Barcelona is one of Europe’s oldest zoos. Opened in 1892, it’s now leading the way by becoming the world’s first “animalist” zoo, meaning its role is now less about showcasing wild animals and more about leading research, as well as educating the public on how they can play their part in conservation and focussing on breeding programmes for a select number of species.
Elephants, bears, camels, kangaroos and zebras will eventually disappear from the zoo. Under new legislation, they will no longer be bred because they are not endangered species and cannot be released into the wild. Those animals already living at the zoo will either be cared for until their death, or be moved to nature reserves.
An exception for the breeding ban is made for species included in plans for reintroduction to the wild. Currently only 11 species at the zoo meet this criteria, but its managers have been asked to produce proposals for other potential candidates. They would need to demonstrate that zoo breeding will bring quantifiable benefits for the conservation and viability of a species, and outline phases in which reintroduction into nature or population reinforcement will be carried out.
A new direction
Some conservationists and scientific communities who believe the breeding of endangered species in zoos is essential for their survival are against the ban. There has also been disappointment among some zoo employees, who fear for their jobs as a result of the changes.
However, animal rights pressure groups, including Libera and ZooXXI, have praised the decision, arguing it’s wrong for animals to live in an unnatural environment for the entertainment of humans.
It would seem that this change is also in step with what visitors to modern zoos want. User experience research (UX) – which helped devise the zoo’s new strategy – found that, for many visitors, sadness is the main emotion aroused in zoos, primarily due to the animals’ poor quality of life.
Visitor feedback also supported the notion that the concept of the zoo should be reframed as a shelter for threatened species and that education is the main value provided by zoos, together with the mission of preserving these endangered species.
This was the foundation of the new strategic plan, which was approved by Barcelona City Council last May. The new direction is backed up by a €63m (US$70.2m) investment plan over the next 12 years, which will upgrade zoo facilities and prioritise the conservation of Iberian and Mediterranean species.
Education and research
Zoo director, Antoni Alarcon, believes this change of direction is necessary and that zoos have a new role to play in society.
“Barcelona Zoo is not just for keeping animals,” he says. “It’s a zoo committed to conserving biodiversity and animal welfare. It’s also a zoo which believes these facilities must evolve to be able to work to prevent the silent loss of biodiversity, one of the main consequences of global climate change.
“In an increasingly urbanised society, which is divorced from nature, zoos must continue to evolve and become much more engaged, steering clear of cultural attitudes disconnected from scientific knowledge and operational models more suited to amusement parks.”
Barcelona Zoo already has a legacy of conservation and research, and has been involved with 242 conservation and research projects in conjunction with universities, public research bodies and NGOs. Going forward, the zoo will strengthen this commitment to preserving nature and its partnerships with both universities and scientific institutions.
“One of the plan’s most important proposals is to set up a state-of-the-art international level research institute, dedicated to all types of research and conservation of animal biodiversity, with the involvement of the main Catalan universities and research centres,” says Alarcon. “As well as leading environmental education, the centre will build awareness to the general public and encourage them to be more respectful and committed to biodiversity.”
Call to action
While being designed to provide the best animal welfare conditions, the new facilities will also take into account sustainability and the immersive zoo experience.
“Zoo-immersion criteria of visitors is a critical factor in the design of new zoo facilities,” says Alarcon. “We’re planning new interpretation centres which will help visitors understand the difficulties the animals are in, as well as the inherent risks in the habitats they live, and then personally involve them in preservation efforts.”
A comprehensive communication strategy will also be launched to inspire people to make a positive impact on the plight of wildlife in natural habitats: “A trip to the zoo is not just about observing animals in a series of facilities, but will become an all-encompassing experience,” says Alarcon. “It will help visitors acquire new knowledge and move them emotionally, spurring them into action before, during and after their visit, through our blog, social networks and publications.”
Technology will play an important role in how messages are imparted, so the learnings will be imparted subtly and subliminally and without visitors having to read lots of information boards. Provisions will also be made for specialist visitors, such as students.
Currently, Barcelona Zoo takes part in almost 100 off-site programmes for endangered species and is home to 100 species listed as vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered or extinct in the wild. But one of the main guidelines of the new model is to prioritise native species of fauna, species which are highly endangered in the wild and which already have conservation plans.
“The facilities provided for in the model will be linked as far as possible to in-situ conservation or cooperation projects,” explains Alarcon. “Given its worldwide importance and the degree to which it’s threatened by climate change and global warming, one of the priority action proposals is to recreate the Mediterranean environment, which is one of the richest regions of the world in terms of biodiversity and, at the same time, one of the most vulnerable.”
One example of this is the zoo’s work to save the Montseny brook newt, which can only be found in a 25sq km (9.6sq mi) part of the Catalan Massif and is the most endangered vertebrate in Europe.
Could this new approach from Barcelona Zoo become the blueprint for other zoos to follow? Alarcon believes zoos need to go beyond their traditional roles and embrace new disciplines and new perspectives, which show learning about nature can be fun and useful.
His vision is that the reorganisation will lead to the zoo becoming a vibrant centre for knowledge and biodiversity conservation, and that these changes will lead to it becoming more inclusive and relevant, as well as imparting important environmental messages.