The National Museum of Animals & Society, established January 2010, is dedicated to enriching the lives of animals and people through exploration of our shared experience. Read more...
National Museum of Animals & Society Blog
Recently, the Spanish animal advocacy association LIBERA! and the Swiss environmental organization Fondation Franz Weber teamed up to propose the concept of eZOO, which, if completed, would be the first virtual-reality zoological park in the world. Planned for construction in Barcelona, Spain, eZOO would combine animatronics, 3D projection, interactive displays, and immersive virtual environments to plunge guests into a multisensory experience of simulated animals in their natural habitats. The programming and content of eZOO could also be specially customized and altered to appeal to specific demographic groups or to highlight particular aspects of the natural world. For example, one program could be tailor-made for elementary school-aged children, while another program could be designed for teenagers, and yet another for adults, teachers, scientists, or even policy-makers. A room which highlights the effects of global warming one day could be reprogrammed to showcase the deforestation of the world’s rain forests the next. (You can watch a video of some of the technologies that eZOO is planning to incorporate, as well as listen [in Spanish] to its organizers further explain the concept, on Vimeo, or read more about eZOO [in English] on Elephant Voices.)
The proposed eZOO sounds infinite in its dynamicism, scope, and educational possibilities. As the world changes and new environmental concerns arise, eZOO could change along with it and continue to bring guests face-to-face with the multitude of serious issues plaguing the natural world. But what does it mean for animals? For one, visitors would be able to interact more personally with (virtual) creatures. Animals that previously could not be contained in a zoo – blue whales, for instance – or which are known to suffer when kept in captivity – such as elephants and great apes – could finally have their presence felt by humans in a more naturalistic way. It sounds silly to think that a virtual projection of an animal could be considered “naturalistic,” but that is exactly what eZOO aims to achieve: bringing the experience of animals in the wild, behaving as they would naturally behave, to humans in a virtual but fully realistic manner.
eZOO sounds like a fascinating concept, but also looks like a massively-ambitious project that will take years (most likely decades) to fund and build. But are virtual animals really the “future” of zoos? Certainly modern zoos have improved by leaps and bounds on their forefathers, and are actively working to find even better ways to keep both their animal residents and human visitors happy, stimulated, and comfortable. Zoos are not the “animal prisons” they once were. However, it’s also important to take into consideration that keeping captive animals as happy as their wild counterparts is a challenging – and expensive – task, even for the best zoos.
Furthermore, the purpose of the modern zoo is less akin to the circus and more focused on promoting conservation of species and the natural spaces which they inhabit. Zoos operate on the notion that there’s nothing like seeing a living, breathing example of a species up close to inspire one to want to save his or her brethren in the wild. Is it ethical for zoos to keep live animals in captivity to inspire humans to be more aware of their wild counterparts? Can a virtual zoo possibly capture the effect of seeing a live animal – or will eZOO lead to a further disconnection between humanity and the world in which we live?