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Today's Zoos Walk the Line Between Science and Slickness


Zoological gardens, or zoos, were once royal menageries of cruelly-caged exotic beasts. These days, mindful that lion hunts and penguin migrations are as near as the next DVD or television wildlife show, many American zoos are packaging themselves as fun-filled wildlife refuges. But shrinking budgets for upkeep, the purchase of new animals, and the costly retrofitting of old cages into free-roaming habitats are all threatening zoos' very survival.

These parks are struggling to please visitors, donors, health inspectors, and politicians. And they must deal with animal-rights activists who think humans have no business exhibiting animals at all. Zookeepers reply that only the very wealthy have the means to go see grizzly bears in the wild. Not only are zoos educational, they argue, they also inspire future scientists and promote a love of all God's creatures. And they point to captive breeding programs as all that stands between the survival and extinction of some species.

Just nine years ago, the master of theme parks, the Disney Company, opened the world's first billion-dollar zoo in Florida. Faced with television adventure shows and slick competitors like this, smaller zoos showcase their "mega-fauna" like dolphins and polar bears. After all, folks don't pay good money to see lizards and shrews. To keep up appearances and funding, zoos cater parties, run animal-naming contests, open butterfly gardens and children's petting barns, because they know that basic science isn't much of a draw. While zookeepers stand behind animal welfare and biodiversity, it's the cuddly and ferocious animals -- live and in plush toys at the gift shop -- that make the turnstiles whirl.