An Alternative Future for Looking at Non-wild Wildlife

By Kathryn Sussman  (June 12, 2016)


Will alternative displays and virtual zoos begin to replace traditional zoos in the not too distant future? Rather than looking at caged animals in unnatural and, more often than not, inadequate conditions, there are now exciting and diverse alternatives to the traditional zoo experience that have cropped up across the globe: everything from experimental theme parks, to indoor whale watching, and computer graphics interactive systems, to name just a few.

New and Emerging Alternatives to Traditional Zoos

ORBI: ORBI zoo is an experimental theme park that combines Sega technologies and BBC Earth’s nature experience to create an immersive animal experience. With a theatrical experience that uses a screen twice as wide as a standard IMAX, curved 180 degrees with a 22 channel 3D audio system, underfloor transducers, lighting and scent effects, ORBI allows visitors to have a complete sensory virtual experience that is not only more entertaining than a traditional zoo, but is also more educational, allowing greater perspective about the natural world. Experiences at ORBI include virtual flying, standing amidst a wildebeest migration, being surrounded by flying insects, and experiencing the feeling of being in Antarctica with ice cracking under one’s feet.

Indoor Whale Watching: Indoor whale watching is an animal exhibition system made with computer graphics that also provides both entertainment and education. It is eco-friendly, cost effective and interactive without causing harm to any real animals. Visitors can experience, for example, swimming with/interacting with Humpback whales or Indo-Pacific dolphins as the LightAnimal system uses computer graphic animals with a projector. A screen presents an observation window and visitors see animals in full scale.

Dino Zoos: France’s Dino Zoo is a twelve hector wooded park where visitors experience prehistoric animals come to life through the use of animatronics. Every detail of the park was created with true-to-life replication in mind, including plant species, grasslands, lakes and the living environments of the dinosaurs themselves. The experimental theme park includes activities such as paleontology excavation, collecting river fossils, pre-historic painting, and learning how to make fire and hunt in pre-historic times.

Another Dino Zoo, produced by a team of videogame developers at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, allows visitors to interact, through touchscreens at ground level, with two story high digital dinosaurs. Each dinosaur has been programmed with an artificial intelligence that allows them to make their own decisions about moving, hunting, grazing and resting.

Landmark Entertainment Group: Landmark is the company behind Universal Studios attractions such as Terminator 2 3D and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man 5D. Their latest innovation is the Landmark Interactive Virtual Experience (L.I.V.E) Centre, which is set to open in China in 2018 and will include virtual zoos, virtual aquariums, digital art galleries, interactive museums, immersive movies and more, with absolutely no live animals. The company believes that a virtual reality experience of animals in the “wild” could be coming to the theme park world much sooner than most observers expected, thereby largely eradicating the need for conventional zoos in the cities within which such theme parks exist.

Elephant LAByrinth: A concept developed by ARK Architecture for Zoocheck, outlines a scalable visual and sensory experience that allows visitors to see, hear, smell and feel the world of elephants with no live elephants being present. Other proposals for zoos with no live animals are surfacing with increasing regularity around the world. It is an idea whose time has come.

Online Virtual Zoos: Virtual zoos use the traditional zoo model in a web format, often to simulate a visit to a traditional zoo. The idea behind a virtual zoo is to more effectively pave the way for conservation, education and entertainment while eradicating the ethical problems of real-life zoos. As the technology behind virtual zoos grows and becomes more mainstream and accessible to the public, it has the potential to eliminate the demand for live animals on display and in captivity in zoo enclosures. Furthermore, it allows for the possibility of being more entertaining for visitors who can have opportunities to view and interact with animals engaged in natural and realistic activities, such as hunting or playing. Virtual zoos allow for the opportunity to visit faraway places and to meet creatures not readily available for viewing at traditional zoos, or even to meet animals that have long been extinct.

It should also be noted that throughout the world there also already exist a multitude of specialist wildlife centers, wildlife parks and sanctuaries that provide a better, more humane alternative for keeping wildlife in captivity. Many of them house animals in need who have no other alternative and who cannot be released back into the wild. These facilities are profoundly different, both in philosophy and practice, than traditional zoos.

The traditional zoo concept is old, tired and each year it becomes less relevant. Zoos desperately try to rationalize themselves by making often erroneous or exaggerated claims about having substantive, even critical, value to wildlife conservation and education, but those claims have been largely dismantled in recent years. Traditional zoos, especially in urban areas, that have legions of animals packed into small spaces should eventually become nothing but a memory. It is time to move forward into the future in a positive, productive and humane way.

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