Penguins left… gorillas right. Excuse me, but what the hell are penguins doing within walking distance of gorillas?! The simple answer is that they’re in a zoo, but the deeper question is one that has troubled me for a while.
I don’t remember a defining point in my childhood where my love of nature began. I do however, remember zoos. Losing my helium-filled animal balloons, beating off the crazed geese in the petting yard, and waiting in vain for big cats to emerge from their concrete lairs. But most of all, I remember the excitement. More than two decades later I stand outside the entrance to the Saint Louis Zoo in Missouri, and a slightly altered adult excitement does battle with a looming dread in my mind. I haven’t been to a traditional zoo since very young, and the naivety of childhood is not the dense curtain that it was then. But zoos are not places of quiet to resolve inner conflicts, a current of kids sweeps me through the sliding doors and I’m in.
As one does when confronted by an impossible number of options, we try to take in everything, doing a random dance from one exhibit to the next, our direction dictated mainly by the desire to avoid the groups of shrieking children. I’m glad to note that my fascination is still there, and I stare at the weird and wonderful creatures from almost every environment on the planet in incredulity. I’m learning things.
But there is another very real emotion, deep sadness. A bateleur, the elegant tightrope walker of African skies, confined to a cage. The first of a number of beleaguered looking creatures far from their natural environments. Sure, keepers have made an effort with the artificial environments that support these animals, but I’m not fooled. Not all animals have a trivial “eat, sleep, reproduce” vacuum of a brain, and I would say that behaviour is a fairly accurate gauge of the mental state of a creature. And I see no behaviour that indicates that any of these animals are in a healthy frame of mind. There just isn’t enough space. Sure, many of these creatures were probably born in captivity, but how does that make it a healthier environment for them? I have had the privilege of seeing many of these same animals in the wild, and it is like observing a different species. That to me is evidence enough that much is not right here. And this is one of the top zoos in one of the most developed countries in the world.
On the flip side, no one can deny that zoos do good, and I don’t believe that there is anything malicious about them. They engage in research, preserve biodiversity (genetic and species) that may be threatened or at times even extinct in the wild, and they provide much needed funding for research and conservation projects across the world. However, in my opinion, all of these should be achievable in other ways. But there is one thing that zoos provide that can’t be easily found elsewhere. Inspiration, and fascination, for kids. As I walk around I can’t help but smile. There are children here, lots of them, and their enthusiasm is infectious. A kid that can barely walk waddles past, I hear him demanding “Lions, I want to see the lions!”. This is it, this is what zoos are about. In my mind there is no doubt that animals live severely compromised and unhealthy lives in zoos across the world. The bigger question is whether this is worth the experience that these kids have. Clearly there is excitement, but is it fleeting or do these kids grow up to have a positive influence on our planet because of what they have seen at a zoo? I can’t answer this, and I don’t know that anyone can. But if it is true, then it’s a very big deal. Kids are falling further and further into lives devoid of contact with nature. Maybe zoos are the only thing that can give them tangible proof that nature does exist out there, and that it is worth protecting. I do hope so, because otherwise it’s an arguably cruel source of human entertainment. And so I find myself at the exit, having carefully avoided the goose pen, with more questions than I arrived with.
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