Here’s an idea; let’s find rare human ethnicities from across the planet, put them in cages, bring our families to see them on a Sunday and call it education.

Shocked? Don’t be – even Sri Lankans (then Ceylonese) made up a massive number of human exhibits at zoos across Europe. Human zoos were a widespread concept across the USA and Europe until as recently as the 1950’s, with Sri Lanka’s contribution finding its early roots at the Dehiwala Zoo, originally called the Ceylon Zoological Gardens.

Past 5

Past 1

We are told by the state’s website that the Dehiwala Zoo was first private holding quarters for wild animals bound to Europe at the turn of the last century. What comes into question here is its ownership; John Hagenbeck, was the brother of Carl Hagenbeck, once a glorified man for his revolutionary exhibits of humans, including our own nationals. “Savages” were dressed in costume and asked to pose for endless hours behind bars and glass enclosures, while fairer humans would come and gape at them in awe. And it begs the question – was the Dehiwala Zoo also a holding place for the Hagenbecks countless ‘exotic’ humans?

Past 4

The Hagenbeck family eventually went bankrupt in the late 1930’s and the quarters fell into the ownership of the state. Sadly, the travesties going on inside the 23+ acre property didn’t come to an end with the downfall of the Hagenbecks. Under its first zoo director, Major Aubrey Weinman, the facility was opened to the public in 1946. This seemed like an obvious natural use of the space, considering Ceylon was under the rule of the British who were renowned for opening one of the first public zoos in the world, housing both animal and human exhibits for the purpose of ‘education’.

Past 2

The premise of a zoo is that it exists for study, conservation and public viewing. It is meant to be a learning experience, helping us capture a glimpse of life in far-away places. And by that definition, caging a few dozen humans seems perfectly justified, irrespective of the flawed thinking behind it.

Past 3

Fortunately for us, the thought of being caged somewhere far away from home is a distant notion today. Archaic colonial concepts are being shed and the human condition has far better prospects than servitude and enslavement. But it ends there. We have progressed as a species (and a nation) for our own betterment, overlooking the fact that many others we share this planet with are still suffering in our care, for no justifiable reason. While we can’t do anything about the long forgotten human exhibits and their supposed purpose of education, let’s talk about how much real education and logic go into the daily happenings at the Dehiwala Zoo today:


Animals cannot be observed correctly outside their natural habitats.

Animals are named by both their common and scientific names. Sometimes we are also told which country the species originated from. Any internet search will be able to provide us with this information and more including footage in natural habitats that encourage us to understand these species better. The National Geographic portal is a great example of this. An animal in a cage with a name board doesn’t have the same educational impact as the hundreds of sources available on the internet.


Look for alternate sources of information from video libraries online.

Problem 1a
Problem 1


No cohesive learning experience for school children from a zoo visit.

Children are taken on field trips to the zoo, sometimes from remote parts of the country. But a search of the national school syllabi establishes that the curriculum doesn’t require this, nor is there any follow up to the visit. Ideally a syllabus that includes understanding animal species or a required essay on their learning of the zoo visit should be included to ensure that some actual education has taken place. But this doesn’t happen. Instead, kids use it as a day off from school activities, learning very little in the process.


Develop a compulsory school curriculum that includes basic zoology.

Problem 2
Problem 2a


Animal’s deteriorate away from natural surroundings.

Animals have social needs and structures just like humans do. In order to be able to engage with other animals, hunt, nest and thrive, they need to be surrounded by complete ecosystems, food chains and others of their kind. When moved out of these necessary elements, animals tend to be distressed and suffer from many psychological disorders. This also means we see less and less of their natural behaviour, learning very little other than what they look like. The mental illnesses of animals in and out of captivity, is highlighted in Dr. Jane Goodall’s 2010 book, Through a Window.


Provide spacious, natural environments for animals creating more authentic educative experiences in the process.

Problem 3
Problem 3a


Illogical containment of local wildlife.

Many animals in the zoo from water buffalo to spotted deer, are species that freely roam in Sri Lanka’s many wildlife rich areas. The need to house them seems illogical at best since any Sri Lankan has affordable access to our wildlife parks. The space taken up by the local species could be utilized for the many foreign species trapped in tight cages with very little ventilation. The National Geographic online portal also provides a comprehensive understanding of what type of space is required for healthy captivity.


Introduce local animals back to their natural habitats, encouraging locals to observe and coexist with them in natural surroundings.

Problem 4
Problem 4a
Problem 4b


Miseducation of school children and the general public on the treatment of animals.

Housing animals in small and unnatural enclosures for public viewing tends to create the wrong message – especially for our children who visit the zoo. Considering they are at an impressionable age, are we not doing them a disservice by letting them assume that it is ok to keep these magnificent wild beasts in stifling spaces?


Create learning opportunities that are positive such as lessons in conservation and national park field trips, as opposed to zoo visits.

Problem 5

These are just a handful of the ways in which we seem to have gone completely and unknowingly wrong. Take the space factor for instance; the average lion or tiger has 18,000 times less space in captivity than in the wild. To say this adversely affects the animal would be an understatement. Maybe the key is to put our feet in their proverbial shoes and wonder what it would be like to live in a badly managed prison all your life?

While previous generations of Sri Lankans were raised to not question the way things were, we are lucky to belong to a new age of thinking. And by proxy, this also means we must seek out new ways to learn and live. The great thing about living in this age of information is that you also have the opportunity to speak out and do something about the mistakes of the past; so that your children aren’t doomed to repeat them.