It all started with elephants. Webb heard a talk given in Toronto by Ian Redmond, a zoologist who had discovered and studied a remarkable group of elephants that hung out in a cave in Rwanda. After the talk, Redmond suggested to the writer that he attend a conference in Syracuse, New York, devoted entirely to the management of elephants. This led Webb to become an associate member of the Elephant Managers Assocation and to take an interest in zoos.
In collecting material for What’s a Zoo Do? Jonathan Webb drew on visits to zoos all over Canada, the United States and Great Britain. He discovered something about the history of zoos and the evolution of zoo design. And he found that Zoos have changed a lot since their early days in the age of imperialsim.
The very first zoos were private collections owned by kings and emperors. But the great zoos that we know and visit today mainly got their start in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. They were created at the same time that the great museums were established. And they had a similar purpose. Just as art museums set out to collect examples of great art from all over the world, and natural history museums sent expeditions to collect as many species of animal as they could – but dead and preserved – zoos attempted to build comprehensive collections of animal species that were alive.
The emphasis was on collecting. And to zoo visitors in those days, the animals all were strange and wonderful. They hadn’t seen wildebeasts on the Discovery Channel or tigers in the pages of National Geographic: neither medium existed. Zoos were, in fact, the first point of contact for most people with the wild creatures of faraway lands.
Today, zoos have different purposes. They still educate visitors about animals. They also serve as research laboratories for biologists and zoologists and as conservation centres, working to keep rare species of animal alive.
Should zoos exist? There are people who think not. But Webb became convinced, when he was talking to zoo people and meeting their charges, that zoos are valuable institutions worthy of everyone’s support. Readers may agree after they read this fascinating and beautifully illustrated book.