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Should botanic gardens keep animals as exhibits?

Volume 1 Number 2 - October 2004

BGCI members and supporters

This issue of Roots has argued that both zoos and gardens need to take a more ecological approach to education – emphasising both plants and animals.  If we consider that our aim is to always offer visitors first-hand experiences, then does it follow that botanic gardens should keep animals as exhibits?  We asked a number of colleagues around the world for their opinions on this question.  Their considered responses throw up interesting issues and questions that will be of interest to both botanic gardens and zoos alike.

Integrating ecology - do we need to keep animals?

A garden, if managed in an environmentally friendly manner, has many animals within it - it is their habitat.  We need to realise that this gives us the ideal opportunity to develop ecological education with reference to the wildlife of our gardens, without the need to bring in other, perhaps more exotic species.  Depending on the size and location - and indeed on the surroundings of the gardens, there will examples within them of wildlife of many different species demonstrating many ecological issues - nesting of native birds, migration of species and their annual cycles, colonisation by exotic animals and their impact on the local ecology, feeding strategies of lizards, species specificity of insect food plants, and many more.  This is happening all around us, and very often, even if we ourselves realise it, we don't put it across to our visitors.  The fact is that, even without keeping animals, we can put a very wide ecological message across.

In the Gibraltar Botanic Gardens we also keep animals.  Initially this was as a result of us offering space in a disused corner of the Garden to house parrots and monkeys confiscated by Gibraltar Customs having arrived within the jurisdiction without CITES papers.  The collection grew with other confiscated animals, such as tortoises from nearby Morocco, being entrusted to our care.  Once incipient facilities were there, other projects such as captive breeding of rare native species for subsequent release started to develop, and a certain demand to house unwanted pets was also partly met. The facilities are still being developed, and as they do, there are certain lessons learnt that need to be shared.

Unless the exhibits generate sufficient income through properly managed visiting, or perhaps grants for animal conservation projects, they can draw heavily on a garden's resources. Where these are not great they can be an unsustainable strain which could prejudice other aspects of a garden's work.  Looking after animals carries with it great responsibilities, including legal obligations in many countries, and animal welfare issues. Animals also require ample space, and planning will require decisions on which parts of the gardens to convert.  It can work - but be careful. It is much easier for an established zoological park to improve its plant interpretation and education work than for a botanic garden to introduce this new, demanding facet to its work.

And there is one more point to consider also - whether we like it or not, animals tend to attract the attention of the public more than plants.  Our message on plants, and our attempts at getting them to feature in the public's perception of ecology, may suffer if the limited time a visitor spends in our garden is spent looking at cuddly baby monkeys, fascinating reptiles, or majestic birds of prey.

John Cortes is Director of the Gibraltar Botanic Gardens.  Trained in Ecology, his Doctorate in reptile ecology. He is also General Secretary of the Gibraltar Ornithological & Natural History Society, which is a Partner of BirdLife International

Gibraltar Botanic Gardens, The Alameda, Red Sands Road, Gibraltar.

Animals reinforce the message

Cleveland Botanical Garden regards animals as essential to communicate the reliance of all life upon plants. Animals engage visitors by adding motion, surprise, color, and even scent. 

In the biomes of the Eleanor Armstrong Smith Glasshouse, animals taking refuge within a model strangler fig serve to demonstrate plant-animal interactions.  Giant South American Cockroaches provide a great “ICK!” factor! A tarantula’s burrow beckons children to investigate further.  Leaf-cutter ants tend fungus gardens within a fallen tree and forage along a vine looping over a stream.  Every day, birds and butterflies pollinate flowers and disperse seeds.  These diverse interactions have created an environment that immerses visitors in the biomes. 

This was made possible through planners selecting animals that offered interesting stories.  Concerted research and coordination was undertaken to ensure that the animals would live harmoniously with plants, each other and people.  The animals needed to be available in the trade (zoos, breeders), be easily maintained and be capable of living successfully in captivity.  For example, maintaining tropical butterflies requires an abundance of sunlight, temperatures of 70-90°F, high relative humidity and nectar-producing plants. The birds inhabiting each biome have their own specific requirements and this in turn influences plantings, structure, and staffing.  This process although complex has resulted in a wonderful educational resource.

Cynthia Mazer and Sandra Rode, Cleveland Botanical Garden, 11030 East Boulevard, Cleveland, OH 44106.

An unwelcome distraction!

Over the years I have had my fill of competing with cute little animals. When I worked as an education officer I was continually in competition with the fish and squirrels of the botanic garden. How can anyone expect to hold the attention of a group of eight year olds when a fury little squirrel is doing party tricks in the hope of a bit of some ones lunch? ‘Fish time’ became a regular feature of rainforest tours passing by the tropical pond and only after a compulsory five minutes of mutual staring between coy carp and not-so-coy children was over could the lesson proceed. Then somebody introduced green tree frogs to the glasshouses as a form of biological control. This was even more annoying. When you walk into the house they all start to sing and the children get very excited. ‘Yes’ you say ‘‘they are real frogs’’ and the children scatter to search for them. But try as hard as you like the cunning frogs never reveal themselves. Move within a meter and they are silenced with the songster hidden deep in the undergrowth.

The solution to all my animal problems? Recently curator, David Mitchell, began commissioning a series of beautiful life-size bronze animal sculptures for the glasshouses. Roadrunners now run across the Sonoran desert, bats pollinate the Saguaro cactus and spade-foot toads emerge from the bronze quagmire. We even have a small but perfectly formed bronze dinosaur standing gingerly among the tree ferns. They fit marvellously among the foliage and best of all they never steal your thunder or your sandwiches!

