SHOULD I LIKE THE ZOO?
WHENEVER I FELT overcome by life there were two places I would go; if the sun was shining, I’d walk the closest beach, but if the sun was hiding, I’d visit the zoo. I loved the zoo, one of my happiest childhood memories was of being taken to see the giant pandas, I still have the photos. In my adult life, the zoo became my private escape. I’d walk the gardens and spend long afternoons in the silent company of those majestic creatures who called it home.
I haven’t been for the past few years. The last time I went, the guilt was too much. I found myself beset by the moral dilemma that inevitably befouls anyone who has stared for too long into the sad eyes of those caged wilds. The place I came to clear my head, now filled it with a flurry of remorse.
The first pains of conscience came whilst outside the gorilla pen. I looked at the face of a big male silver back, who sat in a despondent slump atop the artificial ridge inside his enclosure. I know you’re not supposed to do that – lock gaze with a great ape – but I didn’t feel any danger, I was mesmerised by eyes that could have been my own. My intention was not provocation, that powerful beast could have torn me limb from limb, yet he stared back at me, but not into my eyes – he looked through me, not that I wasn’t a threat, but as though he didn’t care if I was there at all. He looked broken and defeated, miserable and sad, as though all the fight had left his belly and the fire had been doused from his mind. But most of all, he looked like he knew he was a gorilla stuck in the middle of a zoo.
He no longer looked like a mighty brute who once ruled an untamed land. To him, I was just another wide eyed dickhead come to gloat over his fall. I moved on from his compound, and left him alone in his sadness. I walked for a little and came upon the next enclosure, the home of the grizzly bear. Though less humanoid than the ape, she shared that same sad look in her eyes. It was then I became breathless with guilt.
Am I supporting this misery? Is my funding going to the maddening depression I see in these beautiful lives? From the pacing tigers to the weeping elephants and the crazed lapping of the seals, is my happiness made on the misery of the creatures I had come to adore? Is my smiling face but ridicule to the melancholia of these once noble kings of nature? And would that big bear tear my face off if I gave her half a chance?
Most likely – I concluded.
I walked away from the ursine pen, took the manicured path to the exit, and left the zoo early that day. On the drive home, I thought of the future. Will there be a time, I wondered, someday years from now, when we will see photos of us at these places, before these animals in cages and think ourselves the beasts?
Will there be a time when we will look as callous and apathetic as those who lived beside internment camps and said nothing for plight of those inside? Will history hold us to account for our laughing, happy gazes when they see us next these imprisoned wonders as we do those in our past who frequented freak shows, spectated executions and sniggered at cruel circuses?
Of course, I’d seen it all before, that sad behaviour of these sorry creatures. They have always behaved the same, every time I’d been. Though, that day, I couldn’t shake the sight of that gorilla’s dead eyes from my mind, his tragedy resonated worse than at any visit before, and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever return to the zoo.
But, what am I saying?
I know zoos are good places – and the zoo I frequented was a good zoo, as far as I could tell. Zoos play a crucial role in preservation, animal rights, and education – don’t they? Think of work they do in the protection, rehabilitation, and revitalisation of endangered species, imagine where the panda would be without them – so, why the concern?
Maybe it was the enclosures, which caused the most concern. It is this concept that troubles most people – the size of the zoo itself. Modern zoos that lie within city limits are always going to be subject to space. These animals aren’t free to roam, they barely have the room to play. The size of the entire zoo itself would be significantly smaller than the size of territories where many of the animals came from.
Yet, if it is simply size, are vast nature reserves the answer? Would I be happier if every zoo was as large as these places are? Would it set my mind at peace if every animal had more space to wander?
But aren’t nature reserves simply big zoos? As humanity spreads, the less room there’ll be, even if we cordon off great segments of the planet, these giant reserves will be still giant cages – won’t they? And though their fences may be far apart, fences there’ll still be, and sooner or later, each creature within will learn the limits of their freedom.
Maybe my issue is the sight of cages themselves. Maybe the thick bars, mesh fences and thatched wire ceilings conjured bad feelings inside me. But cages are there for our safety, the zoo keeper’s and safety of the surrounding suburbs – and for the animal’s protection (as the zebras play poorly with tigers). Inside these cells they’re safe from the dangers of the wild, from poaching, from disease and the everyday slaughter of the natural cycle.
Is this simply a human reaction to a world where human sensibilities aren’t required? Am I imposing my human ideology upon creatures who couldn’t grasp or even care about the concept at all? Am I being selfish – not selfish through lack of altruism, but selfish in expecting every other life form to adapt to my species’ ideals? Should I resist the temptation to Disneyfy these creatures by pushing my moralities upon them, and believing they all sing in harmony about their woes of freedom once the zoo closes for the night?
Liberty or death, seems to be the cry – I know the extreme animal rights activists hold no other option. Independence for animals is a common desire, and most would consider that fair. Yet how can any human being postulate this decision since it is we who are providing both the liberty and the death, and we, who forced this choice upon them to begin with?
But is freedom merely a human concept, and do other creatures even care at all? Would an animal – if able to understand the decision – choose safety, security, medicine, and convenience of food over diseases, poaching, predatory hunting, and scarcity of resources, if they had that choice? What is freedom worth, if it means – as it does for many species – certain doom back in the wild? Is the need for the open expanses of their homes, truly worth it? If an animal is unable to comprehend the scope of the existential dilemma it faces, is it our duty to protect it – as we would for the most vulnerable of our own kind?
