March 3, 2017

Lou Lou Skip the Zoo

“It is unseemly of us, who often behave so unfeelingly toward other animals, to contend that only humans can suffer. The behavior of other animals renders such pretensions specious. They are just too much like us.” -Carl Sagan

A reasonable question to ask big animal lovers/advocates is how they feel about zoos. Personally, I’ve always had a mixed answer because I very much enjoy animals and being outside, but I almost always end up in tears at some point thinking about their quality of life. I’ve taken a firm stance on boycotting cetaceans (ie. dolphins and whales) in captivity (watch Blackfish or The Cove and you’ll get why) as well as animals in circuses (watch An Apology to Elephants), but I was still able to rationalize the zoo business. Yes, it is a business. A for-profit one at that.

During a visit to the Omaha Zoo, I noticed a cheetah pacing back and forth endlessly in front of its glass enclosure. I think I watched him for almost twenty minutes and he didn’t stop pacing for a moment. Even though I was unsure of the reason behind the pacing, I knew in my gut that it was strange behavior and I felt horrible for him. I just couldn’t shake it. At that moment I realized that I hadn’t done my fair share of research on zoos to know whether or not I should be contributing to their success. On the drive back that afternoon, I started googling as unbiasedly as possible for an answer to that question. I really wanted to find the positives because I thoroughly enjoyed my zoo trips. I was hoping I’d find them to be acceptable and justifiable despite how that cheetah made me feel. After a few weeks of giving it my attention, I unhappily (though not surprisingly) discovered that just like the stuff Sea World lies about to convince people that keeping whales and dolphins in captivity is okay, the things zoos promote to gain support are pretty much hogwash.

People of all ages love zoos. What’s not to love about being outside on a nice day with family or friends, funnel cakes and dip and dots, and amazing animals to look at while you stroll around at a leisurely pace. The same goes for catching a whale show, swimming with the dolphins, “touch” exhibits at aquariums, or going to the circus for that matter.

With that said though, any adult who actually appreciates the animals (and I like to think the majority of zoo-goers do) has had to feel sorry for them at least once during a visit. For the more sophisticated animals especially, it’s hard not to see their misery behind the glass or at least imagine how sad life would be in their situation… trapped in a tiny space with roommates they didn’t choose (and oftentimes don’t like) doing the same thing day in and day out with absolutely no option for escape. However, there are a number of documented escape attempts every year proving not only animal intelligence but their desire to be free. Then there’s the ongoing issue where animals are being killed in response to emergencies or accidents that happen with human interaction and their zoo habitats.

Animals are much more complex than they initially seem. Anyone with an education or even a pet for that matter knows this. Just like humans, they have needs and wants and can suffer both physically and psychologically. They are capable of feeling strong emotions such as joy, pain, fear, grief, and anxiety.

I think people, in general, can sense that something is off about animals in zoos. I know I always could, even as a child. The older you get and the more educated you are about the creatures inhabiting zoos, the harder it is to turn a blind eye. The problem is that our enjoyment of the zoo makes us rationalize them being in captivity and makes us want to believe there is good in them. Here are some of the ways zoos convince people they are good and why it’s not necessarily the case.

Zoos are using their funding to better the habitats of the animals
Even the biggest and best enclosures simply cannot match mother nature. For example, African elephants walk about 30 miles a day. They suffer from all sorts of problems when they lack exercise and mental stimulation including infanticide, tuberculosis, lameness, and arthritis, and they live less than half of their life expectancy in captivity. Many zoo enclosures are about 100 times smaller than the minimum range needed. A dolphin living in a pool is literally comparable to you and me living in a bathtub.

Space requirements aside, some animals prefer privacy and are solitary by nature. Other animals are super sensitive to noises. The list of individual needs is long and zoos just can’t accommodate them. After all, zoos are, by nature, loud and built for observing.

Zoos provide funding for research and conservation of wildlife
Considering the outrageous amount of money donated to zoos every year, their contributions to other organizations are often minimal. Zoos are not for charity, they are for profit. Think about how much more good all that donated money would do going directly to animal charities, rehab facilities, and conservation efforts instead of zoos.

Zoos prevent species extinction
First of all, the vast majority of animals in zoos across the country aren’t even on the endangered species list. Second, let’s not ignore the fact that zoos still capture healthy animals from the wild and breed them – for profit. That’s not saving a species – that’s exploiting it.

Zoos educate people about animals
This might be the one that annoys me most. Just like Sea World workers, zoo keepers provide inaccurate information to zoo-goers all the time, whether they’re just repeating what they were told or they answer a question just to answer it. Oftentimes, they are misinformed about their behavior to cover up the trauma that the animals experience and are so used to seeing them in captivity that the line of nature vs nurture starts to blur. In many cases, the behavior of animals in captivity doesn’t match their behavior in the natural world. How is that education? You learn far more going on nature hikes, reading books, watching documentaries, or even googling for ten minutes than you do from a little sign in front of a cage – assuming you even read them at all. In reality, many people spend just seconds at each display, waiting for the animals to do something entertaining or “funny”, then they move on. They gain little, if any, real understanding of the animals. And teaching people to “respect” animals by means of displaying them like an art gallery is crap.

Zoos give homes to rehabilitated animals
The reality is, that an insanely high percentage of animals in zoos are captured directly from the wild or are a product of breeding. Animals experience a LOT of trauma through separation anxiety, grief, travel, habitat change, etc. when they’re placed in zoos. Don’t confuse zoos with rehabilitation centers where animals are getting the help they need with the intention of being released back into the wild.

I enjoy seeing animals in zoos. I would enjoy swimming with dolphins in a pool as well. However, seeing even just one animal showing obvious signs of mental stress (like the pacing cheetah) ruins my whole visit and brings me back to the reality of what I’m actually looking at. After giving it much thought, it seems reasonable to conclude that humans can find PLENTY of other ways to entertain ourselves without contributing to animal suffering.

Since most people can relate to and comprehend the intelligence level of a dog, here is a list of some animals who have all been scientifically studied and placed equal to or higher than the dog on the intelligence scale:

  • Primates (Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Apes, Orangutans)
  • Dolphins
  • Whales
  • Elephants
  • Crows
  • Pigs
  • Octopus
  • Squirrels

I’m very doubtful I’ll ever see the day where human-induced animal suffering is a thing of the past for any species. But I do have hope that I can look forward to the day when we’re no longer making a business of it. Many countries have already made illegal the capturing of dolphins and sale of dolphin meat. Sea World has officially changed its policies on whale captivity and breeding. Those are two examples of great starts and big wins for the animal kingdom. Let’s keep the momentum going and rather than purchasing a zoo pass… just pass instead.