By Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer:

Multi-person elephant rides, orangutans eating from fine china, and carnivores on display before becoming extinct are just some of the scenes from an online exhibit of vintage zoo pamphlets being featured by the Smithsonian Institution.

The pamphlets, photos and zoo maps, available from the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, come from zoos in more than 30 U.S. states and 40 countries. They show elephants in Australia ferrying schoolchildren on their backs, close-up looks at tigers in Prague, and illustrations from 1891 of a thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, a carnivorous marsupial on display at the Gardens of the Zoological Society of London. The last known thylacine died in captivity in 1936.

The vintage materials reveal how much zoos have changed from amusement-park-like attractions to more educational, conservation-minded institutions. A guide to Great Britain's Clifton Zoological Gardens from 1912, for example, shows prison-like animal enclosures encased in heavy bars. Primates were often posed doing human-like activities. One Minnesota zoo guide from 1928 shows a chimpanzee in a stroller. The New York Zoological Park guide, published in 1905, has photographs of orangutans sitting around a table draped with a white tablecloth, mimicking a family dinner.

"Some of the photographs of animal enclosures, restraint devices and mock theatrics, while unsettling to some, are an important part of the history of human-animal relations," wrote Alvin Hutchinson, the head of information services at Smithsonian Libraries, in an introduction to the collection.

These days zoos are focused increasingly on conservation and research rather than on anthropomorphized chimps. Smithsonian's National Zoo, for example, recently live-tweeted an attempt to artificially inseminate its giant panda Mei Xiang. There are only about 1,600 pandas left in the wild, and captive-breeding programs are part of an effort to save the species.

In turn, zoo residents give researchers a glimpse at the cognitive capabilities of wild animals. Recently, for example, Santino, a chimpanzee at Furuvik Zoo in Sweden, showed evidence of a sneaky streak. The territorial chimp was already known to throw rocks at zoo visitors as part of his dominance displays. (He always missed.) Now scientists have observed Santino hiding his weapons behind logs and boulders in his enclosure, even maintaining an innocent, nonchalant air in order to get closer to visitors before launching his attack. The chimp's behavior shows a capacity to make complex plans, researchers told LiveScience.

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

All photos and captions courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries

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  • Texas

    <em>Zoo Guide Book: San Antonio Zoological Park </em> San Antonio: The San Antonio Zoological Society

  • New York

    Elephant rides were a popular attraction for children visiting zoos in the early years. <br> Elwin R. Sanborn <em>The New York Zoological Park </em> New York: The New York Zoological Society, 1905

  • New York

    Educated Orang-Utans dining. <br> Elwin R. Sanborn <em>The New York Zoological Park </em> New York: The New York Zoological Society, 1905

  • Minnesota

    R.F. Jones <em>Longfellow Gardens Guide </em> Minnesota: R.F. Jones, 1928

  • California

    <em>San Diego Zoo Official Guide Book </em> San Diego: San Diego Zoo, 1944

  • South Africa

    R. Bigalke <em>Official Guide to The National Zoological Gardens </em> Pretoria: Minerva Printing Works, 1933

  • Great Britain

    <em>Belle Vue Gardens Official Guide </em> Manchester & London: G.Falkner & Sons, 1895

  • Great Britain

    The London Zoo was one of the zoos to have the now-extinct Thylacine. <br> Philip Lutley Sclater <em>Guide to the Gardens of the Zoological Society of London</em> London: Bradbury, Agnew, & Co., 1891

  • Great Britain

    P. Chalmers Mitchell, F.R.S., Secretary to the Society <em>Illustrated Official Guide to the London Zoological Society's Gardens in Regent's Park (13th edition) </em> London: Bradbury, Agnew, & Co. Ltd., Printers, London and Tonbridge, 1915

  • New Zealand

    Aukland City Council <em>The Auckland City Council Zoological Park, 6th edition</em>

  • Denmark

    W. Dreyer <em>Vejleder I Zoologisk Have</em> Copenhagen: Trykt Hos J.D. Qvist & Komp. (Ejnar Levison), 1921

  • Australia

    James E. Sherrard <em>Illustrated Official Hand Book to the Aquarium Museum & Picture Salon</em> Melbourne: Robt. S. Brain, Government Printer, 1900

  • Australia

    Charles Hedley <em>Wild Animals of the World: Being a Popular Guide to Taronga Zoological Park </em> Sydney, Australia: Trustees of Taronga Zoological Park, 1923

  • Germany

    An ostrich house. <br> <em>Ansichten Aus Dem Zoologischen Garten zu Berlin </em>

  • Belgian Congo

    <em>National Parks of Belgian Congo </em> Brussels: Institut des Parcs Nationaux du Congo Belge and the Office National du Tourisme de Belgique, Section du Tourisme Colonial,

  • Ireland

    Royal Zoological Society of Ireland <em>Guide to the Zoological Gardens, Phoenix Park. </em> Dublin: Royal Zoological Society of Ireland,

  • Japan

    <em>Guide Book and Report: Nagoya Zoo, Nagoya, Japan</em>

  • Japan

    <em>Guide Book and Report: Nagoya Zoo, Nagoya, Japan</em>

  • Baby Reindeer Born in San Diego Zoo

    San Diego Zoo's ten-day-old baby reindeer explores his new enclosure. .