I dream of a world without zoos

The polar bear in the picture, Taco, was kept in captivity for 16 years at the Santiago Zoo in Chile. He was confined to a small space, with a shallow pool of water, in sharp contrast to the vast Arctic ice sheets polar bears roam and coastal waters they swim in. He suffered the hot Chilean summers, and was isolated and boarded, not able to live as a polar bear. Many demonstrated and petitioned for his release but Taco was freed only when he died last year at the relatively young age of 18 years old.

Taco’s story is not unique, and his photo conjures up the irony and cruelty of all zoos and aquariums, and the wider misconception humans have about non-human animals. We think that we can confine and isolate intelligent, family-oriented and social animals to cages, provide an artificial image of their original habitat, and call it their home. But zoos are far from being anyone’s home and were created for humans “entertainment” at the expense of animals.

Displays of captive animals have been in existence for centuries, all over the world, among different societies and religions. They are part of our tradition and culture. Romantic and children’s books have been written about them. But, there is nothing romantic or child-like about zoos and aquariums. Sadly, visiting zoos as kids, much like other traditions and customs we grow up with, instills in us blinders to the suffering of others. We get accustomed to habits that are abnormal and morally wrong. The imprisonment and exploitation of innocent animals for “entertainment” is one of them. Not only do we become numb and oblivious to the misery we witness, we think it’s fun to look at animals who are shy and are not used to being watched by humans.

Sumatran Orangutan in Moscow Zoo Picture: Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters

Sumatran Orangutan in Moscow Zoo   Picture: Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters

The photograph of the orangutan at the Moscow Zoo (on the left) demonstrates that. The program manager for captive wild animals at the Born Free Foundation, UK, Chris Draper, told The Dodo website: “the picture presents a striking contrast between the zoo visitors and the orangutan: a moment’s interest and comedy for the visitors and a lifetime’s captivity for the orangutan.” He also said that in the wild, orangutans are almost exclusively arboreal, “here we see a situation where endless streams of visitors may file past at eye level with this intelligent and sensitive ape.”

Most of us live in one place and think of it as home, but many species roam huge distances in their natural environment. Tigers and lions have about 18,000 times less space in zoos than in the wild. Polar bears have one million times less space. Zoos cannot provide the natural, required area for many of the animals they confine.

Another huge cause of stress for the animals is being torn from their families and communities in their native home so they can “entertain” humans in zoos. For the animals that are already in captivity the same stress occurs when they are moved from zoo to zoo for the purpose of breeding. As the Milwaukee zoo states on its website: “By continuously shifting the animal populations, zoos … keep their collections fresh and exciting…” Yes, breaking up families and social structures is only for human excitement.

The stressors such as, limited space, artificial environment, lack of stimulation and ability to satisfy their natural needs, cause the animals to go crazy. That manifests in stereotypic, repetitive behavior, for example: pacing in big cats, vomiting and regurgitating in apes, and swaying from side to side in elephants. The term “zoochosis” was coined to describe such behavior of captive animals.

As public’s attitudes about the exploitation of animals for entertainment have shifted, the zoo industry has relied on misconceptions such as conservation and education, to justify the continuation of animal imprisonment. But today we have enough information to know and understand that zoos and aquariums are horrible places for animals, and they do not promote conservation, nor education.

Most animals in zoos are not endangered. And even if they were, zoos are not the answer for conservation, as much as prisons would not be a solution for keeping someone safe. No animals that are endangered, and are born in zoos, were ever released back to nature; they stay there so zoos can keep making money. The solution for conservation is not cramped cages in cities, under the gazing eyes of humans. The resources invested in zoos would be better utilized in real conservation, in the animals’ native habitat, and in creditable animal sanctuaries, which can serve the animals with as little human interference as possible.

Zoos and aquariums also market themselves as places of education. A study conducted by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) claimed that visits to zoos and aquariums produce long-term positive effects on people’s attitudes toward other animals. However, researchers at Emory University published a paper concluding that the AZA study contains major threats to methodological validity that undermine the authors’ conclusions. They concluded that “there is no compelling or even particularly suggestive evidence for the claim that zoos and aquariums promote attitude change, education, and interest in conservation in visitors.”

My childhood memories include outings to the zoo. It was small, tucked behind the city hall in Tel Aviv, When I look back at my childhood photos at the zoo, I wonder, did I think about the animals and where they came from, did I feel sorry for them? If I had to guess, I’d say no to both questions. That is the saddest part for me as a human being, a child who is desensitized to cruelty, and thinks it’s normal to watch animals imprisoned behind bars.

I visited other zoos when I grew up, still oblivious to the suffering of the animals I saw, until I went to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, and saw the primates room, ironically called “Tropic World”. It was adorned with artificial greenery and wall paintings, unsuccessfully attempting to make us, humans in the city of Chicago, feel like we’re in the tropics. Watching the monkeys in that sad room, one in particular, who seemed sad and apathetic, touched my heart. I felt a great sadness, my eyes filled with tears, as I realized I was looking at creatures who resemble us humans, and live in a miserable place filled with fake images and objects, which is nothing like their wonderful natural home. I knew then and there that would be my last visit to a zoo. I wish I had experienced the same awakening many years before, and I wish I did not need monkeys, who look like us, to make me feel empathy, sorrow and guilt.

Just imagine an alien from a different planet visiting a zoo, after seeing the animals in the wild. I think they’ll ask themselves why would you remove any wonderful creature such as an elephant, a giraffe, or a tiger, from their vast natural habitat, their families and communities, the climate they are used to, and confine them to a small enclosure, in an urban environment, and even a different climate. They may also wonder, why on earth would any human being want to visit those sad animal displays, let alone take their kids to watch the imprisoned creatures. I do think about the locked monkeys from the Brookfield Zoo, who seemed subdued and sad, in that pathetic human made room. I then I remember the howler monkeys I saw in the majestic rain forest, playful, on treetops, jumping from branch to branch, from tree to tree, howling, and even peeing on us humans standing under the trees and watching them!

If we want to see wild animals as they really are, we don’t have to go far. We can watch well informed wildlife films and webcam feeds, see them for real in national parks and nature reserves, or, my favorite, enjoy the butterflies, birds, rabbits, chipmunks, possums, squirrels and other wonderful creatures, who visit our own back yards…

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2 Responses

  1. Mitzie says:

    There was a polar bear at the Lincoln Park zoo, who used to swim around and around in circles out of frustration. Watching that beautiful animal suffer made me lose interest in visiting zoos. I have seen that in the sad looks of other large animals cooped up in small areas. Of course, even in the wild, we have restricted the animal ranges, and then when they react in ways that annoy us, our first choice is to kill them! No wonder Mother Nature is so angry with us! When will we ever learn!

  2. Robin says:

    This post moved me tremendously. I remember as a very young girl going to the Philadelphia Zoo, which to my child’s eye, looked more like a house of horrors, and getting sick and vomiting. It was one of the single most awful days I ever experienced up to that age. That feeling of utter misery upon seeing so many desperately unhappy animals never left me.