Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in July 2015.
Seeing animals up close, especially species you might never have the chance to see in the wild, is exhilarating. The feeling people get from that kind of close contact with lions, polar bears and whales is the reason why zoos and other facilities stay in business.
And yet, animal rights groups and the public have voiced a growing concern about the welfare of captive animals as well as the ethical implications behind breeding animals or removing individuals from the wild to live in captivity — especially when many zoos aren’t able to provide adequate habitats for all the species in their care.
Public relations disasters like the killing of an endangered gorilla after a child fell into its enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, Copenhagen zoo euthanizing a healthy baby giraffe and campaigns to transfer lonely or sick elephants to sanctuaries haven’t helped.
Zoo advocates counter those concerns with well-funded conservation programs that help protect vital habitats for endangered species, education programs for youth, and the ability to take in abused or neglected animals previously owned by private citizens or roadside zoos.
With all the pros and cons that come with zoos, one company is thinking outside the box. How can a zoo keep the sense of wonder people experience when they see live animals without keeping an ark’s worth of species in one facility? The Landmark Entertainment Group’s answer is virtual zoos.
The company, known for its work on “Jurassic Park: The Ride,” “Kongfrontation” and “The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman 5D” at Universal Studios, is building a new project in China that will feature a virtual zoo, a virtual aquarium, an interactive museum and a digital art gallery — and the group is doing it all with no live animals. It's called the L.I.V.E. Centre (Landmark Interactive Virtual Experience), and the project started in 2014 with funding from a group of investors from China. It's slated to open between 2017 and 2018.
Could all the wonder that people feel when seeing live animals be replicated with modern technology? It’s possible. Especially when you consider that animals could be shown engaging in interesting activities like hunting or playing rather than napping inside an enclosure.
What will animal rights organizations that have campaigned against captive animals think? Tony Christopher, CEO and the founder or Landmark, told Mashable about PETA’s reaction, “PETA saw an early presentation of the virtual zoo and they loved it.” He continued, "I believe that it isn’t politically correct to have animals in a zoo."
Thanks to the flexibility of virtual reality, kids won’t be limited to viewing existing species. They will be able to visit faraway places and even meet creatures that have long been extinct.
“With virtual reality, we can put you in the African savannah or fly you into outer space,” said Christopher. “This completely changes the idea of an old-fashioned museum by allowing kids to experience prehistoric dinosaurs or legendary creatures as we develop new experiences that keep them coming back for more. We’ll combine education and entertainment into one destination that’s always evolving.”