On Zoos Compared to Free
Two friends recently reflected on their recent trips to zoos.
Dave Rogers posted photos of his zoo trip yesterday and also mentioned his ambiguity about zoos. Loren Webster posted photos from a zoo trip he too recently, and he's also mentioned in the past about his ambivalence towards these institutions. I myself have posted photos many times from my various trips to my local zoo, and I must confess I am not in the least ambiguous about it: I like the St. Louis zoo, and enjoy the visits.
I found a debate between Miranda Stevensen, director of the Federation of Zoos of Great Britain and Ireland and Daniel Turner, from the organization Born Free. Stevensen's organization works to make better zoos, while Born Free believes that we should work to eliminate zoos. Other than being struck at how civil each were even in the midst of being critical about each other's views, I was struck by the good points both had to say. Whether animals should be in zoos, for protection, or free regardless, is not an issue that has one clear answer.
We encroach into natural areas at the rate of thousands of miles every year, and the world doesn't seem to catch on how not only is this not good for animals, it's not good for ourselves. We've barely been able to keep Alaska from being over-exploited, and this in a country, which tends to favor leaving whatever is left of our wilderness alone. Human errosion of rain forests is impacting on our environment and our weather at no real long-term economic gain, but humanity has evolved a 'whatever works today, for me and mine' attitude that seems to brook no discourse on what makes sense for all people, and for all time.
We are an incredibly selfish species. I was reminded of that yesterday, watching two young men chasing squirrels around our neighborhood, until the poor creatures either took to the trees, or cowered under cars, in exhaustion, and fear. I yelled out at them to stop, asked what they were doing. "Just having fun", one hollered back. Just having fun. They took enjoyment from scaring creatures for no other reason than they were bored and it seemed like a fun thing to do. Frankly, I would have preferred they shoot the squirrels than chase them because they were bored.
Taking a gun and shooting the squirrels because they're overrunning a forest, damaging a crop, or for food, is better than tormenting them just because of ennui. Even shooting for sport demands some form of responsibility and accountability–imposed by law if not by conscience.
I don't agree with Stevensen in the debate that zoos as places to teach children how to be different about the world at large, and animals in particular. On my many visits, the kids would rather run about and scream and play, because that's what children do. When older students are brought, they're more interested in flirting with each other because that's what older children just entering adulthood do. I've long thought that children's lessons about their responsibility to the world begins in the home, not a park.
I see zoos as a way to remind the adults, ourselves, of what we do and what has become of these creature's habitats, but even then, the only time this information seems to get through is when the person already believes it. I've been at the St. Louis zoo enough times to see too many families think of the creatures as some form of 'live' entertainment, to be forgotten as soon as they leave the park.
Stlll, there are those times when the animals connect with the people. On my last visit to see the new baby elephant, an adult elephant was rocking back and forth, back and forth, in a very agitated manner. More than one parent introducing their babies to the new elephant baby was caught in the motion and moved to concern. I heard many people go up to the zoo volunteer and ask about the adult. They were worried about her, momentarily taken out of their concerns with themselves and their toddlers to react with a modicum of empathy.
Oddly enough, the moments when an animal projects its unhappiness at being caged are when we're reminded of our responsibilities the most. Ironic, eh?
I don't believe in animal circus acts, other than those featuring dogs and cats, birds and horses that are long used to humanity, and never in acts that could potentially harm the animals. I don't believe in keeping certain animals in zoos, such as killer whales and most non-endangered bears. Killer whales are not yet endangered and one only need to look in their eyes, once, to see their intelligence and fierce need for their freedom and the companionship of their pods. Most species of bears are far-roaming, and caging them does impact on their health and mental state.
I'd love to see gorillas set free, but know it's only a matter of time where the only gorillas left are those in zoos. What I'd prefer than, is places where they're protected but not forced to be viewed by humans, because I've never seen a gorilla yet that likes to be stared at.
We should have tougher controls on so-called wild animal parks, and encourage more of organizations such as Northwest Trek, where the animals are free; it's the human who are caged. Every one who can afford an environmentally sound, wild animal photo safari should take one: to provide needed tourism dollars for local communities, which encourages them to keep such free from hunters and farmers both. Naturally, I support setting aside any land as wild animal preserve, and donate to organizations that buy such when governments don't intervene.
I'd hate to see zoos go away, altogether, though. I love the fish, the snakes, the birds and the prairie dogs as much as the big cats and elephants, and would be content with just those species that adapt well to such circumstances. I do believe, though, if we didn't have zoos, we would run the risk of losing many more species of animals, and I can't quite accept that extinction is a preference to not being free.
Perhaps I'm wrong, though. I thought it preferable that the young men shoot the squirrels rather than chase them for sport, because hunting a creature means one is accountable for one's actions. When you shoot an animal, it is dead and its death is a result of your action–good reasons or bad, you're responsible.
Perhaps if animals such as the cheetah and the panda or the oryx are allowed to go extinct we'll finally accept responsibility for our actions. I doubt it, though–we still think we're justified in killing each other for no other reason than the shape of our crosses.