Gotta catch 'em all! Art and the zoo (2024)

Art teachers often tell their students 'if you want to draw or paint something realistically, you have to look at it in real life'. This rule poses a problem for artists looking at wild animals, because unless the animal is a particularly relaxed one, like a sponge or a stick insect, it's going to be difficult to get it to stay still – let alone even find it in the first place.

Today we have photographs and nature documentaries to help us understand animals, but before these things were readily accessible, artists had to conjure the elusive creatures from other artists' pictures, their imaginations, or from studies in person. Unfortunately for animals, during the latter they were often dead, or close to it in captivity – in the stark, cramped cages of menageries or early zoos.

The history of zoos reflects how we look at animals: animals have been captured in enclosures and on canvas, for entertainment, education, or a little bit of both. Zoos today have the tricky task of adapting with changing cultural attitudes to animals and the environment, and advances in animal welfare. Partly tourist destination, partly Noah's Ark, understanding zoos can be difficult: we have a number of paintings on Art UK which help illustrate this complicated history.

Gotta catch 'em all! Art and the zoo (1)

London Zoo's variety of architectural styles


Animals as captives

Early animal artists, such as Frans Snyders, used the beautiful feathers and furs of wild creatures to give texture and depth to his still lifes or hunting scenes. His paintings show a mix of dead and alive animals, mostly ones to be found (and eaten) in Europe. You can imagine the artist working in front of a table piled with pelts, dead birds and vegetables.

Larder with Dead Game, a Swan and a Lobster, Fruit, Vegetables and a Pointer Bitch Defending Her Puppies

Frans Snyders (1579–1657)

National Trust, Osterley Park

A Lion Hunt about 1614-15

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)

The National Gallery, London

Some talented sixteenth- and seventeenth-century artists, such as Rembrandt, Durer and Rubens, included more exotic species in their paintings, like hippos and lions. Their successes were thanks to encounters with captive animals on display, earlier prints, published anatomical studies, and compositional skill (as explained in this fantastic Slate article).

But wild animals were also drawn and painted for reasons other than to decorate stately homes; their images were captured so that people could learn about the natural world. Consider how hard it would be for a traveller from the Middle Ages to explain an elephant to people who hadn't seen one before – which may excuse the appearance of the chubby grey creature on the left in this painting.

Orpheus Charming the Animals c.1672

Thomas Ffrancis (active 1635–1679) (attributed to)

National Trust, Chirk Castle

The urge to see and know about exotic animals was gradually satisfied by pictures: anatomist Dr William Hunter commissioned works from George Stubbs because he knew the artist to be talented in anatomical study – as demonstrated by his splendid Whistlejacket (though Stubbs' depiction of an Indian 'stag' is a composite of British and Indian species (i)). The Moose was commissioned because Dr Hunter was keen to prove his theory that the moose was different to the Irish elk (ii).

The Moose 1770

George Stubbs (1724–1806)

The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

Dr Hunter must have been familiar with the errors that could be introduced by artists working from poorly preserved specimens. One beloved example of this problem is the Horniman Museum's overstuffed walrus. Modern visitors may think he looks like a tusked balloon sitting on an iceberg, but if you hadn't ever seen a live walrus, how would you know the skin is supposed to have folds? Few people could go to Canada, but a walrus hide could be brought back to London.

Menagerie 1810–c.1820

unknown artist

Laing Art Gallery

Transporting live animals grew in popularity until the menagerie became common during the nineteenth century. Early forerunners of zoos as we know them, these motley collections of exotic animals were kept in conditions we'd see as barbaric today. Originally collected by royals and other people of influence, later menageries ran as businesses, such as that in the Exeter Exchange on London's Strand. Lord Byron documented a visit there in his diary:

'…The elephant took and gave me my money again – took off my hat – opened a door – trunked a whip – and behaved so well, that I wish he was my butler.' –Life, Lettersand Journals of Lord Byron(1839)

The Exeter 'Change declined in popularity after its elephant Chunee killed a keeper and was shot; the creature's agonised cries were heard across the Strand. The Exeter 'Change and the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London were closed, and their remaining animals sent to a new site in Regent's Park, which opened in 1828 – as imagined in the below scene. The opening of London Zoo, the first of its kind, marked a new era for urban society's relationship with captive animals.