Ian Darwin Edwards, Director of Public Programmes, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, 20A Inverleith Row, Edinburgh EH3 5LR, Scotland. 

The whole picture

Have you ever tried to put together a jigsaw puzzle with some of the critical pieces missing? It’s frustrating having an incomplete picture at the end. It can be the same for botanic garden educators when teaching about biodiversity and conservation - for without the animals our stories are often incomplete.

Animals can enrich the learning experience by giving authenticity to ecological programs but their introduction and management needs to be thought through carefully. Animal exhibits are best integrated into ecological displays rather than stand alone enclosures. From the outset they should have a clear interpretive purpose and where possible link to the existing biodiversity of the garden. They are also more likely to succeed and be sustainable in the longer term if developed in partnership with zoos or animal specialists who have the appropriate expertise.

With these points in mind our garden, in partnership with our nearby zoo, has successfully released two species of native birds into our rainforest conservatory; the White-browed Woodswallow (Artamus superciliosus) for biological control of palm eating caterpillars and Noisy Pitta birds (Pitta versicolor) to help the leaf litter decay cycle. We also have a highly popular ‘mini-beast’ program for schools run by an invertebrate expert. Spectacular macro invertebrates are used to tell the story of rainforest plant/animal relationships in a dynamic and hands on way.

The animals in both these programs quickly capture visitor interest and arouse their curiosity. The questions flow. Once we have their attention plants are introduced seamlessly and then highlighted as a natural part of the discussion. The animals are great attention grabbers and ultimately give a more complete story of the environment. Integrated thoughtfully with your plants they work wonders for ecological storytelling.

Steve Meredith, Education Officer, Botanic Gardens of Adelaide, North Terrace, Adelaide, South Australia.

Introduce butterflies with caution

Breeding butterflies for an enclosed exhibit can be a wonderful tool to teach about insect life cycles, plant/animal interactions, and conservation. However, caution needs to be exercised when including butterflies in an outdoor exhibit.  If non-native species are introduced it is important to consider how their removal from their natural environment will impact their survival and the ecology of their ecosystem of origin, as well as their influence on the ecosystem to which they are introduced. If host plants are planted to attract native species to a garden there is a danger that gardens will prove less hospitable to their offspring than a natural habitat.

In my graduate work I examined the utility of gardens in butterfly conservation.  For the species I studied, butterfly eggs and larvae had lower survival rates in gardens than in natural sites. I was able to exclude lack of available food resources and higher natural enemy attack as the cause for the butterfly’s low survival rates in gardens. Yet, I was unable to uncover the cause of poor performance in gardens. Given that I was only able to include one species in my study I cannot predict how butterflies in general will perform in gardens, only that some butterflies will be negatively affected by breeding in gardens. I urge curators to monitor butterfly populations in their gardens and introduce programs for individuals to do the same in their own yards/gardens. Monitoring of butterfly populations within gardens will also give us clues to how we can best maintain butterfly populations internationally.

Jacqueline Levy, Ecologist, 4226 Mt. Taylor Dr, Santa Rosa, CA 95404, USA.

Are gardens effective in butterfly conservation? A case study with the pipevine swallowtail, Battus philenor, by Jacqueline Levy is published in the next issue of The Journal of Insect Conservation.

Opening Pandora’s Box!

Horticulture is becoming increasingly important to zoos, many of which now aim to display their animals in an ecological context.  Likewise, botanic gardens are increasingly incorporating animals into their exhibits.  In principle, this is to be welcomed as it helps provide a more holistic view of nature to visitors. 

However, by adding animals to their collections, botanic gardens must be aware that they may be opening a Pandora’s box! The keeping of animals, in particular vertebrates, is strictly regulated in most countries. In the European Union, for example, permanent establishments where animals of wild species are kept for exhibition to the public for seven or more days a year are considered zoos under Council Directive 1999/22/EC. This implies complying with defined enclosure and husbandry standards, employing qualified animal keepers, contracting a zoo veterinarian, participating in research from which conservation benefits accrue to the animal species concerned, and/or other activities related to the conservation of wild fauna.

Peter Dollinger, Excecutive Director, WAZA (The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums), Post address: P.O.Box 23, CH-3097 Liebefeld-Berne, Visitors' address: Lindenrain 3, CH-3012 Berne. 


Dans ce numéro de Roots, il est argumenté que les zoos et les jardins botaniques doivent avoir une approche plus écologique de l’éducation – avec un accent sur les plantes et les animaux. Si nous pensons que l’objectif est d’offrir aux visiteurs des expériences directes, faut-il alors que les jardins botaniques exhibent des animaux? Nous avons demandé à un certain nombre de collègues à travers le monde leur opinion sur la question. Leurs réponses soulèvent des questions intéressantes – qui concerneront autant les zoos que les jardins botaniques.


Esta edición de Roots ha argumentado que tanto los zoos como los jardines deben tener una actitud más ecológica a la educación - dándole énfasis tanto a las plantas como a los animales. Si consideramos que nuestro objetivo es de siempre ofrecerle a los que nos visitan una experiencia de primera mano, entonces, ¿es lógico que los jardines botánicos exhibieran también animales?  Le pedimos opiniones sobre este tema a algunos compañeros alrededor del mundo.  De sus consideradas respuestas surgen temas y preguntas que le interesarán tanto a los jardines como a los zoológicos.