Madagascar and savannah: cage bars versus enclosures

A museologist’s overview of zoos in Hungary

MúzeumCafé 35.

What collects, engages in research, educates, presents and entertains, yet is not a museum? A zoo! In view of their similar activities, a comparison of museums and zoos might seem obvious. However, zoos cannot easily be treated as public collections, in either the legal or practical sense. While museums preserve objects for posterity, zoos collecting living creatures cannot defy the natural law of passing away. The ‘pieces’ of their collections move, behave, feed, digest, get ill and die. Furthermore, they multiply even independently of human intention. In short, they constantly change. At the same time, a zoo, like a museum, not only presents a collection, animals and plants, but also reflects the wider society and its attitude to nature. Kids and bunnies are there for visitors to observe in Veszprém Zoo. Asian lion cubs were born in Budapest Zoo, as was a Bornean orangutan in Nyíregyháza and a Bengal tiger in Győr – the list is not arbitrary, but refers to the headline of a Hungarian News Agency report published in March about news relating to zoos, which included only two items on development. Do we note that the news means more than just growth, and the important fact that new-born animals raise our spirits even in hard times? Is it clear that among Hungarian cultural establishments it is zoos that have continuously and strongly developed recently and are able to function profitably? That’s not just because the number of animals with promotional value is growing; it reflects the fact that the birth of healthy animals or the arrival of special breeds involves purposeful, professional work. Zoos in Hungary, or rather some of them, are participating in an increasing number of international projects and environment protection assignments. The conditions of accommodating and presenting animals, the training of carers and the provision of animal health care are all improving. Visitors can now choose between a variety of information sources and zoo educational programmes. This is significant, since after the political changes zoos in Hungary had to make up for a lot – wild animals lived mainly in confined cages with concrete flooring, and in many places their carers lacked expertise. With the exception of the Municipal Zoological and Botanical Gardens in Budapest, which for a long time was the country’s only such institute, zoos in Hungary were established rather late, during the post-1956 era. By then societies in the West were speaking up against the inhumane keeping of animals and were realising the significance of zoos in environmental education, but why would Hungary have provided more freedom for its wild animals than for its citizens? According to Miklós Persányi, director of Budapest’s Zoological and Botanical Garden, which was established in 1866, the number of zoos is growing. “In 1800 there were just two zoos in the world which could be visited by the public. There were 20 in 1850, approximately 100 by 1900, 5,000 by 1990 and today there are 10,000. Hungary had a single zoo up to 1958, when a second one opened in Debrecen. By 1990 their number had grown to ten and today looking at the official licences I estimate there are 30. By 2050 there will be about 50.” Not only has the number of zoos and people interested in them increased in the past two centuries but so has the expectation that wild animals kept in captivity will be able to live in appropriate conditions. Until the 20th century (and in many places even today) zoos were menagerie-type living museums where animals were presented as mobile exhibition objects. Exoticism and curiosity were the most important aspects of a collection and as a result breeds were treated like items in a stamp collection. Due to protests and research and as a result of animal and environment protection, menagerie-type zoos in the welfare states started to disappear and by the last decades of the 20th century the emphasis was on quality presentation. Today the fauna of geographical units and climatic zones tend to be at the forefront, rather than accommodating animals according to the taxonomy used earlier, with large cats, ungulates or reptiles being next to each other. Hungarian zoos are also making efforts in this direction and there are some fine examples, especially in the spacious zoos of Nyíregyháza and Szeged. The new zoo model essentially serves biodiversity and involves all the possible means at the disposal of the institution. The strategy indicates that zoological gardens, aquaria and botanical gardens are only able to operate successfully by encompassing the full spectrum of environment protection, which includes breeding endangered species, research, positively influencing attitudes, further training, lobbying for support and preserving species in their own habitat. In recent times the annual number of people visiting Hungary’s first zoo, the Budapest Zoological and Botanical Garden, has been about one million.