Last Days of the Royal Menagerie and Moat, c.1841 2002–2003

Ivan Lapper (b.1939)

Tower of London – Historic Royal Palaces

Animals on display

Within a decade of The National Gallery opening in Trafalgar Square, London Zoo opened to the public in 1847, having previously allowed access mainly to Zoological Society Fellows. This was the era of scientific discovery and moral instruction: Dr Hilda Kean explains that galleries and zoos at that time were 'places where you go along and look at things… a way of being educated and improving yourself… becoming civilised by looking.'

Scarborough, Interior of the Aquarium 19th C

British (English) School

Scarborough Museums and Galleries

It is difficult to imagine how transformative these new experiences were: in 1853 London Zoo opened the first public aquarium, allowing the public to see live fish swimming, from a side-angle, for the first time (the first recorded photograph of a living fish was taken in 1854 (iii)). Comparing paintings from before and after the nineteenth century, you can see a change from flat studies of dead catch, to fish swimming underwater.

A Catch of Perch 1878

F. Richards

Canterbury Museums and Galleries

Angelfish, London Aquarium 1930

Christopher Wood (1901–1930)

Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums

The reimagining of animals within nature was popularised by the zoo enclosure designs of Carl Hagenbeck, a wealthy merchant who traded in animals (and sometimes humans). His zoos used an architectural feature similar to a 'ha-ha' in landscape design: replacing a visible barrier with a hidden trench means the gaze of a viewer is not interrupted – a zoo visitor can therefore imagine all the animals displayed within a natural panorama. Hagenbeck's influence can be seen worldwide, for example in the Mappin Terraces instigated by the Zoological Society Secretary Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell. The 'Hagenbeck revolution' turned the display of captive animals from a science into an art.

Yet, like in art, development in enclosure styles was not a straightforward path, but various approaches were influenced by other cultural ideas. Berthold Lubetkin and the Tecton group created several modernist enclosures for Dudley and London Zoos, now listed structures. The interior of the Tecton bird house is shown in this painting.

Tropical Bird House, Dudley Zoo c.1939

Percy Shakespeare (1906–1943)

Dudley Museums Service

Gotta catch 'em all! Art and the zoo (13)

Tropical Bird House at Dudley Zoo


Lubetkin took the approach that design could emphasise characteristics of animals, for example, highlight the stripes of a zebra or showcase a penguin's waddle. Yet almost all Lubetkin's 'Tectons' are no longer used, or are housing different (often much smaller) animals than those they were intended for. The winding slopes of Lubetkin's Penguin Pool now encircle a fountain rather than the beloved birds, as the hard concrete, shallow water and echoing walls weren't suitable for their feet, swimming or calling behaviour. But the high regard for modernist art means the pool will remain in London as a grade-listed building – despite the urban zoo being limited in space.


Norman H. Voice

Princess of Wales Community Hospital

Zoos in the twentieth-century became multi-faceted: they exploit Romantic ideals through landscape design, present nature's characteristics within rational order through modernism, and also entertain. Zoos are embedded in thepublic consciousness as a grand day out for all the family, often painted by artists as a fixture of daily life within the topography of the city.

Zoo animals as nature's advocates

Chamois 1888

Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899)

Nature in Art

Painters such as Thorburn, Bonheur and Tunnicliffe were early forerunners of animal artists who actually 'got out there' to paint animals in the wild. Now animal painters have more freedom than ever to go outside, ironically despite declining wildlife populations. Hagenbeck's approach of alluding to nature through design continues to be a popular way to build enclosures, and contributes to the idea that nature can be learned about in zoos. Like immersive zoo exhibits which promise engagement with nature, animal art today must be wild-looking, and not include the bars. We now know animals belong in nature, and zoo policy has changed to reflect this – ZSL puts huge work into its pioneering conservation projects.