Surely, what I was feeling were human sympathies, and my own egocentric guilt. Perhaps they knew nothing of what I preached. Perhaps it was only their biological and historical instincts that fuelled these animal’s despair – or do these creatures actually comprehend what we wish for them?
They are very aware of their interment. You can witness this in their habits. Their behaviour alone is evidence of any rebuttal. You’ll hear, often from children: “Look how it paces, mummy, doesn’t it look sad?” Sad is damn commendable. Imagine what you’d be like. Imagine you, with a human being’s attention span and innate desire for revolution – how would you do, put in a prison without comprehension as to why?
Make no mistake about it, these are prisons, any objective observer must agree. And it’s easy to make parallels with incarcerated human being. Although, we are ones who shape our destiny, caged beasts have no say in theirs. They have been interned without the merit of guilt, or the hope of eventual freedom, and if a prison strips the convicts of their humanity, would not a zoo, therefore, strip animals of their animalism?
We see these animals in various stages neuroses’, as institutionalised inmates who, even if released, could no longer function on the outside. If all living creatures are composites of their heritage, what sort of hell would it be for the generations of animals born into captivity, where each and every one of their evolutionary instincts are no longer required? The migratory predispositions are useless in behind bars, finicky caution, exercised habitually by vulnerable prey, may eventually be bred from the animal’s psyche, thus rendering it unfit to return to the wild, at any time and we create psychological hybrids that require the security of cages.
A life caged can never be the same as a life lived open and free. We know an animal in captivity is no reflection of that animal at all. This isn’t a life, this a show, these animals are on display. So they pace, to and fro, or lay, defeated in one location, and whittle their days in stagnation – proud lions, turned house cats, wild macaws, turned canaries, and frolicking dolphins reduced to mere goldfish before our eyes.
What we see are not true representations of wild creatures. Biologically speaking, they are of course, but characteristically, they are unique. So we come to watch three-dimensional forms, illusions of beasts, we visit zoos not to observe, but to merely see.
But can we blame zoos for this?
I know zoos are filled with kindhearted, well-intentioned folk who truly love the animals in their care. Talk to anyone who studies or has studied animal conservation – it’s a tough course with little job potential at the end – almost everyone who completes it is propelled solely by their passion and a deep adoration for all living creatures.
But not all zoos are created equal. Not all zookeepers are the same. Zoos vary from country to country, and from zoo to zoo. Zoos are like any other organisation, some are good and some are less good – some are ethical and some aren’t. Some zoos are run privately, some by a municipality, some by the government and some by charities and some are in the hands of everyday people. Though, no matter who is in charge, each zoo is subject to finance. Hard times hit a zoo as much as the rest of the society, and sometimes hardest of all. Zoos already have difficulty raising funds and with a lack profits, standards can deteriorate.
There have been numerous atrocities committed by people and institutions that were supposed to be caring for animals throughout time, and that many current zoos operate in ruin, some whose standards are unfitting to raise bacteria, and codes of conduct are more deplorable than trench warfare. It is shameful there is no solid standard, and so many fall so far below the boundaries of the humane. We have star rating for hotels, restaurants, and taxis these days – why not for zoos? Shouldn’t we keep accountable the ones with poor standards? After all, the animals inside cannot strike, file class actions, or boycott these places.
Is there is a hard logic we must all face; are zoos our future? As humanity fills every nook across the globe, we may have to cage every animal. Inevitably, we will need zoos. If we continue to grow as a species, we will deplete this planet’s resources – this is not an alarmist, or sensationalist suggestion, this is basic math. But even if, we miraculously, develop a more ethical relationship with the earth, we will all still need to fit. If we keep breeding this way and living this way, eventually, and maybe very soon, we will encroach to the point of strangulation – the sad truth is, whenever humans and animals have competed, humanity always wins. And while none of us want it this way, historically speaking, this has always been so. Are you willing to give away your children’s future for the sake of a couple of wild beavers?
I should face the harsh reality of life, shouldn’t I? If stop going to the zoo, then I stop contributing to it. Isn’t it better that I spend my money there? Without attendance, finance, and support all zoos may become like the worst zoos. My patronage will provide money for medicine, security, and education. It will grant the ability to nurture, parent, and save many creatures. Without zoos and contributions from people like you and so, me many species might have disappeared, like the precious panda. And then, I see things like this – have I mentioned panda diplomacy? – and I’m thrust back into a miserable quandary. It is too terrible a truth, which knows my support facilitates at once, both good and evil deeds.
But most zoos aren’t evil places – they are good places in bad times. When I used to visit, I thought I was doing a good thing, and when I stopped, I thought I was doing good once more. I know unless catastrophe takes only we people, zoos are inevitable, but without them, the animal kingdom is not. Maybe the notion wild animals is simply romance, and our presence on this planet will and has thwarted the opportunity for these majestic creatures to lead a natural existence? I can’t say, the answer that we are complicate in this cycle, brings unbearable guilt. I have no clear resolution for problem, no easy answer, I now take my solace from parks, and gardens, but always hope one day I’ll see those beautiful beasts again. I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back to zoo, but I know, I sure do miss it.
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