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Foto: Romain Beker

Will the zoo still exist in a hundred years?

Jip Koene,
7 november 2023 - 16:46

Education, research, and reintroduction programs might legitimize zoos. But for how long? What will zoos look like a hundred years from now? “Zoos are a backup for displaced animals. In the wild, they are disappearing due to habitat loss and poaching.”

The new lion enclosure that opened at Artis last month almost did not come to pass. The lions might have disappeared due to soaring zoo costs, leading to widespread criticism. “Thanks to donations from generous donors and 27,000 citizens, the lions were able to stay after all. This shows how great the support is for Artis in Amsterdam,” Artis director Rembrand Sutorius tells Het Parool's podcast.

The lion enclosure throughout the years
  • In 1859, big cats, including lions, moved into the traditionally barred and small enclosures of the predator gallery, one of the oldest and most famous buildings in Artis.
  • In 1928, the lions were moved to the famous Kerberterras, which was progressive for the time in minimising bars and creating a natural look.
  • This autumn, Artis opened its new lion enclosure. It is ten times larger than the old enclosure and mimics a hilly African savannah landscape.


See photos at the bottom of the article.

Despite this support, zoos are facing a lot of resistance from animal rights organizations. For example, in the run-up to the upcoming Lower House elections, the Party for the Animals (Partij voor de Dieren) argues that zoos in their current form are out of date and that the interests of animals should come first. The latest opinion survey by the animal welfare organization World Animal Protection (WAP) also shows that 80 percent of those surveyed would rather see animals in the wild than in captivity. This raises the question of whether there is still a place for zoos in the future, and if so, what will they look like?
Education, conservation, and research
A common argument for zoos' right to exist is their role in education, conservation, and research. Through revenue from visitors and campaigns, they raise money to reintroduce endangered species into the wild, protect or improve habitat, and conduct research on animal populations' behavior and welfare. So, too, do UvA scientists.

Maarten Reesink

For example, behavioral biologists from the UvA are conducting research into the mental well-being of animals in Artis. Artis also invests in conservation projects such as Marwell Wildlife for the reintroduction of the algazelle, a species of gazelle from North Africa now extinct in the wild.
“Zoos are thus a backup for displaced animals. Indeed, in the wild they are disappearing due to habitat loss and poaching. In that sense, zoos fulfill an important role when it comes to the preservation of animals in the wild,” emphasizes Maarten Reesink, lecturer in animal-human studies at the University of Amsterdam.
Reconsidering animals in captivity
Zoos need to attract visitors to be able to fund research and reintroduction programs, while at the same time, this same visitor may question their visit. This is evident not only from the WAP opinion survey, but Reesink also regularly came into contact with critical visitors to Artis. “About 15 years ago when I was a tour guide at Artis, I often heard critical remarks from visitors about various animal enclosures. You see that a certain pressure also comes from the public.” So to keep attracting visitors, zoos need to keep rethinking their layout.

Foto: Anneke Hymmen
Thijs de Zeeuw

Thijs de Zeeuw, landscape architect and designer of the new lion enclosure at Artis, also thinks that captive animals need to be reconsidered and believes that the enclosure design plays a role in that. “Among other things, I designed the new lion enclosure from the lion's perspective. The 360-degree view combined with a hilly landscape inspired by the African savannah should meet the natural needs of the predator. Design used to be from a visitor experience perspective. Now, animal rights and the relationship between humans and nature are becoming increasingly important in design," said de Zeeuw.
Large, charismatic animals
When asked whether large, charismatic animals like the chimpanzee, elephant, and lion still have a place in the zoo, both de Zeeuw and Reesink are hesitant. Says de Zeeuw: “The zoo will change because we will increasingly grant similar rights to humans and animals. There are also increasing standards for enclosures. Consequently, large herd animals such as elephants will disappear from most zoos in the long run due to lack of space. You just have to be able to keep those animals as a large herd.”

“In 30 years we’ll say that keeping large animals in zoos, unfortunately, is just not possible”

Reesink thinks that animals such as lions and tigers as well as large herd animals such as elephants will no longer have room in zoos in a few decades. “This type of animal travels great distances in the wild, and in a zoo it does not get that space and gets bored to death. With the advancing understanding and the increasingly stringent requirements we have for animal welfare, I think in 20 or 30 years we'll say: You know what, big cats and large herd animals just can't be kept properly in zoos. It's unfortunate, but we just can't.”


The lion enclosure throughout the years

Foto: Stadsarchief Amsterdam
Lions in the predator gallery
Foto: Artis
Lions on the Kerberterras
Foto: Artis
New lion enclosure