In the twentieth century, zoos experienced a marked increase in visitors. They had become a popular place for recreation now that the standard of living was higher, and people were more educated and had more free time.
The public wanted to get closer to the animals, to get to know them better, to be in communion with nature. They wanted to know all about their living conditions, their behaviour and their sociability. Thus, zoos abandoned the idea of single exhibits and began to display animals in groups, reconstituting their social structures and their way of life.
To limit barriers between the spectators and the animals as much as possible, zoos without bars were created, beginning in 1917; and they were a success. It was Stellingen, a private zoo in a Hamburg suburb, which totally broke with the past to create this genre. To maintain the animals' freedom, some innovative improvements were made: pits 5 to 6 metres in width, with steep slopes, were dug; thus the animals could not get out. With no cages, grilles, or bars, the enclosures were sometimes islands, for example, in the case of monkeys, since they are afraid of water. The animals moved about in a natural setting; even the wolves had their cave. Man-made rocks 40 metres high dominated the site, presenting on the one hand, a polar scene, complete with bears, and on the other, an equatorial garden situated near a lake with almost 500 aquatic birds and herbivores. However, carnivores, were still kept in cages; snakes were kept behind glass; and certain birds were chained to rocks. Quickly, this park became the subject of criticism. Several monkeys drowned, elephants wishing to get closer to the public injured themselves on the walls or were killed. Finally, it spawned a new genre found in Rome, in Vincennes-famous for its 67-metre-high rock-or in the semi-free parks instituted in the period between the wars, such as Clères in France, the 50-acre Hellbrun, near Munich (1928), or the 60-acre Nuremberg, built around famous castles. Whipsnade, which opened in London in 1931, had 200 acres. This time the animals were free and the spectators were in a cage. The closest imitation of nature was the primary goal.
The idea of educating people at the zoo reached its height in the period between the two wars. In contrast, professionals were less interested in this activity, which had become too popular with the masses. Literature dealing with zoo life and wild animals proliferated. It was the era of best sellers such as The Jungle Book, published in 1896. From 1947 onwards, animal films such as those of Walt Disney Seal Island and Beaver Valley, were also highly successful. Animals were regarded as true friends. Associations of zoo benefactors, societies for the protection of animals, and animal magazines became widespread.
In the 1960s, in the great movement that called capitalism into question, the pillaging of the third world was denounced, as were the zoos, which were seen as an affront to animals and to nature. In UNESCO, in 1978, a universal declaration of animal rights was made. Further, to combat the poor conditions in certain zoos, legislative controls were voted on in several countries; for example, in Great Britain in 1981, and in France in 1976, where authorization was required prior to the opening of a zoo, but the effects were limited. Zoos abandoned training and taming activities to distinguish themselves from circuses, which were greatly maligned, to concentrate more on daily life: meals, care, play, and reproduction. Semi-free parks have experienced a boom, particularly in urban areas and in summer tourist areas. For example, in France they went from 12 in 1965 to 35 in 1995; in Italy they went from 11 to 25; in Spain they went from 3 to 10; in Germany they went from 45 to 56; and in Great Britain they went from 34 to 72. People visit parks in a car or on a boat, just as they would do on safari. One of the first created on this model was Thoiry, built in 1968. In the 1970s, glass was widely used, nocturamas, with lighting that reversed day and night, allowed the discovery of nocturnal animals; and certain zoos installed glass observation booths over the enclosures. Innovations continue to this day. There are also some forward-looking parks: Ambroseli National Park, for example, where visitors spend 45 percent of their time observing a single animal!
Finally, in the 1980s and 1990s, surveys indicated that a large part of the European population opposed the keeping of animals in captivity and refused to go to the zoo (81 percent in England in 1980). But the zoos held firm and adapted. In the face of competition, many of them decided to specialize: aquariums, marineland, vivariums, ornithological reserves, local fauna or farm animal parks… the choices were endless.
Today zoos are investing in a new role: saving endangered species. They are turning to worldwide organizations to establish survival plans and to try to return certain species back to nature. In the history of zoos, this is something one could never have imagined