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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

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).


Stranded Whale at Xmas

“Luna” glitters in the Christmas lights and looks out from Morton Park on to English Bay. It’s hard not to like him at this festive season, but he comes to Vancouver with a sad history.

There are only 76 whales left for Luna to see, fewer than ever before. We all know that more Chinook and more ‘whale space’ could reverse the pending extinction, but Luna doesn’t show his sadness.

Continue reading “Stranded Whale at Xmas”

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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