Is the Future of Zoos No Zoos at All?

Biologists are wiring up nature like never before with GPS trackers, live nest cams, camera traps, and other technologies.

For my bat mitzvah, I adopted a whale named Onyx. They sent me a photo of her tail so that I could recognize her, but I prudently left that at home when I went on a whale-watching trip. Even to a tween, it was absurd to think that it would be possible to run into my Onyx in the vast ocean.

Too bad I came of age before the Internet did. In the past few years the idea of keeping tabs on a favorite animal in the wild has morphed from fantastical to downright reasonable. Eagle cams, otter cams, penguin cams—there are live streaming surveillance videos of all kinds of animals, letting us peek into their worlds both wild and enclosed. I can watch a forest in Kenya, a tundra in Churchill, Canada, and the ocean from a beluga boat.

Or I could adopt a northern bald ibis (say, the one named Idefix, presumably after the French version of Asterix’s nature-loving pet dog) from the Waldrappteam in Austria, and watch its movements via a live tracking app. If I wanted to, I could drive to my bird's latest location in the hopes of getting a glimpse. This summer, a group of German school kids did just that, using the same app to follow a group of migrating white storks for several days.

Waldrappteam app users don't even need to visit the animals in person; they can see photos and read about the individual animals's personalities right there on the screen. (They can also submit their own photos and observations, which is what the institute is really hoping for with this project.) The head of the Waldrappteam, conservationist Johannes Fritz, told me that he thinks of the award-winning Animal Tracker app, developed by the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology, as the start of a new kind of zoo in which people can get to know animals in their own element.

All this got my head spinning. The Max Planck Institute of Ornithology now tracks 223 individual birds with the app, and ultimately plans to include "tens of thousands of individuals and dozens of species," including mammals, project coordinator Daniel Piechowski told me earlier this year. Since they already collect location data from thousands of research projects and hundreds of species in their MoveBank database, it's only a small thing to open that data to the public, giving everyday people live access to wildlife around the world.

Biologists are wiring up nature like never before with GPS trackers, live nest cams, camera traps, and other technologies. Scientists are even thinking about ways animals could talk through the Internet to us. We're not there yet, but when that happens, will people care to go to a zoo at all?

Last summer in New York magazine, Benjamin Wallace-Wells opined that "we're pretty rapidly reaching the end of the era of the modern urban zoo." The piece wasn’t totally joyous about that fact. Wallace-Wells loves zoos. I do too. I spent many childhood weekends at Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and I continue to visit as often as possible as an adult. It's almost a holy place to me, a shrine to nature.

And yet, every visit comes with a bit of guilt.  Even though I know the animals are well cared for, I also know that they are wild animals in captivity. I wouldn't want to be in an enclosure, no matter how nice. I push back my anthropomorphizing tendencies as much as I can, but I also relish them. Zoos make me feel, and that's part of what's wonderful about them.

But my guilty feelings may be grounded in reality, argues Wallace-Wells. Animal behavior seems to reveal that animals don't want to be in enclosures, either:

A giraffe who freaks out about men with large cameras, a brown bear whose cage door is the subject of his obsessive compulsive disorder, a 5,000-pound killer whale who shows her trainer who is boss by dragging him underwater for just about as long as he can live, before letting him go—these episodes seem like something more complicated than simple errors of confinement. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in some way the animals understand that the world around them is an artificial one, that these phobias and psychotic episodes represent reactions to that artifice, or subversions of it.

If that’s the case, how can we justify keeping animals in zoos? Wallace-Wells asks. His conclusion is that we can’t, and that we won’t continue to try for much longer. I’m not sure I agree. But there are certainly bits and pieces of zoos that could be handed over to technology. The educational aspect of zoos would be relatively easy to make virtual. And since zoo animals don't really act as they would in nature (even when they're not psychotic), it's hard to argue that zoos can convey much about the animals other than how they look. And while many zoos attempt to share a lot of material about conservation, it’s not clear how much of that is getting through to visitors. Certainly, technology that connects people to animals in the wild could reveal far more about the animals's actual behaviors as well as the need for conservation. If kids just want to see an animal up close, they can go to a farm or get a pet.

But we do lose something, if we lose physical zoos. The world's best zoos go to great lengths to help save threatened species. Some animals—like the northern bald ibis—are safe from looming extinction precisely because zoos have developed captive breeding programs. It seems to me that we should at least let the good zoos keep on with that good work (and encourage them to do it better); then we could see some wild animals close up from time to time. The rest of the wild kingdom we could keep in contact with on our devices. Bye-bye, sweet guilty feeling.

Yet I wonder: Even if a nearly zoo-less world would satisfy me ethically, would it satisfy me emotionally? What about that desire to feel something? Could I really make a connection through a GPS tracker or a live cam? Certainly my friends and I have gotten mesmerized by video feeds of animals (think panda cam), but my heart melts extra when I make eye contact with the monkeys at the zoo.

Maybe the answer is in this comment from one fan of a live cam that was pointed at a loon family last summer. The comment captures both the thrill and the heartache of watching wild animals in their own homes, doing their own thing:

Glued to the screen for 2 days....... now they're gone. It's like when your kids all leave home........ you think 'now what?' Now what do I do with my days?? No baby loons to look for.

Perhaps we can't make eye contact through a live cam, but we can make a connection that is more authentic and that leaves us just as floored.

Just think: We are only truly ourselves when we feel at home. The same is true for animals. So a virtual zoo is not only more humane. It is the only way we are really going to get to know the creatures with whom we share the Earth.

And if you really want to see a wild animal in person, that's what the new Internet of wildlife will be best for. Wild animals are close to us every day. Some live in our cities or nearby; some pass through on their migrations. Many of them are already wearing trackers (like the ospreys that summer in Washington, D.C., that are on the Animal Tracker app). All you have to do is look them up, go outside, and say hi.