Peter is an independent international zoo consultant, critic and writer with over 50 years of work within zoos.
The Best Zoo in The World
Everyone has their own opinion as to what is the best zoo in the world, their first choice or favourite zoo. It will depend on what you want out of a visit. A fancy restaurant, to be entertained, your favourite animals, to actually learn something, or just to generally have a good day out. I suppose for some, it is none of these. Zoos are a personal thing.
Red Wattled Lapwing
My Zoo Visits
I am a zoo professional. I have worked in zoos for the past 50+ years in positions ranging from keeper to curator to consultant. I like zoos. I like good zoos.
Since May 2005 I have visited in excess of 186 zoos in Europe, Arabia, S.E. Asia and China, some of these several times. In my life I have probably visited double that number. I am not a zoo 'nut', and am aware of several people who have visited zoological collections that number in the thousands. Some are species spotters others collect guidebooks, take photo's or just tally their numbers upwards.
I am a zoo biologist. I am interested in all aspects of zoo management from cage design, records systems, enrichment, staffing, breeding programmes, cleaning, diets, paint, space provided, signage, public amenities and much much more. I look at the zoo as a whole. Through many years working in zoos I can 'read' cages. I can see behind the mask and pick up on many aspects which would be invisible to the average...and more than average zoo visitor. In a strange way it is the not the animals for me, it is their care and husbandry that matters most. I don't agree with the maintenance or hybrids like Ligers and Tigons or White Tigers. Collections who keep such as these have either lost the plot altogether or are in danger of doing so.
Why Zoo's? Why are there zoos today? Sometimes I ask that question myself. I have seen some absolutely atrocious collections and the worst sort of commercial exploitation. I hate it. Sadly Zoos tend to be lumped together in one basket with no distinction made as to what is good or what is bad. I make a concious effort to change the bad to good. In consideration of cultural or other differences my efforts are usually subtle ones. I have no massive charitable back up. I am nonetheless pleased to be able to make some changes, sometimes, along the way.
The modern GOOD zoo must fulfill the following criteria:
Plus there must be active training for staff, support for in situ projects, ongoing enrichment programmes, and so much more. To get an inkling of what zoo inspectors are looking for you should take a look at an inspection form. Of course it goes much deeper than that but, as a zoo professional it forms the basis of what I am looking for when I visit any zoo.
BAD zoos should change or cease to exist.
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One of the biggest problems
One of the biggest problems the average zoo visitor has of assessing whether a zoo is good or bad is wading through the hype. That is the super fantastic colourful website, beautiful guidebook and wonderful 'in house' spiel. It may truly be good but it is so easy to dress up lies in a costume of lights. There are many many zoos just like that. I so often see letters from people relating to zoos who have been completely taken in.
I see it as it really is.
Many peoples GOOD zoos would not make it into my bottom 5.
My Best Zoo in the World
Okay, I admit it. I have only visited the USA twice and for a few days. First visit was to the Seminole Indian Village and Zoo in Fort Lauderdale. It was really time constraints and whereas I could have gone to Miami I wanted to go somewhere nobody else had. It was a very poor zoo and I still haven't met anyone else who has been there. Some years later I visited a couple of excellent zoos on the east coast. The point is there may be many excellent zoos in the States and elsewhere that I have never visited and will never be able to afford to do so but the zoo which ticked all the right boxes for me was:
The Arabian Wildlife Centre (Sharjah's Desert Park) in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. There is not actually a website of any use, at present, for this excellent collection, but its closely associated Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife is, sadly that needs a bit of work too.
This place is special. My first visit was as an invited guest. I stopped a week and was really impressed. A year later I was asked to 'fill in' a vacant position for a few months and only became more pleased with the way the place was laid out, the staff expertise, caring and professionalism.
Normally when one works in a place one discovers little flaws and problems. I did, but they were minor, so minor they do not deserve a mention.
Notes on my First Visit
I include below some notes on my first visit to Sharjah which I have extracted and quote from my ZooNews Digest.
"To the Sharjah Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife. http://www.breedingcentresharjah.com A quick look round before having a shower to refresh myself. They have been kind enough to accommodate me for a while. I have my own cabin in the grounds. Whereas it lacks the pampering of the Intercontinental and much more besides. In a way I prefer it here. I have a bedroom/living room, bathroom.... the evening exchanging stories. And so to bed. Home is where I hang my hat. Tonight it is Sharjah.
Thursday 8th September : I spent the first part of the morning wandering around the off show breeding exhibits. I have always had a special interest in Arabian fauna so this collection is to me, my Mecca, my place of pilgrimage. It is extremely heartening to see the work being done. I used to lose sleep worrying about the demise of Arabian wildlife. The off show exhibits are of an apparently ideal multipurpose design and house a variety of species. They are sturdily and safely constructed being most suitable for the climate using barasti effectively together with modern materials. Being off show they are functional rather than appealing but are nonetheless quite attractive. One major plus is that they lack the breakback type doors architects and zoo directors so often think a keeper needs. There are around 70 or so separate units, some that can be divided down into three. Space is a little short though, it being taken up with an overabundance of cheetahs."
