Creature Suite

The future of zoos is animatronic

As the middle class in China has rapidly expanded over the past 10 years, the demand for different types of entertainment has grown with it. To meet this demand, theme parks are in development across the country, picking up on the examples set by the Disney resorts in Shanghai and Hong Kong, and the Universal Studios in Beijing.

I worked for a Chinese-conceived theme park located in the country’s largest southern province, Guangdong: Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, part of a conglomerate that owns and operates theme parks, luxury hotels, convention centers, high-end restaurants, and leisure entertainment businesses, including a zoo in Guangzhou that breeds pandas and has white tigers and wandering flamingos in one of its restaurants. The Ocean Kingdom, near Macao in Zhuhai, is known for its three shark whales, each of which weigh more than 20 tons. It also has a penguin-themed hotel, where cartoon-like robot penguins perform at a restaurant for children, while a large tank with live penguins keeps others entertained.

Building and maintaining a space for land and sea lives out of their element requires more resources than visitors can probably imagine. In 2009, Hong Kong spent $3 million to capture one alligator on the loose and has kept it in a very small pond ever since at the Hong Kong Wetland Park. In 2014, London Zoo spent $8.3 million on an enclosure for three gorillas. In China, jobs at a zoo or aquarium usually come with a dormitory, three meals a day, and a modest salary — an absolute luxury to most in the working class. The income disparity in the country is depressing and daunting. The poor communities can live in far worse conditions than the creatures in the zoos and aquariums.

How realistic must the spectacle of animals be to preserve its educational value? Or its entertainment value? At what point does using real animals make the spectacle utterly unreal?

At Chimelong, my job was to supervise the production of a nighttime parade with a group of designers and vendors from the U.S., China, and Hong Kong. For this parade, eight scenic floats were programmed to go through the ocean-themed amusement park at night with choreographed acrobats and dancers in special makeup and electrified costumes. During production, I traveled to Shanghai for the Asia Attractions Expo to see the latest technologies in themed attractions, and Sichuan’s capital, Chengdu (also known for breeding pandas), to scout for more animatronic fabricators. All animatronics are programmed to specific locomotive routines.

In Zigong — near Chengdu and the site of massive dinosaur fossil discovery — I visited two animatronic manufacturers: Gengu Unique Dinosaurs, which makes not only robotic dinosaurs but elephants, monkeys, dragons, marine life, insects, and many other animatronic creatures, and Cetnology Science and Technology, which, in addition to its wide range of animal-related animatronics products (including goats, turtles, butterflies), sells “simulation humans.” It also builds kinetic costumes that performers and acrobats can wear as a second skin to mimic how prehistoric creatures would have behaved. Its T. rex costume promises these movements: “eyes blinking, mouth opening and closing with synchronized sound, head right to left, neck up and down, tail swaying and driving and riding. It also can be worn “to run or walk or interact with audience.”

Not far from these factories is Zigong’s Dinosaur Museum, one of the largest of its kind. It holds a collection of fossil specimens that includes all the known dinosaur species from the Jurassic period. It also houses a burial site with an intense concentration of fossils in situ in a preserved geologic section. This preservation effort will soon coincide with its simulation: Sichuan Tianfu Dinosaur Yuan Park, a family-friendly dinosaur theme park, is being built nearby. There, original dinosaur characters will be inserted into interactive stage performances and parades, mechanical rides, and educational programs.

How realistic must the spectacle of animals be to preserve its educational value? Or its entertainment value? At what point does using real animals make the spectacle utterly unreal? Take an elephant, for example. When they are not being poached for their ivory, they are treated with relative respect. Tourists can ride them. But they still may go on a rampage, as Elephant Tyke did, if forced to perform in antiquated circus acts. Because of how far audiences must remain from a live elephant, their reception of an animatronic elephant is not all that different. If anything, the animatronic version is so much more impressive and does more than what a captive biological elephant does. The Grand Éléphant in Nantes, France, is more a creature of steampunk fantasy than nature.

