Zoos and animals have long been a huge part of our culture. In her latest picture book What’s New? The Zoo!: A Zippy History of Zoos (illustrated by Marcellus Hall), author Kathleen Krull fills readers in on the ins and outs of fascinating animal collections and menageries from ancient times to the present day.
What inspired you to tackle the topic of zoos?
It was an editor with vision, Cheryl Klein at Arthur A. Levine Books, who came to me with this topic. She thought a book on the history of zoos sounded like a lot of fun, and I agreed. We were surprised to find it hadn’t been done before. She knew of my penchant for books that require a ton of research to poke into the interesting and preferably funny intersections of history. This was what might be called a longitudinal study—looking at a narrow topic over the course of centuries—and I had just completed another one, on a very different topic, for Arthur A. Levine Books, Big Wig: A Little History of Hair.
What was the strangest fact you came across while researching the book?
Too many strange facts to count—from the first zoo being established in present-day Iraq to Darwin getting his evolutionary ideas while watching Jenny the orangutan to the way giraffes always seemed to make the biggest splash with audiences. But what most struck me was that zoos turned out to be a fascinating lens on world history and civilizations. After that first zoo opened in Iraq, the idea caught on in Egypt, Greece, and China. The Aztecs had such an incredible collection of animals that it took 600 men and women to care for them. After Columbus brought new species from the New World, animal collections flourished across Europe. And so on to the present day, with all sorts of zoo innovations.
There was a real sense of affection for the animals here, from their keepers and from the public.
People just love animals, perhaps because being around them is a natural stress-reliever. Different countries and different generations treat animals in different ways. I think Gandhi said it best: “The greatness of a nation…can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
What kind of research did you do for the book?
I read everything about zoos from their beginnings until now. Many of my sources were scholarly tomes from the library at the University of California-San Diego. A considerable amount of cool info and numerous great zoos didn’t make it into the book. I wouldn’t call this a definitive history but more of a “best of”—a collection of the most colorful moments.
What do you think are some of the biggest changes between the early zoos and today?
The general trend from the past to today has been toward kinder treatment of the animals in captivity and the use of zoos to protect endangered species. I think zoos will always be places where kids learn to love animals and even envision future careers working with them. Zoos are an important way that kids get inspired by nature.
What’s your favorite zoo?
I will admit I’m partial to the last zoo mentioned in this book, the justifiably world-famous zoo in San Diego, where I live now. The combination of perfect weather, gorgeous vegetation, and the kindly way the animals are mostly unenclosed makes for a lovely day. I’ve been there with family, friends, and tourists of all ages. Probably my most memorable visit was years ago, when I had the opportunity to visit it with the artists Alice and Martin Provensen—seeing the animals through the eyes of these highly visual people was a gift.
What do you see the zoo of the future looking like?
I’ve read some intriguing predictions, like getting to visit woolly mammoths and other long-extinct animals after their DNA has been cloned to re-create them. Also predicted are zoos constructed entirely of super-high-definition 4-D TV screens that portray animals in the wild so realistically that they will no longer need to be captured and brought in. Kids who get inspired by zoos today will doubtless find high-tech ways to improve them in the future.