Three Old Gentlemen of Savuti 1990

David Shepherd (1931–2017)

Nature in Art

It's hard not to acknowledge that today's multi-purpose urban zoos can feel awkward, despite their environmental efforts. If zoos design their enclosures to be more 'natural', do they run the risk of 'losing critical consciousness' (iv)? If zoo enclosures are the result of designers and architects, claiming to be natural could be a dangerous and short-sighted approach.

Elephant 1928

David Jones (1895–1974)

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

It feels important that our relationship with animals continues to be thought about critically, and artists are well-placed to explore these themes. Artists may use with colour and composition to imply a sense of melancholy, or disjointedness: wild creatures often don't appear to fit in their concrete homes that we make for them.

Harmony in Green 1997

Dan Hays (b.1966)

Walker Art Gallery

Jade King, Art UK Head of Editorial

(i) Tate, 'Stubbs: A Celebration: Room 2'

(ii) University of Glasgow, 'William Hunter's Picture Cabinet'

(iii) J. Barrington-Johnson, The Zoo: The Story of London Zoo, Robert Hale, 2005, p.37

(iv) Jeffrey Hyson, 'Jungles of Eden: The Design of American Zoos' in Michel Conan, Environmentalism in Landscape Architecture, Doakes, 2002, p.25

Gotta catch 'em all! Art and the zoo (2024)


What is art of the zoo? ›

As it turns out, "art of the zoo" is another phrase for bestial*ty, and the results that you get when you search the term are mainly about people having sex with animals. Once you understand what it's referring to, the phrase makes more sense.

What do zoos do? ›

Zoos are places where wild animals are kept for public display. Zoos are often the sites of sophisticated breeding centers, where endangered species may be protected and studied.

Why do they call it the zoo? ›

The term zoological garden refers to zoology, the study of animals. The term is derived from the Greek ζώον, zoon, 'animal', and the suffix -λογία, -logia, 'study of'. The abbreviation zoo was first used of the London Zoological Gardens, which was opened for scientific study in 1828, and to the public in 1847.

What is the zoo short for? ›

“Zoo” is short for zoological park, and zoology is the scientific study of animal biology and behavior. In addition, zoos work really hard to save animals that are threatened in the wild. Zoos can take at-risk animals, breed them in captivity, and then reintroduce them back into the wild.

What do zoos do with the money? ›

Unlike many industries, zoos allocate funds for enrichment programs aimed at enhancing the mental and physical stimulation of animals. From puzzle feeders to habitat enhancements, these programs contribute to the overall welfare of the animals, requiring careful budgeting and ongoing assessment of their effectiveness.

What do zoos do with animals they don't want? ›

Babies are great crowd-pleasers, but when the babies grow up, they don't attract the same number of people, so zoos often sell them off in order to make room for younger animals. The unwanted adult animals are sometimes sold to “game” farms where hunters pay to kill them; some are killed for their meat and/or hides.

What do zoos do with waste? ›

Some of it is used as fertilizer, including on the zoo's flower beds and other landscaping. Some of it gets sold to the public, bringing in revenue. (For safety reasons, primate and carnivore waste is usually left out, as it can carry diseases.) More recently, some zoos are sending their waste to biogas plants.

What is the art of zoo urban dictionary? ›

Expert-Verified Answer

The art of zoo is an urban dictionary term that is used to describe a situation where someone has used a creative or clever method to achieve a result. This term can be applied to many different areas of life.

What is the art of zoo people and animals? ›

The art of zoo refers to the profound and harmonious connection between humans and animals, encompassing understanding, empathy, and mutual respect.

What is the book zoo about? ›

Jackson Oz, a young biologist, watches the escalating events with an increasing sense of dread. When he witnesses a coordinated lion ambush in Africa, the enormity of the violence to come becomes terrifyingly clear. With the help of ecologist Chloe Tousignant, Oz races to warn world leaders before it's too late.

Was zoo filmed with real animals? ›

(Though some of the animals are added into scenes using CGI, the vast majority are real.) Among the more memorable guest stars who've been on set thus far are wolves, rats, a snake, and a 600-pound bear.

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