"Later I spent a couple of hours going through the 'zoo' proper as well as going behind the scenes. I was lucky enough to be able to see two clutches of Dhub (Uromastyx) eggs hatching. The 'zoo' - Arabia's Wildlife Centre is entered through what must be one of the most impressive zoo frontages in the world. It is tasteful, attractive, memorable and in keeping with the general architecture of the area. From the Sharjah heat you pass into a large fully air conditioned marble floored collection area with a neat desk, rather like entering a hotel foyer. From the foyer you move into the reptile exhibits. Each one is different, looking like a corner of an Arabian wadi, mountain, sand or gatch desert. All realistically furnished and lit in such a way as to enhance the scene. Every exhibit has a neat, easily read sign in English and Arabic. The information is just enough. Having looked at each jewel of a display I wanted to read about the animals inside. There are around 50 reptile/amphibian/insect displays of various size. I enjoyed every one of them from the air conditioned comfort of the carpeted public area. All the displays are protected by an ergonomically designed stainless steel stand off barrier, the style of which is carried over into the public rest seating and the barrier around the very attractive open topped central Monitor Lizard enclosure.
From this area you pass through a double roped darkened catchment into the bird exhibit. This is an immense, brightly lit air conditioned hall which you pass through by way of an elevated walkway. The walls are painted with desert scenery which melds into the artificial desert within the hall. The whole thing is enhanced by a wadi stream and waterfall. This is a real joy of a display. It is nice to sit in and just chill out. There are numerous local birds but not so many as to spoil the effect. These include Fruit Pigeon, Houbara Bustard, White-cheeked Bulbul, Rüppel's Weavers, Tristram's Grackle, Philby's Partridges, Lesser Flamingo, Namaqua Dove, Stilts, Red-wattled Lapwings, Laughing Doves, Collared Doves and more. It could really be the desert, but it is a comfortable one and one that guarantees that you can experience some of its delights. Passing through on area into another you go through a cave structure containing Egyptian Fruit Bats. This is a beautiful exhibit which lacks the sickly dingy fruity decaying smelliness one so often encounters in bat displays in other zoos.
Back out again, past the Houbara Bustard to three nice glass fronted displays containing Arabian Caracal, Arabian Sand Cat and Indian Grey Mongoose. Finally leaving the bird house we enter the nocturnal area. This, like all else here is done brilliantly. All the animals are active, the lighting subtle. It works. In the large exhibits in this area you will find such treasures as Gordon's Wild Cat, Ratel, Ruppels Sand Fox and Blanfords Fox before moving onto slightly smaller displays containing Indian Crested Porcupine and Brandts, Ethiopian and Long-Eared Hedgehogs. Moving along still further there is an excellent display of Rodents containing Mice, Spiney Mice, Jirds, Gerbils and Jerboas. All the displays are so well done. Having been behind the scenes and read the diet sheets and seen the enrichment routines I know that this is not just 'shop front', this is compleat care, and care done outstandingly well.
Leaving the nocturnal area you are given two choices. Visit the restaurant or travel on further. The restaurant is a 'must'. It is glass walled and looks out onto a desert vista of a small oasis. There is a mountain backdrop with Nubian Ibex and Hyrax whilst in the foreground there are Greater Flamingos, Arabian Oryx, Sand Gazelles and Red necked Ostrich. This is an outstanding display that works so well that it could be naturally occurring. If that was not impressive enough you then move onto displays of Hamadryas Baboons and Mountain Gazelle, Arabian Wolves, Arabian Leopards, Cheetah and Striped Hyaena. Like the smallest reptile and amphibian exhibits of the zoo these look like real places. I can vouch for it. I have been to places in the mountains of the UAE and Oman that look exactly like this. In air conditioned comfort you view these cameos through glass. In each viewing bay there is a short commentary in Arabic and English telling you about the animal you are looking at. But because it is outside, open topped and in the 'wild' it is visited by local, wild Arabian birds who are that final ingredient to create a near reality.
Behind the scenes of Arabia's Wildlife Centre are almost as interesting as the front. There are many 'off show' exhibits breeding or maintaining species held at the front. Here also are the rodent breeding units, mealworm and cricket colonies all managed to the highest standard. In a word 'fantastic'. Overall Arabia's Wildlife Centre (Sharjah zoo) is one of, if not the finest I have seen. I know I am biased towards Arabian fauna but it really does deserve a visit. It is a First Class collection of the highest order which surely must number in the worlds top ten zoos. It is certainly of the standard to which all zoos should aspire."
"...Slept in and then went down to the Breeding Centre office to try to sort out my emails. Absolutely impossible to get at anything unless it is coming to my yahoo address. Giving up I took my third tour of the Centre grounds.
