In my relatively short life, the appearance and role of zoos have changed a lot. From areas with small enclosures and cages full of exotic animals to enclosures that copy as much natural environment of the animals as possible and to the conservation function of these institutions. And we are talking about the time span of 20 years. But how are zoos nowadays perceived by the public? Going back to the very beginnings of the establishment of zoos, people have always needed to own and brag about some animals. This hobby was often presented by rich rulers. The beginning of breeding exotic animals dates back to China and Egypt about 5,000 years ago. However, the term “zoo” was come up with later during the 18th and 19th centuries in London and Paris. However, the oldest zoo is the one in Vienna, which has been part of the palace since 1752. The first zoos were often created as private collections of collectors and travellers, which were later expanded and opened to the public. Not surprisingly, animals for zoos were caught in the wild around the world and imported to various parts of Europe. In colonial times, it was no exception to present people of different races at the zoo, which Europeans used to go to watch to the fenced areas.
Among great naturalists and passionate animal lovers was, for example, Gerald Durrell. During the 20th century, he undertook several expeditions around the world with the aim of capturing and importing animals first for the London Zoo, later to his own zoo in Jersey, which he founded. Durrell tried to ensure the best possible conditions for his animals during capture and transport, however, little was known about the keeping of exotic animals and animal mortality was high. Durrell was a great promoter of nature conservation, he inspired a lot of conservationists and his books are known all over the world. Josef Vágner, a long-time director of the Dvůr Králové Zoo, was the most famous importer of exotic animals in the Czech Republic. He imported animals in the 1960s and 1970s, and his transports boasted high animal survival. Transports of animals from Africa to the European continent thus began to create backup populations of species in the event of a threat to their wild populations in the future - a truly timeless idea. Indeed, many animals later experienced huge declines in the wild. Thus, exotic animals got to countries where they did not originally live, and facilities were built where the general public could go and see them. Zoos thus exhibited animals for the admiration and amusement of the people, and the more developed ones began to serve as educational institutions and highlight the protection of nature. In addition to exotic animal species, domestic species often appeared in the zoo.
The development of the zoos often copy the development of the countries in which they are located, mainly in the field of nature conservation. In individual countries, we often find both high-standard zoos that play an important role in nature conservation and low-standard zoos, which, as before, often serve only as an exhibition of the collections of private owners. But does the public perceive the role of these institutions and can people assess their quality? Families with children often go to the zoo for exploration and entertainment. Modern zoos should meet these requirements, while “entertainment” at the zoo should go hand in hand with the needs of the animals and support their natural behaviour. Petting tigers, for example, certainly does not meet these requirements. Thus, human experience should give priority to the natural behaviour of animals and not expose animals to excessive stress or even abuse. Modern zoos do not only exist to show exotic animals, but their main role is to breed these animals and, if possible, return them to the wild. Thanks to the zoos, some animals that have already become extinct or almost extinct due to the negative influence of man in nature have been returned. An example of this is the Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx) or the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), which has only a few dozen animals left in the wild. In other animals, such as the Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis), more animals are kept at the zoos than can be found in the wild. Unfortunately, hunting pressure and the loss of their natural environment currently do not allow their release from the zoos into the wild and thus to strengthen their populations. For many species, therefore, better conditions in the wild are waited for and then, these species will be saved from extinction thanks to the zoos. We used to take these animals from nature, now that their numbers are declining in nature, we should be the ones to return them back. In addition, the zoos strive to support conservation not only through its breeding programmes, but also by supporting conservation activities in places around the world where the loss of biodiversity due to human influence is the greatest.
So let’s not confuse zoos with places to entertain and exhibit animals. They are conservation institutions that save animals for our next generations. They save species that we humans have brought to the brink of extinction through our activities or even exterminated in nature. In addition, the knowledge gained from their breeding serves to better understand the lives of these animals also in the wild and can be a key factor in protecting them in the places where they live. Modern zoos are highly specialized breeding facilities with a number of experts and sophisticated breeding management to keep healthy and genetically valuable animals, which are ambassadors of their species. These individuals can literally save their species from complete disappearance from our planet.