More and more zoos across the country are following the lead of the Bronx Zoo and replacing their caged animal displays with naturalistic exhibits where animals enjoy much of the freedom they would have in the wild.
The bars have not completely disappeared, even from the finest zoos. But their numbers are dwindling as master plans are developed for exhibits which entertain the public while providing an education about the importance of environmental conservation and wildlife preservation.
"In the old days when animals lived in unnatural settings, visitors didn't have a good feeling in zoos," said Karen Asis, public affairs director for the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, an organization with headquarters in Bethesda which represents 162 accredited institutions across the country. With the animals living a miserable existence, there's no way to get people to appreciate their natural heritage."
Today, there are state-of-the-art exhibits in zoos large and small from New York to the state of Washington and many points in between. These exhibits simulate habitats with amazing authenticity, re-creating rain forests, savannas and swamps which are populated by a mix of species co-existing peacefully. The animals behave much as they would in the wild, living in family groups and successfully reproducing offspring.
"The new exhibits and the new habitats are helping people to appreciate their natural heritage because they can see the animals living very closely to the way they would if they were in the wild," Ms. Asis said. "That's the best exhibit we can give anyone. I think we are learning to appreciate nature and the environment and what we have to save."
The top zoos in America feature many fine naturalistic habitats. The Seven Seas Panorama at Chicago's Brookfield Zoo is a rocky, outdoor Pacific Northwest shoreline for walruses, seals and sea lions. Dolphins live and perform indoors in a Caribbean beach setting.
Brookfield has one of the world's largest indoor zoo exhibits of mixed species in Tropic World, where visitors are immersed in three separate rain forest regions. Squirrel, spider and capuchin monkeys, golden lion tamarins, two-toed sloths, Brazilian tapirs and a giant anteater live in lush vegetation near a 60-foot waterfall in the South American rain forest.
A mangrove swamp in the Asian rain forest is home to orangutans, gibbons, small-clawed otters and dusky leaf monkeys. And the rugged terrain of an African rain forest is filled with western lowland gorillas, a pygmy hippo and a variety of tropical birds.
This zoo has also united three separate ecosystems in one exhibit -- the Fragile Kingdom. There's an indoor African desert, where meerkats, jackals, naked mole-rats, caracals, rock hyraxes, bats, fennec foxes and bat-eared foxes make their homes underground, in caves, in rocky areas and on the desert floor.
Also part of the Fragile Kingdom is an indoor Asian rain forest inhabited with clouded leopards, fishing cats, giant squirrels and Burmese python. Outdoors is a rocky exhibit for African lions, Siberian tigers, snow leopards, jaguars and Asian leopards.
And Brookfield is nearing completion of the first phase of a project that will transform nearly one-fourth of the zoo into seven African habitats over the next 10 years.
The Elephant Forest at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Wash., incorporates the culture of the Asian pachyderms' native Thailand into a tropical forest habitat. The elephants' shelter is a replica of a Thai temple. The elephants pile and stack logs during daily demonstrations in a Thai logging village. And they enjoy daily baths in an Asian marsh pond, which is so deep that they can completely submerge.
Giraffes, antelope, zebras and monkeys roam the open grasslands in an award-winning African Savanna exhibit. The Woodland Park Zoo also has one of the finest exhibits of lowland gorillas in the country and will add a new troop to incorporate into the tropical rain forest that will open later this year.
The Audubon Zoo in New Orleans is noted for its Louisiana Swamp exhibit -- a "wet forest" filled with cougars, black bears, raccoons, nutria, opossums, otters, herons and egrets as well as some famous and very rare white alligators. And its Tropical Bird House re-creates a rain forest that is a key element in the zoo's highly successful breeding program for rare and endangered birds.
In the past three years, the San Diego Zoo has opened three new naturalistic habitats as part of its 20-year plan to create 10 distinct climate zones in the park. Gorilla Tropics is its most recent addition, an open air exhibit where the gorillas -- including a baby boy born on Christmas Eve -- live near a waterfall surrounded by banana and fig trees.
A path winds down the side of a canyon past San Diego's Tiger River, where Sumatran tigers and fishing cats live along with other mammals, birds and reptiles of the Asian rain forest. The Sun Bear Forest re-creates a tropical zone for sun bears.
African Rain Forest
Zoo Atlanta is internationally known for its Ford African Rain Forest, where four families of Western lowland gorillas live and are breeding successfully. Four infants have been born here. Mandrill baboons and mona monkeys live in a separate habitat.
And its Masai Mara exhibit simulates the plains of East Africa and includes a grazing area for zebras, giraffes, ostriches, impala and gazelles, a rocky outcropping for two young lions, a Mzima Springs habitat complete with a pond for three elephants and also a black rhino habitat.
The Atlanta zoo also has an Indonesian forest glade for its rare and endangered Sumatran tigers to explore. Future plans call for an Okefenokee Swamp, a Coastal Lagoon and a habitat for koalas.
The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo expects to open a $20 million indoor rain forest exhibit by the end of the year, complete with authentic animal sounds and simulated rainstorms with lightning and thunder effects.
Bornean orangutans, ocelots, scarlet macaws, American crocodile, tomato frogs and Madagascar hissing cockroaches will be included among the species living here. With the help of a magnified camera, visitors will even be able to observe the activities of some of the smallest residents -- leaf cutter ants.
The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden has been called "the sexiest zoo in the country" because of its successful breeding of lowland gorillas, which have given birth to 36 infants since 1970. It is noted for its award-winning collection of more than 2,500 trees and plants from around the world, which are incorporated into outdoor animal habitats such as a Chinese Woodland exhibit for red pandas.
The zoo is also well-known for its large collection of 18 different species of exotic cats, including white Bengal tigers. Its Insect World exhibit is the largest of its kind in North America, with lots of hands-on displays including a scale visitors can climb on to discover their weight in bugs instead of pounds. In the planning stages is a Jungle Trails rain forest for primates, birds and other small mammals.
Small and innovative
There are also lots of smaller and less well-known zoos around the country that have created innovative exhibits. Bengal tigers and Indian sloth bears live in an Asian forest habitat at the Sunset Zoological Park of Manhattan, Kan. The zoo, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year, is also home to endangered red pandas as well as grizzly bears and bison. A primate conservation center for chimpanzees and an outdoor riverbank habitat for otters are planned.
The Caldwell Zoo, located in the town of Tyler in east Texas, is steadily implementing a master plan of natural habitat, multispecies exhibits. Its African Plains and Lion exhibits are set in rolling countryside filled with hardwood and pine trees.
Also in Texas is the Abilene Zoo, where prairie animals of the American Southwest are displayed with similar savanna animals from Africa to stress the "exotic" nature of creatures from both environments. The indoor Discovery Center exhibit presents the similarities and differences in habitats in these two regions, from fresh water lakes, river edges and hill country to the kopje, grasslands and African veld.
The Reid Park Zoo of Tucson, Ariz., is a small zoo located in a city park that is best known for its successful breeding program of giant anteaters. It has two African grasslands exhibits featuring exotic birds, antelope and zebra.
At Burnet Park Zoo in Syracuse, N.Y., visitors can explore a cave to see examples of animals that have lived for millions of years. There's a walk-through aviary that displays a tremendous diversity of wildlife in a tropical forest. An exhibit that explores the relationship between people and animals gives visitors the opportunity to observe the preparation of animal meals or to watch a veterinarian caring for patients.
Back in Baltimore . . .
Close to home, the Baltimore Zoo has developed a Children's Zoo, Watering Hole and Hippo exhibit, which are "state of the art," said Brian Rutledge, executive director of the Maryland Zoological Society. "Nobody is doing anything better."
While funding is a major stumbling block, plans for the future include the construction of substantial indoor space for pTC butterflies, exotic birds, monkeys and reptiles, Mr. Rutledge said.
"The No. 1 job of zoos is to take good care of the animals and use them well to educate the public about the needs of wildlife," he said. "When I rate a zoo, I look for a high quality existence for the animals and a high level of education for the public. After that, I measure their conservation efforts."