Post by Ruthanna Gordon
In 1934, a zoo was a place you went to see animals. Period. Small cages were the norm, ensuring that no visitor would be disappointed by missing their favorite creature. A lucky animal might have a few bars to swing from or a platform to climb; unlucky ones had little to do except pace.
The Brookfield Zoo, when it opened that year, was one of the first to break the pattern. They built naturalistic habitats, blocked off by ditches and moats. The richer environment meant that a visitor might not see every animal—but the ones they did see would be happier. And the visitor would learn more by watching the animals’ natural behaviors.
Over the decades, the zoo, and its organizers at the Chicago Zoological Society, have built on this early attentiveness, even as their early practices have become the norm. The modern zoo is still a place to see animals, but it’s also an organization dedicated to conservation, education, and research. Brookfield, for example, is heavily involved in breeding programs for endangered species, including black rhinos, Balisian Mynah birds, and cotton-top tamarins.
Perhaps the biggest change from the older style of zoo is the emphasis on ecologies rather than species. Brookfield, over the years, has increasingly emphasized the different types of habitats, often grouping animals by where they live rather than species similarity. While they still maintain a reptile house and a collection of pachyderms, they also have exhibits devoted to rainforests, deserts, and swamps.
Possibly the most impressive of their exhibits combines the two forms. Tropic World might, in other times, have been called the monkey house. It contains several of the largest indoor animal habitats on the planet. Just inside is the South American exhibit. Humans walk past a waterfall and find themselves overlooking several stories of trees, rocks, and streams. Callimicos and spider monkeys climb as high as they can for the chance to peer back at the primates on the walkway. Come in at the right time, and you can also catch a glimpse of a giant anteater shuffling below. Further along, in the African tropics, a troop of Western Lowland Gorillas largely ignore the crowd, looking fascinatingly familiar as they socialize and keep their children out of trouble.
Throughout these exhibits, signs and videos tell visitors much more than the name of what they’re looking at. In addition to habits and habitats, you also get the latest tidbits from the zoological society’s researchers—and a little about how humans are impacting life in the wild. Many of these species are endangered, or live in threatened areas. Outside the zoo, these problems can seem too distant and abstract to do much about. Face-to-face with our closest relatives, though, they feel more immediate. People leave the zoo with a sense of their place in the larger world—and of how they might change it.