When my dad first took me to the zoo it was probably the late 60's or early 70's. These were the last days of the "Dark Ages" of zoos where the animals lived with concrete floors and steel bars. Zoos were there for the people's enjoyment with little regard to the emotional health of the animals. These were also the days before "Don't feed the animals" so I have fond memories of feeding marshmallows to the bears and peanuts to the baboons.
Then there was the Renaissance in zoo thinking where the animals were put in more realistic habitats. The well-being of the animals was just as important as the enjoyment of the viewing public. The animals got more room and "enrichment" became the buzzword. This is where a lot of the zoos that I have visited seem to be.
The Brookfield Zoo then went a step further which I had mixed feelings about. Education became even more important than the animals themselves. There's nothing wrong with education. I have heard a lot of ignorant things parents spew to their kids at the zoo so some honest, truthful knowledge is a good thing. I would have been happy with a nice sign that provided information, but obviously kids learn better when there is some sort of hands-on, interactive exhibit. Once again, that's fine, but people come to zoos to see the animals. I noticed over time that the exhibits became more elaborate, but the animals became less important than the messages of conservation and being part of the global community. On the plus side this approach could breed a whole new crop of future furries as you are taught to think and act like animals and see things from their perspective.
On my visit yesterday I saw that things have now taken an even more ominous turn. It seems like we're entering an era of corporate-sponsored edu-tainment. I can see that the zoo wants to create huge, glamorous enclosures for all of the animals, but that takes money. All around me I saw corporate logos plastered everywhere. Back in the "good old days" about the only corporate sponsorship was for Hubert the Lion who was the mascot for a major Chicago bank. In the old days there was one crappy cafeteria and maybe a couple of snack bars. Now it seems that everywhere I turned there was some sort of eating establishment. There were a few things in the past that were not zoo related and cost a little extra such as the train that went around the park. Now there is a carousel and 2 playgrounds that would rival anything at a city park. There is also an entire venue for catered events. Whereas there was one gift store in the past, I counted at least 4 yesterday. Perhaps the most insidious thing I observed was that the new bear exhibit has a nice wandering path through the area which funnels you out directly into a gift store. There is no bypassing it unless you go through the gate marked "emergency exit only."
I see a blurring of that distinction between theme park and zoo. Brookfield is trying to be more like Sea World and less like the zoos I'm more familiar with. I see on their website that if I wanted to drive to Sea World for one day, it would cost me $93. Had I driven to the zoo on a regular day, it would have cost me $25. Luckily for me I knew about parking on the street and going on a free day. If I went to the Rio Grande Zoo in ABQ, it would have cost me $10.
I guess I was just put off by the feeling that the the zoo was trying to make everything fun and appealing to kids. How come I had such a great time as a child just seeing the animals? I didn't need playground equipment nor did everything have to be interactive and engaging. Just seeing a tiger or a bear was enough. Perhaps there is also something else at play in my own psyche. I now have decades of travel under my belt. Seeing a lion in a cage is exciting until you have come within 10' of one in the wild. 2 years ago at Yellowstone I got closer to a buffalo than I did at the zoo, and there was no moat or fence separating us. I even chuckled at the desert bird exhibit which had a roadrunner and a curve-billed thrasher in it. Heck! If I wanted to see that I would just have to walk out onto my patio!
So I was a little sad to see the zoo go so commercial, but I now have even more respect for what I have at home be it the Rio Grande Zoo or even Wildlife West. It was also nice to see a polar bear having so much fun in his new bigger enclosure. And so I will end with what I go to the zoo to see the most...BEAR BUTT!