National Geographic Society Newsroom

A Critical Look at the Future of Zoos–An Interview with David Hancocks

Contributing Editor and zoo advocate Jordan Schaul interviews renowned zoo architect and noted Zoo Director Emeritus David Hancocks on the future of zoos. David directed the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona, and Australia’s Werribee Open Range Zoo–a member of the Zoo Victoria’s conglomerate of captive wildlife facilities, which...

Contributing Editor and zoo advocate Jordan Schaul interviews renowned zoo architect and noted Zoo Director Emeritus David Hancocks on the future of zoos. David directed the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona, and Australia’s Werribee Open Range Zoo–a member of the Zoo Victoria’s conglomerate of captive wildlife facilities, which also includes the Melbourne Zoo and Healesville Sanctuary.

David Hancocks, a zoo historian and zoological park director of 30 years has been a staunch advocate of revolutionizing zoos. He perceives conventional zoos to be “fundamentally unchanged” since the London Zoo at Regents Park opened its doors to the public in 1828. 

In 1975, while Director of Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, David Hancocks commissioned Jones & Jones to generate a master plan for the zoo.  In doing so they reconceptualized much of the zoo’s exhibitry. The landscape architects endeavored to create “landscape immersion exhibits”–a term they coined– and a novel design approach, which ultimately changed the architectural culture of the Woodland Park Zoo. 

National Geographic Archives (stock footage)


Jordan: In a recent presentation you gave, you mentioned that a hundred years from now people will be fairly astonished with the paucity of species displayed in conventional zoological parks of the 21st Century.  Today’s living collections are fairly homogenous and do not represent the vast number of imperiled species on Earth.  Furthermore, zoos tend to exhibit mega-fauna, often missing an opportunity to adequately represent the diversity of life on the planet. Can you elaborate on this?

David: It is very telling that there is such similarity in zoo collections worldwide. Zoos seem completely preoccupied with charismatic mega-fauna. They believe that without their traditional big animals people will stop visiting: “How can we call ourselves a zoo if we don’t have an elephant?!” It is to me clear evidence that despite what they say, zoos see their major role as places to simply put animals on show. It also betrays the fact that most people who work in zoos do not want to see them change: they are people who visited zoos as a child, liked zoos, chose to work in zoos because of this, and now are dedicated to preserving the status quo.

If zoos gave serious attention to education we should surely see much greater variety in their collections, to help them better focus on biodiversity; if they were serious about conservation they would give much more attention to local species; and if they truly wanted their visitors to develop better understandings of the natural world they would be showing and interpreting the really small life forms.

Interestingly, small animals that have from time to time found their way into zoo collections, from small birds and mammals to amphibians and reptiles, usually due to a special interest by one individual, have invariably simply disappeared from zoos: they once had them in their collections, but proved incapable of managing a sustainable population or even making any serious attempts to do so.

In this regard it is disturbing to note studies showing that the present coordinated breeding program for elephants is doomed to failure. Yet zoos persist in making loud and persistent claims that they are centers of elephant conservation, and, as the AZA has risibly declared, are critical to their survival.

Jordan: In commissioning Jones and Jones to create a new master plan for the Woodland Park Zoo, landscape immersion reconceptualized zoological park exhibit design. What is landscape immersion design and have other zoos adopted this approach to exhibiting captive wildlife?

David: The basic essence of landscape immersion was that the animals should be immersed in landscapes that represented as closely as possible their natural habitats, and that the human visitors should also be immersed in the same replicated habitat, experiencing it with all their senses.

The phrase “landscape immersion” is now used routinely in the zoo world, and zoos often state that landscape immersion is the standard for modern zoos. But landscape immersion is almost never even attempted. I suspect you could count all the examples of the past decade on one hand.

What zoos have decided to do instead is to design animal enclosures (they call them “habitats”) that look vaguely naturalistic, but in which the animals have no contact with anything natural. None of their senses are stimulated by the typical zoo-built enclosure. Everything they touch except their food and feces is unnatural: trees made of concrete or plastic; floors made to look natural but formed of unyielding concrete (or, occasionally, tan-bark or hard packed dirt, each as useless to the animals as concrete). The animal spaces are very often as barren as the old menagerie cages. Visitor spaces, meanwhile, are typically bewildering and visually chaotic spaces that vaguely resemble a mix of suburban park environments and the Tarzanesque appearance of Hollywood B grade movies. Worryingly, all these modern zoo exhibits are usually designed by specialized professionals.

Jordan: Zoos sometimes struggle to multi-task. They aim to entertain, educate, conduct applied conservation science, conserve species via propagation programs and provide optimal welfare for their collection animals.  Can they manage to do all these things simultaneously and effectively? Do they or should they prioritize some of these objectives. What change is needed?

David: Zoos need mostly to change their attitude. They are trying to be many things, but they are dancing on an entirely inadequate stage of their own making.

