At the same time, this example proves that you don’t necessarily need “real” animals to conjure up fun and adventurous experiences for kids. With traditional zoos facing widespread criticism from environmental experts and animal activists alike, there is an acute need for viable alternatives. While the well-being of animals in captivity remains a concern, the current zoo set-up might also be psychologically damaging to kids faced with caged animals behind bars, without offering any obvious pedagogic benefits.
Some exemplary zoos have escaped the wrath of critics, however. The Singapore Zoo, for example, covers a generous 40 hectares with its “open zoo” concept that does away with most bars and cages. Here, large land animals are separated from the public by deep moats, cleverly hidden from patrons’ eyes with different types of vegetation.
Designed to set both visitors and animals “free,” this open zoo concept focuses on near-natural habitats that place different species in an approximation of their natural environment. Watch their video to get an impression of their way of thinking about animals:
Yet even such a humane prison remains just that – and many people do not agree with the principle of keeping individual animals hostage to represent their species for our entertainment. In this spirit, Costa Rica was one of the first countries to prohibit live animals in circuses and now tackles its remaining zoos.
At the same time, children who grow up in urban environments should get the chance to encounter animals and experience the huge diversity our world has to offer. A viable – and animal-friendly – alternative might be Barcelona’s eZoo.
Still in its planning and development stages, the eZoo aims to establish the world’s first ever virtual reality zoological park. A combination of animatronics, 3-D projections, interactive displays, and immersive virtual environments, it wants to offer a realistic, yet virtual experience of natural animals in the wild.
And while it might sound ambitious to translate actual animals to a virtual experience that feels just as real, we should not forget that animals caged for life provide a far less natural – and decidedly cruel – glimpse of the fauna around us, often unsettling children exposed to this scenario. In this light, going digital makes a lot of sense, for kids and responsible parents alike.
Whether actors playing animals or elaborate projections – many of these alternatives give children the opportunity to experience exotic animals close up and soak up the diversity of our planet. Even better, if you have the time: a trip to a well-run city farm or environmentally-friendly farming project that treats its animals with respect, rekindling a relationship based on kindness and care.
Text and header image: Frank R. Schröder