Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Zoos, Please Name that Animal!

May 27, 2011

Last week, my husband and I visited the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, about an hour’s drive from our home. Once through the zoo gates, we headed for the recently-opened Tiger Trail, featuring an elevated winding boardwalk and a fun mix of Asian species including orangutans, siamangs, gibbons, tapirs, brilliantly-colored birds of several species, moon bears, small-clawed otters, and more.

At our first stop, we saw two magnificent Malayan tigers resting on green grass. A zoo docent sitting in front of the glassed-in enclosure told us, “That’s Kadar and Tahan, and they are brothers.”

What a fabulous greeting! The docent must find himself uttering these words hundreds of times a day, but what a punch they pack, because they invite zoo visitors to see not generic tigers but two individuals with names and social histories. As we watched one of the brothers approached and gently played with an enrichment ball. Chatting with the docent, I asked the tigers’ age (two years old) as hordes of excited schoolchildren parted in streams around us.

My husband and I spent several enjoyable hours wandering the zoo that day. We were impressed in almost all cases by the size of the animals’ enclosures, and by the animals’ activity levels. On the Tiger Trail, for instance, the gibbons’ playful brachiating and the siamangs’ relaxed grooming signaled close relationships at work.

At one point, the elevated walkway passed near to a tree; adorably curled up in its branches was a single red panda. In an adjacent area, a zoo employee was at work repairing the enclosure. Asking some questions, I learned that the snoozing panda was a male who had recently lost his mate; a female would be arriving for him in the future.

Next, we navigated to the bison enclosure. (Check out my twitter avatar sometime @bjkingape; I’m very fond of bison). Two animals grazed there, accompanied by a magnificent peacock who opened to full glory under our appreciative gaze. Nearby, zoo staff worked on a patch of pretty flowering plants. A young intern didn’t know anything about the bison, but asked another zoo employee if he did. He didn’t, but he radio’ed to the right person who did, and I learned a bit about the two 15-year-old female bison.

In the Africa section, I time-traveled mentally back to Gabon days as we observed a flashy-snouted male mandrill engage with the smaller female. For a good while we tried to discern the goal of a female elephant. She carried out a clearly thoughtful series of steps in using her trunk to position a small log against a tree, then pushing hard with it to crack the log into smaller pieces. (Just for the record, I don’t think elephants—elephants in particular-- belong in zoos.) We watched as a magnificent, old male lion roared to his companions sunning on an artificial cliff.

But who were we watching? In all the cases I’ve mentioned, I wanted to know more: the animals’ names and relationships to each other, and maybe even something about their personalities.

Unlike with tigers Kadar and Tahan, the monkeys and apes, the elephants, and indeed almost every other animal in the zoo, remained nameless, a kind of abstract representative of its species. What kind of a lesson is that for children to learn, when science (and experience) tells us that many, many animals think, feel, and express distinct temperaments?

At the Virginia Zoo, each time I asked a question, staff members went out of their way to help me find an answer. I appreciated that. Yet how many visitors will seek out employees who aren’t already engaging with the public? And why must the zoo’s graphics present only the most basic facts about things like the species’ ranges, diets, and elemental behaviors?

It’s problematic, of course, to generalize about zoos. In recent years I’ve visited gorilla habitats at great places like the Bronx Zoo/Wildlife Conservation Society and the San Diego Zoo, as well as the National Zoological Park where I’ve observed and filmed apes on and off for many years. In all cases, information about the gorillas’ identities is available at or near the enclosures. But even these zoos don’t follow through and offer the same right stuff on the less-than-wildly-popular animals.

Many zoos highlight, online, selected animals. Consulting the Virginia Zoo’s website, I learned about the elephants Lisa and Cita: how to tell them apart, which one had starred in movies, and that they both like to paint. But most people looked at the Zoo’s two elephants knowing none of this.

Zoos are strapped for cash, more so these days than ever. So why not try some low-tech information transmission? If too few (unpaid) docents are available to cover the whole zoo, why not deploy white boards and paper easels with a few choice facts per animal, per enclosure?

Many readers of this blog have experience with zoos--- positive, negative, and mixed. Please consider adding your thoughts below!


