Dina Kantor

I'M AT THE Como Zoo gazing at a raggedy polar bear as he paces incessantly across a tiny concrete island that resembles an undecorated wedding cake. Other onlookers are standing around too, seemingly hypnotized, until a kid points with a half-sucked lollipop and says, "Mom, why is the polar bear doing that?"

It's a question we're all silently asking ourselves. Mom mumbles something about the bear wanting to go home. But at least during exhibit hours, this is home, a habitat the size of a convenience-store parking lot--bordered by a fence, a Plexiglas wall, and a semicircular concrete embankment--that is void of any "natural" frills. Unless you count the vat of chlorinated water into which the beast now lunges, beginning another obsessive-compulsive swim-and-pace routine.

People have long gone to zoos to see animals that have been removed from the wild. The fun and profundity comes in part from the strangeness of witnessing a living thing so far from its normal context. But in recent decades, as concern for the well-being of zoo inhabitants has grown more acute, the whole industry has evolved toward the natural look, trying to replicate real habitats for the animals.

Unfortunately, while fulfilling this noble cause, zoos have also succumbed to the temptation to fool the casual observer with mere cosmetics and pointless verisimilitude. Have chance and ordinary revelation been subordinated to increasingly sophisticated tricks and mirrors? Will zoos soon be akin to, say, Las Vegas's simulated cities, like the New York, New York Casino Hotel, where consumption and pleasure are made gaudily handsome and bland?

The Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, only 20 years old, has considerably more flourish and flash than Como. Among its various simulated environments is a densely detailed mock rain forest located inside the huge bubble building that contains the Tropics Trail's exotic species. And the zoo's latest exhibit displays weird, rare frogs in elaborate minihabitats that comprise two curving walls of stacked glass tanks adorned with sticks, stones, and lush green foliage--both real and artificial.

The aspiring magical kingdom of the zoological universe is, not surprisingly, a brand new Disney theme park called Animal Kingdom. Located in the entertainment vortex of central Florida, this $800 million fantasy zoo spreads about 1,000 wild animals across 500 acres, and features an enormous replicated African savanna complete with trees, brush, rocks, and a village, all painstakingly relocated, fabricated, and arranged to resemble the actual thing. Now you can take an African safari without going to the dark continent, and without losing a lick of comfort or safety.

So, virtual reality has descended upon the zoo business. Distinctly un-virtual, though, has been the string of animal deaths at the new Animal Kingdom--numbering at least a dozen--due to mysterious ailments and accidents. One begins to wonder how much the creature population benefits from such fabulous simulation, where that $44.52-per-ticket admission fee is really going.

Meanwhile, back at Como, which remains one of only four free zoos in America, I've entered an "African Hoofed Animals" building. It couldn't get much starker in here. Two Grevy's zebras and four reticulated giraffes stand awkwardly in their respective living-room-sized areas. Fluorescent light washes out bare cinder-block walls. Air ducts hum overhead. The nothingness shocks the senses. These animals could be characters performing an absurd, static drama on an empty stage--maybe something by Beckett.

Do such stripped-down habitats make Como Zoo third-rate? Does Disney's Animal Kingdom make St. Paul's modest menagerie look bad? If so, it may be only a superficial difference. Most zoo animals (including Como's) spend much of their time not in their show spaces but in relatively small, undecorated holding cells. (They also tend to live longer than their cousins in the wild, receiving adequate food and shelter, often an opportunity to reproduce, and medical care.)

This is pointed out by Victor Camp, Como's gracious director, who admits that limitations of funding, space, and climate have kept his zoo from being as fancy as some newer ones. But he emphasizes that Como has seen enormous improvements over its 101-year history, especially since the days when zoo animals were typically warehoused in cages and displayed "like a postage-stamp collection."

Camp foresees continued efforts to update his facilities and move toward more natural-looking habitats. Paradoxically, this might impair the simple power of the current Como, an unmediated transaction between confined animal and Homo sapiens. There's some evidence that the new virtual-reality exhibits have been created largely for human entertainment. One frank worker at the Minnesota Zoo states that while some animals respond well to their faux organic environments, most show less stress and more normal behaviors off exhibit. And a Disney executive and designer for Animal Kingdom was quoted in the New York Times saying, "Our job is not so much controlling the animals as controlling your perception of being with the animals."

To Disney, that control involves such costly accoutrements as ambient music and stylized safari trucks. And, in turn, these might be seen as detracting from the deeper experience of animal observation, transforming the atmosphere from one of imagination to one of deception.

Thus, one of Como Zoo's many charms. Not overloaded with confectionery window dressing, it might be our local antidote to global Disneyfication. Visitors can enjoy genuine, up-close interactions with beautiful wild animals without having to pretend that an African savanna surrounds them. And despite the bare-bones aesthetic, I find plenty of startlingly natural behavior. At one point, while a female giraffe lets loose a thick flow of urine, a male giraffe leans down and takes a sip through puckered lips. A zoo employee on hand tells us that the male is acting according to normal biological impulse, checking the female's heat cycle. How much more wildness do we need?

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