Photograph of floppy disks from ZooArk exhibit files. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 95-161. Courtesy of Riccardo Ferrante.

Where Will This Lead? Exhibits, Zoos and Video-dating

Investigating digital files from the 1980s turns up software that let people play matchmaker–for endangered species. Let’s see where this leads.

Recently, I was reviewing the Archives’ earliest accessions of born digital records and made some unexpected connections, beginning with the software that was part of “ZooArk,” an exhibit that traveled the country between 1988 and 1990 with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). The exhibit included video games that encouraged visitors to play matchmaker for white, black and Asian rhinos. Additionally, a computerized quiz game educated the public about the challenges and resources required to care for tigers. As a whole, “ZooArk” demonstrated how zoos were collaborating and working together to protect endangered species.

Examining those early game files reminded me again how fragile our digital history is and how these unique objects show up in the middle of some intriguing and important debates about animal reproduction and captivity.

In 1995, the Archives accessioned forty storage boxes of exhibition records from SITES, spanning its work between 1979 and 1995. Among the scripts and photographs, videotapes, slides and moving image material, were four 5.25” floppy disks containing files from “ZooArk’s” rhino and tiger games, as well as a floppy disk from another SITES exhibit, Exploring The Planets. As soon as its initial processing was completed, the Archives placed the accession in archival storage. The files on those floppy disks were not quite ten years old, and this was only the seventh accession of identified digital material in our collections. At this point, the Archives’ dedicated digital preservation program was still eight years away.

Two floppy disks labeled with the ZooArk info. One is from the rhino files and the other is from the

The fragility of digital history

As the Archives’ Electronic Records Program began to ramp up in the mid-2000s, a thorough inventory of its digital holdings was followed by risk assessments. The “ZooArk” disks were readable and the files, now twenty years old, had survived, intact. The Archives employed a bit-level preservation strategy to protect the files’ integrity. In short, the risk of file degradation had been avoided.

However, two other factors currently prevent researchers from exploring the games. 

Only four files from the rhino game had been on the floppy disks transferred to the Archives in 1995, though the tiger game appeared complete. Another digital preservation risk factor that has negatively impacted access to the games is hardware obsolescence. The tiger game can be started on the now-obsolete Windows XP operating system, but the game controller that enabled you to interact with it had not accompanied the records. Perhaps finding a way to emulate the old environment and its hardware using today’s computers might prove successful. There’s hope yet.

Tell me more – Zoos as MatchMakers or Arks

To learn more, I took to the internet with surprising results. Chicago Tribune Reporter Steve Dale had written about the exhibit when it was hosted at the Chicago Zoo in the fall of 1988. He described the rhino game as something patterned after the television show, The Dating Game. Dale wrote:

You won`t find this video game at local bars or clubs. The whole idea is to show how zoos from all over the world link up by computer in a system called the International Species Information System. It`s a ''dating service'' to determine the best match for members of endangered species. This way, zoos don`t have to take more wild stock.

Moira Weigel, author of Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating (2017), suggests a connection between the “ZooArk” game and Great Expectations, one of the first video-dating companies in the United States.

Their observations pointed to a more compelling point–this idea that zoos serve as protectors of biodiversity and positive agents in the case of endangered species through breeding programs. Like in the story of Noah’s Ark, the matchmaking game represents the idea that zoos function as safe spaces that protect and support endangered species when their natural habitats are shrinking.

The trail of clues leads where?

At the time of the “ZooArk exhibition at the Chicago Zoo in 1988, several zoos were already working together to reintroduce golden lion tamarins to their native rain forest habitat in Brazil, coordinated through the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park. Hmmm. The National Zoo. Golden lion tamarins. These monkeys happened to be a focus of Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park’s Dr. Devra Kleiman (1942-2010), and the Archives holds archival records about the topic. And, so, I find myself back in the Archives reading room eager to see how this concept of zoos as wildlife ‘arks’ plays out in the real world case of the golden lion tamarin. Vince Sodaro, a Brookfield Zoo expert in South American monkeys, in summed this ideas up nicely to Chicago Tribune reporter Laurie Goering in 1997. He noted: 

About half the estimated 1,000 golden lion tamarins alive are in captivity because of zoo breeding programs, and building up the genetic diversity of the wild population is a priority. More than 140 zoo-raised golden lion tamarins have been released in the wild in Rio state, all through an international committee organized at Washington's National Zoo.

Devra Kleiman and Benjamin Beck observe while a golden lion tamarin practices foraging, 1983, by Jessie Cohen, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image no. SIA-SIA16-065_B31_F03_S02_06.

Dr. Devra Kleiman with Golden Lion Tamarin, July 1, 1985, by Jessie Cohen. Courtesy of Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, Image no. NZP-6076-48JC.

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