VC’s see all kinds of wacky, crazy ideas, and that’s the fun part of our job. But rarely do we see an idea as crazy as the one I am about to mention. It’s a new and very unusual kind of zoo. You read it right, a new kind of zoo. It’s so unusual, I need the blogosphere’s help on thinking through whether it will work. I must say though that, one of the founders is a well known crypto zoologist, and the other has built and operated many zoos profitably before. I’d like to describe what they do and ask you whether it’s a good idea.
However, before I get into the details of the business I need to talk a little about how we see and interact with animals. Most of us in developed countries don’t live near animals. We barely even know where on earth each animal lives. We don’t know much about them except for what we see on TV. Today, you have to travel to Africa to see kangaroos in their natural habitat. Likewise, to see elephants you have to go to the Amazon basin. The point is that we almost exclusively see animals on TV or in a zoo. And there is a big difference between those two experiences.
On TV, we see the lions crawl in stealth to chase down a wildebeest, we see eagles dive to catch fish and we see giant anacondas ensnare capybaras. Good stuff. You go to the zoo, and you are lucky if you see a lion that doesn’t want to die. They are declawed, neutered and eat minced meat from a plastic bucket. Often times they seem cute to us, but they are in some sort of silent delirium circling in a cage and repeatedly hitting the glass, not ever accepting that they got hit by thin air. Eagles don’t have it any better. In good zoos they live outdoors but their wings are clipped so they don’t fly. In worse zoos, they hide terrified in their cage in the dark, and all you see is a glitter in their eyes and what looks like a beak. And for the anacondas, don’t get me started with them. I’ve been visiting the rainforest section of the San Francisco zoo for years, and what they show us for an anaconda is a snake that never moves. For all we know it’s a fantastic work of taxidermy (next time I go, I am going to take a picture, save it in my camera, and if in the following visit a month later that snake hasn’t moved, I am going to expose the scam but I digress…).
Same goes for the Koala in the San Francisco zoo. It doesn’t move. OK, fine it is a slow moving animal; after all it eats eucalyptus leaves (read, not so nourishing), but still, can’t we once see it do something we want.
This is the problem that this startup solves. The animals are stimulated by the visitors. It’s called EAS; Electrical Animal Stimulation. The animals are all tagged by small, indistinguishable wireless actuators and as the visitors press the buttons a mild electric current is given to the animals. This makes them do the things the guests want. Before you guys all jump in and say “that’s cruel” let me cut and paste a bit from the company FAQ. I cannot link to it because I need to respect the teams desire to remain anonymous.
What is EAS?
EAS stands for Electrical Animal Stimulation. It’s how we allow our guests to stimulate animals to show their characteristic behaviors.
Animals in zoos need stimulation, because they don’t get to do three things that are important to them. They don’t find their food, they don’t run away from predators and they don’t find mates. This doesn’t leave much left for them to do. Sitting idly, they lack exercise and often lose these abilities. EAS keeps them always active and provides for education to our guests.
Is EAS safe?
Absolutely. Animals have evolved in environments far harsher than a zoo. They naturally get poked, cut and bitten. The electric currents we use create sensations similar to what they normally feel living in the wild.
It sounds inhumane, doesn’t it?
It does, but it isn’t. EAS gives the animals an environment closer to what they are used to. Animals don’t long for a “better life” in a zoo where they are free from enemies. They are programmed to do what they do in nature. We simply provide a more realistic environment for them.
But surely, electrocuting animals can’t be sustainable?
This is temporary. As technology advances we will eliminate using electric current and put more realistic ways to stimulate animals. For example, when a child presses the “predator” button in the prairie dog exhibit, a mechanical eagle will soar and scare the dogs away. In the case of Koala’s, the “move the Koala button” will stimulate the slow bending of the branch the animal is sleeping on, thereby stimulating the animal to climb to a more comfortable branch.
What if these buttons get pressed too often?
Our patent pending artificial intelligence engine will prevent that. If the “predator” button has been pressed, it will wait a while before it can be pressed safely again.
Still, it just doesn’t feel right, does it?
Animals don’t know what’s right. Is keeping them in a cage, right? How about eating them?
OK, I am convinced that this is safe, what other exhibits are you planning?
Soon we will unveil our newest exhibit architecture. With this architecture, we keep the predator and prey in the same physical location. The zebras and lions will share the same exhibit area, they will be separated by tall walls whose transparency can be electrically controlled. They won’t see each other most of the time. But every now and then, the wall will become transparent, and for a split second the lion will be next to the zebra and they will see each other. During that period they will display behavior patterns previously unseen in zoos.
Can I buy tickets online?
Not only can you buy tickets online, at the time of purchase you can let us know what kind of behaviors you want to see, and depending on the votes of our ticket-holders we can dynamically alter the overall zoo experience so that every visit is a different excitement.
So there you have it. These guys have thought this through. In the small scale beta zoo that they’ve built (they request we don’t mention where), they’ve noticed that the park was routinely at max capacity, and the more important metric, visits per user, has averaged once a month as opposed to the once every six months for other zoos. Operating this way, the zoo pays for itself in two years.
So my question to the blogosphere is this. Would you go to this zoo? Is this a good idea or a crazy one to invest in?