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Designing the Ark

Since the construction of the world's first zoo (believed to be in Egypt, 1500 B.C.) zoos began to hold a unique place in cities as research and entertainment centers. Additionally, ancient zoos flaunted wealth by exhibits animals from far reaching empires as proof of the nation's power of acquisition. Now, however, the role of zoos is being modified to include the responsibility of environmental educator. Much like Noah of the Old Testament, zoo curators present samples of wildlife, hoping to protect them from the flood of urban sprawl and industrialization by raising environmental awareness of the ills of industry and deforestation. In an effort to promote worldwide conservation, North American and European zoos are creating exhibits that attempt to present an animal in its natural habitat. This new emphasis on the animals' environment draws attention to key microhabitats, making visitors who may never be able to visit these far-off and endangered environments aware of their importance. Thus, zoos are rallying international support for fragile ecosystems by choosing particular animals and habitats. Yet, there is debate about which habitats the zoos chose to highlight and how they construct such exhibits. For example, North American species such as buffalo and armadillos are not well represented in most North American zoos while exotic animals such as monkeys and toucans are well represented. The skewed representation of animals in North American is mirrored in North American conservation programs that focus publicity on "Save the Rainforest" movements and not on native animals. There is also controversy about how best to show animals in their native environment so that the animals are visible to visitors and have room for natural behavior.

The zoo's shift from entertainer to educator and the major reconstruction of zoos in North America and Europe creates a special need to evaluate zoo methods of displaying animals. As a pre-veterinary student with an interest in exotic animals, I have invested interest in zoo architecture. Zoo architecture not only has huge impact on the health and well-being of the animals that the zoo houses, but also potentially impacts the effectiveness of conservation programs protecting animals in the wild.

I will visit zoos in five countries that encompass some of the worlds' most unique fauna: Madagascar, South Africa, China, Sweden and the Ukraine. These countries offer an opportunity to see animals that are products of island biodiversity, the African plains, and migration from the steppes of Siberia. In an effort to understand zoo architecture and the impact of zoos on conservation efforts in these countries, I will interview caretakers, curators, and researchers as well as casually speak with some visitors about their interest in visiting zoos and opinion of zoo ethos. I will evaluate zoo architecture, focusing attention on the following:
1. Animal housing that can best showcase the animal and allow for natural behavior;
2. Housing that encourages breeding;
3. Zoo species composition and its effect on views of conservation in key habitats;
4. Architecture of cages that suit the needs of animals, can be easily cleaned by caretakers, and allows viewing of animal's behavior for researchers and visitors.

Exploring new ideas of conservation and education in these non-American zoos could provide the zoo system with other options besides the decisions of North American and European zoos as well as further enhance role of zoos in conservation. I plan to discuss the innovative methods of each zoo for showing and caring for their animals, comparing data with zoos that I have visited in the United States, Costa Rica and Europe. I will make my findings available to zoos worldwide.