  1. May 27, 2011 10:54 AM EDT
    I agree Barbara! The Virginia Zoo is doing a great job with the resources they have and I love visiting (need to go catch the tigers). But a name and a brief history (or at least age) for every animal is the minimum of what they should offer visitors. The zoo is, theoretically, a place to learn about animals whom we would not normally come in contact with. So how are we supposed to get to know or study an animal without even knowing the age, origin, or name of the individual?
    - Matt Tuttle
  2. May 27, 2011 11:19 AM EDT
    Thanks Matt! [For readers of these comments, Matt does absolutely awesome anthropology tweeting @Anthroprobably.] I agree that the Virginia Zoo's doing great overall. One of my students did an excellent brief observation/focal-animal sampling study of the squirrel monkey group (with two new infants!) this past term- the Zoo has always welcomed my students.
    - Barbara J. King
  3. May 27, 2011 12:02 PM EDT
    Another excellent blog! From a (retired) zoo professionals point of view: Historically, zoos have been reluctant to name individual animals because it was thought unscientific. We have Dr Jane Goodall to thank for showing science the light, but she took a lot of flak for giving her chimpanzees names instead of numbers. In some cases, Zoos were reluctant to name individuals because of the bad press they would get if an animal died (which they all do, eventually) or was transferred. There was a huge outcry when Cleveland's favorite gorilla "Timmy" was sent out on breeding loan.
    Many zoos do use whiteboards or other temporary ways of communicating with visitors, but often get scolded for not keeping them "up to the minute" accurate, poor handwriting, etc - which is very discouraging to the keeper who is already trying to keep up with too many tasks! (Been there, heard that!) I agree that it is very important for visitors to see animals as individuals, and appreciate their histories and relationships with each other and the folks who care for them. Some of my most rewarding and fulfilling moments with visitors were from just these kinds of conversations. I think social media like twitter and facebook will be instrumental in future educational efforts of zoos. Imagine being able to tweet your questions and get rapid answers- would also help the ed dept know how to plan their graphics! Very happy to hear you had a good experience at Norfolk, but disappointed not to hear about the orangutans. Can only hope you're saving them for next week!!
    - Melanie
  4. May 27, 2011 12:14 PM EDT
    Melanie, was very much hoping you'd have time to write in! To me you are "zoo staff extraordinaire" and always will be, never mind retired (and still working for animals' welfare). It's extremely helpful to hear about some of the pressures on zoo staff in trying to meet some of these needs - like keeping whiteboards up to date constantly (which surely isn't a reasonable expectation!). And yes, social media may be an answer-- very good point. (I follow NZP on twitter.) // As for the Norfolk orangutans, we stood and observed for quite some time, but we just had bad luck of timing. Both orangutans, Schnitz and Pepper, were resting under blankets or near the window looking out to the outside (which was closed off for some presumably good reason). It was hard to see them (we watched a long time) so I hope to return in the summer. Here's what the zoo website says: Schnitz, a male orangutan, and Pepper, a female, were actually playmates when very young, but spent some time apart at separate zoos before being reunited in 1995. They have been together since and came to the Virginia Zoo together in 2011. Both were zoo born and the outdoor habitat at the Virginia Zoo will be their first outdoor habitat. (AND the website also has a very good sheet of info on palm oil with details that are helpful.)
    - Barbara J. King
  5. June 1, 2011 9:57 PM EDT
    I love it when the zoos post the names, and a bit of personal history, for each of the animals. Like you said, they don't do it often enough. It takes next to no time to make a quick sign with Microsoft Publishing and put it in a plastic sleeve from Staples or Home Depot, to address the problem of readability.

    The problem that I found from my time volunteering at National Zoo is that the education staff is short-handed, the keepers are too busy or don't have the publishing tools, and the zoo doesn't encourage volunteer help with signage. Only select staff can do it... which, in the NZP case, meant two years went by before they had a sign for baby gorilla Kibibi.
    - Dawn Forsythe
  6. June 3, 2011 9:02 AM EDT
    Dawn, that's a really interesting bit of info- do you understand NZP's logic in restricting the signage work to certain staff members and not volunteers? It seems to me if they want to control the actual text, a staff member could rapidly approve the wording, but the volunteers could do the actual creating-and-placing of the sign. It would really make a difference in cases like Kibibi's!!
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.