If you have been to a zoo, you have probably seen passive and hidden zoo and aquarium species, which want no part of the public outside their cage or tank. At animal attractions in theme parks, live animals are mostly declawed or sedated for safety and security reasons. How can a fast and predatory wild mammal such as a Bengal tiger stay calm and nonviolent in a hotel “habitat,” as in Las Vegas’s MGM Grand? How much “medicine” and “training” are given to these wild lives to contain them? The animal bodies appear to be what they are, but there is hardly any behavioral semblance to their former wild beings. They may as well be machines with synthetic skin and programmed movements.

In 2014, a five-day-old baby gorilla, the first that ever been born in captivity, died at the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul, Minnesota. “In an attempt to let the first-time mother bond with her baby,” Alexandra Ossola wrote in an article for Motherboard investigating the death, zookeepers “didn’t intervene when they lost track of how much the baby was being fed.” The zookeepers wanted the mother-infant bonding process to take place organically. But in reality, the zoo explained, the mother gorilla “would cradle her baby to her chest with her back toward the observing zookeepers, making it difficult to determine when, and if, nursing was indeed taking place.” The captive gorilla had lost its nurturing instinct to care for her unlucky child because she had always been fed and taken care of.

A zoo in Wu Xi, a city west of Shanghai, recently stationed a taxidermy giraffe at its entrance. The animal had been overfed to death, and then was stuffed as a warning. While most conservation tours allow some form of feeding with close supervision, in a secondary city’s urban zoo, there are fewer guards and less educated crowds, and they are difficult to train.

Live animals in theme parks are mostly sedated for security reasons, with hardly any behavioral semblance to their former wild beings. They may as well be machines

Despite international pleas and interventions, the Yulin Dog Meat Festival still takes place every June. The inhabitants of the rural Guangxi area believe it is their commercial right and tradition, much like the Taiji Dolphin Slaughter, a cultural practice in Japan since 1675. The Japanese fishing village manages to find different ways to kill whales and dolphins year after year, despite high-profile protests and global media scrutiny. Every year, in a country globally recognized for its innovation, artisanship, and serenity, one can visit this blood-red cove.

Today’s zoology may be in the process of becoming as obsolete and inexcusable as anthropology’s practices once were. “Conserving” wildlife within a gated and artificially “natural” environment may soon be seen as akin to uprooting indigenous tribes for scholarly examination.

When wildlife is taken out of its habitat, animals are tranquilized, caged for transportation, isolated, and trained with force. For example. Grandview Shopping Mall, in the heart of downtown Guangzhou, a tropical city with mild winters, built the for-profit Zhengjia Aquarium to display all sorts of arctic animals, including what was subsequently called “the world’s saddest polar bear” and, on its opening day, many dead rare fish. The Animals Asia Foundation made a petition demanding the release of Grandview’s polar bear, and the Yorkshire Wildlife Park extended an invitation to receive the polar bear in September to give it a more open environment to live in. The shopping mall refused but declared it would improve its “conservation” effort.

Contemporary anthropology has moved away from its inhumane practices of uprooting people and culture. Now anthropologists will immerse themselves into cultures instead of removing them from their element. Indeed, Mayan scholars are seen as the only hope for preserving that culture’s language, by advocating and teaching it back to descendants.

Has the earth turned into a place where human interference is the only way wildlife can escape extinction? Antarctica isn’t a tourist destination for anyone, no matter how rich and resourceful they are. Scientists, meteorologists, and documentarians are there to study the dire ecological situation, in hopes that we will change our wasteful lifestyle. The glaciers are melting rapidly before our eyes.

Reconfiguring conservation is not about cutting off photo ops for kids in front of cute animals. While we enjoy the videos of panda babies in their facilities, we have to build a different framework for all future living things. Many urban zoos around the world are old, understaffed, and operating under a pinch. Human error, negligence, inappropriate training, inadequate space, animal behavioral problems, and psychological distress are typical in these facilities. But zoos and aquariums are also where the aspiring biologists, oceanic and animal experts of the future are likely to find their inspiration. We will need them.