There are 16 closed top lozenge shaped treble units, each part of each treble is measuring approximately 12 by 14 metres and is in itself a self contained unit with water, dens and appropriate cage furniture. A 12 by 14 metre cage is decent by any standards but many of these are opened out into their full length of around 36 metres. Then there are around 10 closed top double units which measure the same. These house Arabian Leopards, Arabian Wolves, Arabian Red Foxes, Blanfords Foxes, Sand Cats, Asiatic Jackals, Gordon's Wild Cats, Striped Hyaena, Arabian Caracals, White Tailed Mongoose and lots of Cheetahs. Then there are two open top reptile exhibits, one containing Skittering Frogs and the other Caspian Terrapins and a colony of Dhubs. There are four large double (approx 35 x 25 metres) open top enclosures containing Cheetah and then four bigger ones of slightly different design which house Nubian Ibex, Arabian Tahr, Gazelle, Bustards and Ostrich.
Lastly there are a multitude of smaller pens and pens within pens which hold things like Sand Grouse, and confiscated Hornbills, Eagles and miscellaneous birds of prey etc. All these are serviced by a competent group of Sri Lankan staff under the supervision of the senior staff.
Getting back to the off show breeding exhibits. They are laid out neatly I rows, none too close to each other. Running the entire length and up to the access door to each exhibit is a well made and attractive brick path. Between the path and each cage is neat irrigated lawn. The entire perimeter is planted with tree hedging and throughout the area numerous trees have been planted. This is a man made oasis of calm and conservation. Not being open to the public it is quiet and peaceful. The wild birds here are even tamish. There are Hoopoe, Bulbul, Bee Eater, Roller, Desert Lark, Red-wattled Lapwing, Palm Dove, Turtledove, Common Mynah, House Sparrow and much else. If I hadn't sold my bird books I would be in a better position to list.
The main building at the Breeding Centre is an integral unit containing all services. This brilliantly designed set up contains a reception,vseveral offices, a meeting room, an excellent veterinary surgery, an x-ray unit and a post mortem room. There is a well equipped animal kitchen, freezers and a large dry food store. There is a library, a workshop, an aquarium and breeding units for quail and crickets. There are also reptile and insect holding facilities in some of the passages. All that office space doesn't go to waste either. Apart from the day to day running of the zoo and breeding centre all the senior staff are actively involved in hands on research and conservation projects within the UAE or elsewhere in Arabia. They are, in the main, living and enjoying their work and directly contributing to our knowledge of Arabian Fauna."
A Follow Up
A year after the period the above notes refer to I spent three months working in the Arabian Wildlife Centre. My opinion did not change except that I decided that it was the Best Zoo in The World...so far.
Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on July 09, 2013:
But Virsuyama there are zoos and zoos. Good ones and bad ones. This zoo does more for conservation than dozens I could mention.....and it CARES for its animals. No chains or Tigers there.
Virsuyama from Gianyar on July 09, 2013:
I don't like Zoo. Because I se the tiger with a chain around its neck or tigers in the cage. :-)
Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on September 02, 2011:
@suzettenaples - Thank you. I have never been to the Columbus Zoo but am aware of both it and Jack.
Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on September 02, 2011:
I thought you must work at a zoo. My favorite zoo is the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Columbus, OH. It is the one Jack Hanna is the director emeritus. It is really a great zoo and they take good care of the animals. What an interesting life you have had working in zoos and traveling the world visiting them. I will sent all my zoo questions to you.
Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on May 18, 2010:
Ryan - this is a massive subject and you really would need to read several books to scratch the surface of needs. One prime thought is that you should build your zoo for the sake of assisting in genuine conservation projects and breeding programmes and education and NOT to make money. Of course you will have to make money too to pay wages, feed animals etc etc etc
So wherever you build your zoo must be easily accessible to the public, good parking facilities, little competition etc etc.
Climate will affect species kept. Pay good wages for good staff......................Big subject!
As far as attracting people......Well you must do something different. Something people will want to see. A really good relationship with the press and good ideas. I have lots of these but don't give them away. Good luck!
Ryan on May 17, 2010:
Hi, I'm a senior in high school interested in making a zoo. So I have been researching the best way to run a zoo, but I cannot find out what is the best way to attract people into my/a zoo. Should I take polls or do my best? What is your/anyones opinion?
Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on July 05, 2009:
Ulla - Thank you for your comments. If I ever win the lottery or start to really earn on hub pages I will make a point of visiting your zoo. I will look forward to it.
ulla on July 05, 2009:
Very nice notes from your visit to the Arabian Wildlife Centre. I don't know if I will ever get to see this wonderful zoo, but I have been to a few zoos, to include the Bronx zoo and the Frankfurt Zoologischer Garten. They are very nice with beautiful exhibits. But my favorite one is tiny and located in Central Park in NYC. You may not agree with me but I like the smallness and intimacy of this zoo. It's actually quiet there, with a red panda mostly sleeping in a tree and the bird-house with may different birds flying around between visitors.
Like I said, you might not agree with me, but this is a relaxing small zoo and I love it. Come and visit sometime and see for yourself.
aka-dj from Australia on January 15, 2009:
Very nice hub. I have not been to many zoos, but I L O V E Taronga Zoo, in Sydney.It's not big, but what a location. (Views over Sydney Harbour).