Question: I invited a friend to come with us to the zoo, though he said that he doesn’t go to zoos. Why is this? Isn’t there a beracha to say upon seeing certain animals?
Answer: The Gemara (Shabbos 149a) writes that one mustn’t stare at a human or animal statue. Thus, R’ Moshe Greenwald (Arugas Habosem OC 39) writes that one shouldn’t look at animals either. Accordingly, one shouldn’t go to zoos at all.
Most poskim however disagree. The Shach (YD 142:33) allows one to look at such statues providing that they weren’t created for idolatry (See Magen Avraham OC 307:23).
R’ Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Shaarei Halacha Uminhag YD:82) writes that many of the earlier poskim stressed that as we are highly affected by what we see, one should avoid gazing at pictures of non-kosher animals. As young children are particularly impressionable, one should place inspirational pictures near them. One should try to replace teddy bears and pictures of non-kosher animals in children’s books with kosher ones. This doesn’t apply to pictures of animals in Tanach stories, nor does this preclude going to the zoo.
R’ Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer 4:OC:20; Yechave Daas 3:66) writes that even according to the stricter opinions, there is no issue in looking at live animals. It is in fact, a way of coming to appreciate Hashem’s world (See Rambam, Yesodei Hatorah 2:2).
The Gemara (Berachos 58b) writes that upon seeing an elephant or monkey one says a beracha,ברוך.. משנה (את) הבריות, Blessed are You.. Who differentiates the creatures (See Shulchan Aruch OC 225:8).
R’ Ovadia Yosef (Yalkut Yosef 3:225:21) understands that the Gemara specifically mentioned elephants and monkeys, to the exclusion of all other animals. According to R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichos Shlomo, Tefilla 23:35), however, the Gemara simply picked elephants and monkeys as examples of exotic animals. One going into a zoo should say the beracha upon seeing the first such animal.