If we could observe lifelike animatronic animals — improved versions of the animals I saw in Chengdu — within a digitally composite landscape that could better represent (rather than ineffectually and expensively try to approximate) particular habitats, we could safely immerse ourselves into a simulated wild habitat without harming any more animals.

Transforming dying animals in urban zoos into intelligent animatronic animals may be as inevitable and essential as genome sequencing

The scope of the uncanny valley is widening. Virtual reality, augmented reality, ultra-realistic humanoid robotics and animatronics, high-definition screens and projectors: all these technologies are highly capable tools for blurring the perceived line between reality and computational simulation. With these innovations, urban zoos could phase out live animal attractions, and use robotics and taxidermy to turn deceased zoo animals into new bionic exhibits. Transforming dying animals into intelligent animatronic animals may be as inevitable and essential as genome sequencing.

That may appear morbid. But it has not stopped researchers and artists from exploring this border region between life and death, animal and machine. Dutch artist Bart Jansen, with the help of engineer Arjen Beltman, has been turning both road kills and beloved pets into remote controllable drones since 2012. Harvard University researchers led by Robert Wood introduced a microrobotic colony of RoboBees in 2013 to pollinate flowers in an effort to address colony-collapse disorder. Boston Dynamics has made BigDog, a rough-terrain robot that walks, runs, climbs and carries heavy loads. It, or modified versions of the semi-autonomous vehicles Google, Tesla and China’s LeEco are developing could serve as the chassis for new species or hybrid bionic animals. Cheetah, the fastest legged robot in the world, runs faster than Usain Bolt; WildCat exemplifies the mobility, agility, dexterity, and speed these machines can already achieve. With development of taxidermy, synthetic fur, and skin technology in the cosmetic and medical fields, the range of what will be perceived as convincingly lifelike will expand.

Natural science museums that archive carcasses already use digital installations to make their exhibits livelier and more effective. The New York Hall of Science, in Queens, has a large-scale interactive ecosystem installation called “Connected Worlds,” with a 3,000-square-foot interactive floor and a 45-foot-high waterfall where computer vision allows audience to alter the projected imagery of the exhibit. This virtual landscape can be integrated with high-functioning animatronic creatures such as the Snake Robots made by Carnegie Mellon University Robotic Institute’s Biorobotics Lab. Visitors can schedule appointments to calmly face down a snake attack. It’s only a small leap to imagine the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History coming to life.

Existing captive wildlife can be improved by bringing them back to something closer to their wild habitat through different immersive digital environments. We have seen cats catching virtual fish on a tablet avidly. In a therapeutic lab, captive animals can rehabilitate through progressive interactive audiovisual landscapes. The data collected from these environments would form the blueprints for making experience from the wildlife’s perspective transmissible. Visitors could become a falcon preying on a zeal of zebras in an African safari while comfortably seated in a theater. Ian Ingram’s robotic sculptures have been communicating with and recording nonhuman animals, allowing for communion that our own bodies don’t permit.

Land and sea lives exist on this earth to survive the elements to be prey, to prey, to procreate, to nurse, to heal after being hurt and co-exist. The life cycle sounds simplistic, but it is actually filled with a wide range of specificities and eccentricities. These could never be displayed predictably and intelligently through the use of live captive animals. The effort to persist in using live animals will only lead to wasteful expenditures, demoralized and compromised zoologists and zoo workers, disappointed visitors, and of course, destroyed animal lives. Each encounter at an animatronic zoo or aquarium could be as awe-inspiring and humbling as old-fashioned zoos, but far more comprehensive. The animals may not be alive in a traditional sense, but each experience will be full of life.

A sci-fi writer who also manages tech-heavy entertainment productions, Tiffany Sum proposes solutions for all to save our earth with emerging technologies.