The heart of the zoo problem lies in the fact that their basic assumption is that they put animals on show. This is why, for example, they are paranoid about the animals always being on show: everything they do highlights this assumed need — they put a tiger photo on their adverts, and show a tiger on their brochure, and mark an area on their zoo maps with “tiger,” and put direction signals around the zoo pointing to “tiger,” and put a graphics panel on the path all about tigers, and then they seem surprised and indignant when visitors who are exposed to all this and who don’t then actually see the tiger get upset about that. Instead of rethinking this self created dilemma, zoos respond by making damn certain that their tiger (or gorilla, or elephant, or rhino, or whatever) is not going to get out of view and will be visible to all paying customers at all times.

If zoos started their planning and design processes by asking such questions how they could illustrate and celebrate bio-diversity, or help people understand the interconnectedness of all living things, or demonstrate interdependence, or help people understand how healthy eco-systems operate and are maintained, instead of just asking such simplistic questions as “where shall we build the new bear exhibit?” then we could begin to see some important developments in zoos.

Jordan: When you speak about the success of zoos or the contributions of particular colleagues or institutions, what comes to mind?

David: I live in Melbourne, Australia, and am impressed and pleased with seeing how Zoos Victoria (Melbourne Zoo, Werribee Open Range Zoo, and Healesville Sanctuary) which had been wandering in confused and ever decreasing circles the several decades, is now beginning to do important things, particularly in terms of welfare and regional conservation issues. This is due to their new CEO, Jenny Gray. It is encouraging that one individual can shift an institution in a new direction. But at the same time this is also scary. I have seen good institutions with well-established standards and programs go astray as soon as a good director leaves.

Unlike Melbourne Zoo, which has an astonishing history of muddle-headed directors, Zurich Zoo has enjoyed the extraordinary leadership of not only Heini Hediger (who has made what should have been the most important in the zoo world, but whose wise philosophies are universally disregarded), but also, today, of Alex Rübel. This zoo is now producing some of the best and most intelligently designed exhibits in the world.

The conservation projects that Bill Conway and Gerald Durrell established worldwide, working with local communities and regional governments as well as international experts, are perhaps the most impressive zoo achievements I know of. Since Conway’s departure, however, the Bronx Zoo has been sinking.

The Jersey Zoo (officially the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust) is an interesting case history. I believe that if they had developed their exhibits around their conservation projects, and set about illustrating the wonderful stories of the wonderful small species they worked with, instead of simply aiming only to display traditional zoo species, in fairly traditional ways, they would be a place that would actually draw people to to the Isle of Jersey, instead of having to worry as they do now about getting visitation from the dwindling population of tourists that visit Jersey.

Artis Zoo, Amsterdam, under Haig Balian, is in the process of developing a major exhibit dedicated to microscopic life forms. I hope and believe this could be an extremely significant zoo development.

I am also encouraged that at least two zoo directors, Ron Kagan at Detroit Zoo, and Kim Smith at Portland’s Oregon Zoo, have each stated that welfare should be the principal locus of their institutions. If this trend grows we will see very different zoos emerging, and ones that are useful and valuable.

National Geographic Archives (stock footage)

Jordan: You recommend that zoos and other natural history institutions could benefit from collaborative relations, and I presume on a number of fronts.  How do you see these partnerships evolving and to what end?

David: If our natural history institutions are to meaningfully help our ever -increasing urban populations to develop better-informed attitudes and support for nature, then we need to recognize the inherent shortcomings in our present mix of contextually isolated institutions. Our zoos, aquariums, arboretums, botanical gardens, natural history museums, all deal with separate components of the natural world. Inevitably they present only fractured parts of the natural world. Yet more than ever today we need people to have a holistic view of Nature, to understand its complexity, its interconnectedness, its fundamental importance to our survival and well-being, and the critical need to maintain healthy eco-systems.

I recently attended a symposium on The Future of Zoos. The opening statement on its program stated that zoos today are “dominated by multi-species displays that strive to replicate entire eco-systems.” Dominated? Entire eco-systems? This is the same sort of nonsensical hubris that the AZA continually parades, making such claims as, “The survival of the world’s endangered species pivots on the conservation and education efforts of modern zoos.” (My emphasis added.) This mindset is the greatest stumbling block to zoo progress.

So before zoos start seeking collaborative relations they must first come to recognize their own shortcomings, and seek a new perspective. They must become their own vigorous critics.

In this frame of mind they will be in a much better position to cooperatively develop effective programs with other institutions. Frustratingly, when I have mentioned this possibility of greater benefit through inter collegial programs to zoo managers every one has seen it principally as an opportunity to get additional visitors. This sort of thinking speaks volumes. But if we get maybe just a few more enlightened zoo directors we might yet see important progress. We don’t have much time, is all.

As a strong advocate of zoos, I hope that this interview with David Hancocks elucidates some of the issues facing these great natural history institutions from a very constructive perspective. I hope it encourages zoo professionals to use their creative faculties to develop more innovative exhibits, strengthen their conservation programs, and further enhance the animal welfare interests of their collection animals.  I urge zoo patrons to continue to visit their local zoological facilities. Your support can empower these living institutions and will help foster their evolution.



About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Author Photo Jordan Carlton Schaul
With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email: