born 6 weeks early at 29 lb., but now, at 650 lbs, she’s become the resident hippo painter. But she’s entering a very busy art scene.

Young Fiona 2017

She’s only one of a surprising hoard of gifted zoo creatures.  Chimpanzees have painted for years. Elephants have done it for as long as even they can remember. Now dolphins do it, rhinos do it, penguins do it, even snakes and bugs do it. Woodland Zoo offers work by 36 different artist-animals. Houston Zoo offers art by lions, leopards and others for $250 each. (1) Rocky, the octopus at Point Defiance Zoo, certainly has huge production-potential. (2) Clearly Fiona’s art scene is crowded, so how does she survive.

Congo, Chimpanzee artists, London, 50

Zoo animals, clearly, can make a lot of art–and, if they are given treats, they will. People buy zoo art only because it’s made by animals. It is, of course, solipsistic that we value zoo art because animal-artists emulate humans. Their art has been a huge success, and this art market is very lucrative for zoos.

Is it that simple? Zoos strongly encourage animals to make art, zoos tell us that animal artists are not mere labourers in a profitable art industry. Apparently they are artists, and their lives are enhanced as they paint. An emerging artist-orangutan, Rudy, is currently “obsessed with painting” at the Houston Zoo.(3)

Continue reading “Kiss Off!”

Budget–All in favour?

Will the new federal Budget be good for orcas? Maybe, but not for sure.

The Canadian 2018 budget committed $167.4 million to resuscitate “marine ecosystems”. The endangered resident orcas are specifically cited. There are fewer killer whales now than ever before. It is new and very exciting to have a special category for “Protecting Marine Life”*.

But is this enough to make a difference, and will it be spent in the right places?

Continue reading “Budget–All in favour?”

No Whales? Maybe Walruses?

The Vancouver Aquarium gave itself a wonderful Christmas present this year. Young walruses, Lakina and Balzac, arrived just in time this December.

The aquarium and the newspapers are ecstatic about it, but we should think twice about this surprise arrival. Whether the walruses like it or not, they will be VanAq stand-ins for a long line of orcas, porpoises, and beluga stars. They will have major roles as the next generation of trophies.

Young walrus, Vancouver, aquarkum
Vancouver Staff with new walrus, Dec 2017

Walrus calves are rare. They are extremely uncommon in aquariums. Lakina and Balzak are the 7th and 8th calves born in North American aquariums in the last 90 years! (1). Only 19 other captive cows have gestated in all that time, and none of the calves survived more than a year. Lakina and Balzac are a year and a half old now, so are very special indeed.

Any problem with these new walruses, of course, would be tragic for VanAq. The preceding year was disastrous there. Four cetaceans died: porpoise, Daisy; two belugas, Aurora and Quila; and the ‘false killer whale’, Chester. Finally, that year, after years of public conflict, the Vancouver Parks Board prohibited cetaceans at the aquarium.

The only good news for the VanAq that year was the arrival of the two walruses.

Continue reading “No Whales? Maybe Walruses?”


“SnapShots” are short glimpses of the strange relationship between humans and animals. They are sometimes amusing, often tragic.

May 2017: Sea lions nibble on human divers off the British Columbia coast “to see if they’re squishy” (CBC, 25/3/2017). It seems these ones are not squishy enough to eat. They clearly could be.  One ‘squishy’ human would be tragic–for humans, that is. In the meantime, the photographer is well-equipped to capture the special moment for others.

The sea lions appear as performers for the startled and delighted  primary audience of divers. A vast additional online audience is awed. There are no bars in this particular sea event. These Sea Lions can come and go; but there’s a thrill in seeing animals close up and potentially threatening. It is part of what makes a zoo a fascinating safari. It’s a safari that tells as much about humans as it does about animals, maybe more.  (“ZooTourism” will a longer discussion of viewership, but “SnapShots” are quick introductions to issues and events).


Simian Selfies: Copyright Competition

He took the photo, but who has the copyright?

This is a simple story: a photogenic monkey took a selfie.

Naruta, a rare crested macaque, lives in a reserve in Sulawesi, Indonesia. A British wildlife photographer, David Slater, spent three days getting familiar with the animals and taking pictures of them.

Then, one day, Slater left a camera near the macaques. On purpose. On a tripod, with a shutter trigger. The inquisitive creatures just couldn’t resist the fascinating machine. Its shutter clicked, the lens made reflections. There was even a flashgun. The macaques took lots of pictures. Some of them were good.

Continue reading “Simian Selfies: Copyright Competition”


2017: Orangutans have learned to box.


The ring opened in 2004 and continues at  Safari World animal park in Thailand. Orangutans are among the most intelligent and gentle apes but we can train them to entertain people with aggressive fights people do to others.
Boxing is difficult for the urangutan. There is, however,  a mostly forgotten and denied, enormous tradition of training chimpanzees in early 20th century America.

The wonderful Oofie, for example, has unbelievable balance! And that’s not all he can do, not by a long way. He is famous for “riding a unicycle backwards; jumping a rope on stilts; driving a jeep; operating a motorcycle; jumping hurdles on roller skates.” (postcard, c1950)

Oofie. Acrobat and much more. Postcard, c1950

It’s an astounding accomplishment both for the trainer and for the captive chimpanzee. Why we train anthropoids to imitate (and supersede) human stunts is much more astounding.

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