Zoos: Captivating Animals (55+)

Our relationship with animals is strange and complex. Sometimes they are our closest companions, our pets. Other times we domesticate them or hunt them to extinction. Zoos occupy a fascinating middle ground in this paradox. In zoos, we have collected animals (and occasionally people) from around the world, and these captivating/captured animals tell a very human story.

We’ll visit many zoos through photos, postcards, maps and short readings, and as we do, we’ll be in search of ourselves among the animals. History will guide us. When did zoos begin? Who did they belong to? Why are they so popular? Did Stanley Park Zoo follow the pattern? Are endangered animals safer in the zoo? What will future zoos look like, if they exist at all?

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

What will I learn?

Week 1: What makes a zoo a zoo?

Personal menageries and collections existed before, but it was only in the early 19th century that the word “zoo” entered our language and society. This new spectacle now attracts millions of people. The animals, captive and bred, reveal our transforming attitudes in an urban and industrial world.

Week 2: Habitats and inhabitants

Animals arrived from everywhere on earth. Pits, cages, circuses, Modernist monuments and larger domains became home. Hunter-seekers supplied the European zoos, and keepers tried to keep the animals alive. Zoo landscapes became international. Visitors learned what to expect—and what not to—from an institution that espoused conservation, research, education, and discovery.

Week 3: Entertainment

Zoos display the exotic. The platypus, the kangaroo, the orca and even humans qualified for exhibition. Zoos exist to satisfy the omnivorous curiosity of its audience.

Week 4: Darwin and destiny

Zoos became an extended family, but humans sought to maintain difference. There were other important redefinitions, but sentience was very important. What was the difference between humans and animals? Do chimpanzees have memory, do they use tools—do they think? Do dolphins, orcas, octopuses belong in zoos?

Week 5: Personhood and people

Can animals actually have rights? They have suffered in the past because they lack human identity. We have habitually punished them for breaking human rules and practices. The long route to “non-human persons” may be a way to rational treatment.

Week 6: Future zoo

Global habitat deterioration endangers wild species. Captive animals have an increasingly limited gene pool. The “frozen zoos” of cryopreservation have already started collecting and breeding animals in anticipation. De-extinction will dramatically change the role of the zoo. 

How will I learn?

  • Lectures
  • Discussion (may vary from class to class)
  • Papers (applicable only to certificate students)

How will I be evaluated?

For certificate students only:

Your instructor will evaluate you based on an essay, which you will complete at the end of the course. You will receive a grade of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”

Textbooks and learning materials

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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