By Juliana Adelman
The Dublin Zoo has recently announced the arrival of a sealion cub, the latest of many births the zoo has had this year. This announcement made me think of the very different fate of a harbour seal which the institution acquired in 1835. The unfortunate creature was only expected to live a week. An advertisement in Saunder’s Newsletter noted that ‘As the life of such an animal in confinement is precarious, persons desirous of seeing it should avail themselves of an early opportunity.’ In the early years of the zoo, preventing animals from dying was an accomplishment in and of itself. Now, of course, breeding programmes are an important component of most zoos and part of their claims to conservation and thus environmentalism. Dublin Zoo is historically important in this regard: it began successfully breeding and selling lions in the 1860s. In 1881 the sale of animals bred in the gardens amounted to almost £500, a substantial portion of the zoo’s income for the year. The importance of breeding animals in the zoo wasn’t just financial, it also represents a shift in how people thought about exhibited animals. For most of the nineteenth century it had been acceptable for them to be interesting, even if slightly miserable. We now want them to be happy and reproduction is seen as the ultimate indicator of happiness. This attitude is of course influenced by our prejudices about what constitutes human happiness. The sentimentality we attach to childhood is reflected in the huge interest in baby animals in zoos. Something about watching ‘animal families’ makes us happy. In fact, it’s remarkable how little has changed about the zoo experience in more than 150 years. Although the enclosures have certainly been improved both in terms of aesthetics and animal welfare, the attractions are almost the same right down to animal feeding times. My interest in the history of zoos keeps bringing me back to the same question: what is it exactly that we like about zoos? Is there something fundamental that doesn’t change or is it always affected by historical/cultural/social context? The best I can come up with so far is that we like, and have always liked, the combination of similarity and difference. As the Dublin Zoo’s keeper said, the new sealion pup is ‘full of personality’.