How experts view keeping animals in captivity has changed a lot since the first U.S. zoo opened in Philadelphia in 1859. Elephants in zoos have triple the infant-mortality rate of wild elephants, and when 17 elephants were shipped from Swaziland to U.S. zoos this year, it sparked an animal-rights lawsuit. In 2004, the Detroit Zoo shut down its elephant program, sending the last two pachyderms to refuges.

Writing in The Washington Post, Ron Kagan, the Detroit Zoo’s executive director, explains that in the next 20 years, zoos will do more than just offer the public a glimpse of wild animals in small enclosures. “Zoos will surely look and act radically different in 20 years, never mind 50,” he writes.

There will be a lot more “immersion” spaces, where animals can live in natural spaces that are large enough to accommodate their needs and complex enough to keep them stimulated and happy.

“They’ll be situated in climates that are appropriate for the species, and the exhibits will provide animals with dramatically more opportunities, control, and choices for natural activities and social interactions,” he argues. “The animals’ needs and desires will be central, more than the visitors’—just as it is in the wild.” A modern “zootopia” park design for Denmark, allowing animals to roam freely while people are confined to small lookout points, might be one form this new, animal-centric zoo can take.

You probably won’t see any elephants, dolphins, or whales in the zoos of the future, though. “The animals, both individuals and species, that live in future zoos will only be ones that truly thrive and/or that are ‘rescued’ from a worse fate,” according to Kagan. Zoos will need to invest in conservation and education, rather than flashy exotic animal exhibits that cause the creatures on display “lifelong frustration,” as Kagan describes it. And rescue programs will likely replace some of the breeding programs zoos have now, as much as we love baby sloths and baby cheetahs.

Yes, we may have to give up our close-up looks at giraffes and lions and gorillas. But the animals will certainly be happier that way, and if zoos serve any purpose, it should be educating us on how to best keep these animals happy and safe—far from humanity’s destructive tendencies.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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