Remember being a kid and visiting for the zoo for the first time? You probably laughed at monkeys as they flung themselves around in the trees. You might’ve watched blubbery seals dive into hyper-blue water like torpedoes. At the giraffe habitat, you almost definitely looked up, wondering what it must be like to be so very tall. And you also probably stared at a dingy-looking polar bear, thinking he didn’t look so happy, and man, the paint job on that glacier left quite a lot to be desired. That might’ve been your first clue that zoos suck. You were right, they do.
Let’s start with the horror stories, like how last year it was discovered that nearly 500 animals had died within a three-year period at the United Kingdom’s South Lakes Safari Zoo. Or less horrifying cases like that of Bon Su, a beloved elephant at the Melbourne Zoo whose death raised questions about whether the animal’s debilitating arthritis was a direct result of zoo conditions. (It’s pretty widely accepted that captivity is absolutely horrible for elephants, BTW.) All over the world, instances of cruelty are regularly reported. Animals are acquired from less-than-reputable sellers, are unreasonably confined, malnourished, abused, and even killed (RIP Harambe) There are often few repercussions for these atrocities, even when they’re exposed.
And fine, it’s easy to take a look at shady zoos and horrific incidents and label them all as bad—but zoos are often terrible for animals even under good circumstances, and there’s plenty of evidence to prove it. Animals in zoos suffer all manner of neurological disorders—from anxiety to depression and OCD—that they don’t seem to suffer from in in the wild, plus physical effects from the lack of adequate space, disastrous inbreeding and troubling repetitive behavior. Yeah, we are really fucking these animals up.
And OK, you might take that all in and decide that, while terrible, it’s all worth it because zoos save animals and educate the public, which in turn leads to a greater awareness about the natural world, which ultimately feeds back into conservation efforts, right? A totally understandable line of reasoning, except it’s kinda bullshit too.
For as many animals saved by zoos, there are many more that are being plucked from their habitats simply for our pleasure, which is separate from the fact that we are the ones destroying the habitats that render the animals endangered in the first place. Plus, most of the time, only a fraction of zoo residents are under threat. There’s not much in the way of concrete evidence that zoos actually help to educate the public, nor that their function as a conservation tool is all that powerful. And let’s be honest, we could still work to save animals and their habits if we closed all the zoos by creating nature preserves and engaging in less intrusive activities like whale watching.
If we want animals to be protected, we need to safeguard their natural habitats, reform animal rights laws, and create sanctuaries for the ones that do need saving. (And remember, conservationists could still provide all the incredible content that zoos are offering now.) In this day and age, David Attenborough and high definition nature documentaries are pretty damn effective at educational and preservation tools. We’ve all felt weird watching a slumped-down tiger close its eyes as people pound the glass and take flash photographs—isn’t it better to watch one run in slo-mo from the comfort of a couch? And hey, if you want to see a naked mole rat, use the internet, where you get all your other naked images.
There may have been a time when menageries and the like made some kind of sense as a way of connecting people to the wider world, but now, even the best facilities are exploitative and archaic. The further we dive into living in a virtual world and the more we find ourselves living in cages of our own design (fix the subways, Cuomo!!!), the more we want to connect to something real, and end up devolving into our most animalistic selves. We need to recognize that tigers, polar bears, parrots, and even gross possums and basic AF woodchucks have rights, and find ways to appreciate these creatures without constantly using them.
And what to do about all the little kids who will no longer be able to see a panda bear gnaw on bamboo from a few hundred yards away? Ultimately, the question is whether or not we believe that a few minutes of entertainment every few years are worth a lifetime of captivity for animals we call “wild.”
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