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Tennoji Zoo in Osaka, Japan. (Photo: pelican/Flickr)

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

• August 28, 2014 • 4:00 PM

Tennoji Zoo in Osaka, Japan. (Photo: pelican/Flickr)

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.

While it hasn’t always been the case, most well-funded zoos today feature pleasant-enough looking habitats for their animals. They are typically species-appropriate, roomy enough to look less-than-totally miserable, and include trees and shrubs and other such natural features that make them attractive.

How, though, a friend of mine recently asked “does that landscaping stay nice? Why don’t [the animals] eat it, lie down on it, or rip it to shreds for fun?”

Because, she told me, some of it is hot-wired to give the animals a shock if they touch it. These images are taken from the website Total Habitat, a source of electrified grasses and vines.

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Laurel Braitman writes about these products in her book, Animal Madness. When she goes to zoos, she says, she doesn’t “marvel at the gorilla … but instead at the mastery of the exhibit itself.” She writes:

The more naturalistic the cages, the more depressing they can be because they are that much more deceptive. To the mandrill on the other side of the glass, the realistic foliage that frames his favorite perch doesn’t help him one bit if it has been hot-wired so that he doesn’t destroy it…. Some of the new natural looking exhibits may be even worse for their inhabitants than the old cement ones, as the new plants and other features can shrink the animals’ usable space.

The take-home message is that these attractive, naturalistic environments are more for us than they are for the animal. They teach us what the animal’s natural habitat might look like and they soothe us emotionally, reassuring us that the animal must be living a nice life.

I don’t know the extent to which zoos use electrified grasses and vines, but next time you visit one you might be inspired to look a little more closely.


This post originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “Who Are Habitats For? Electrified Nature in Zoo Exhibits.”

Lisa Wade
Lisa Wade, Ph.D., holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an M.A. in Human Sexuality from New York University. She is an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @lisawade.

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