Saturday, July 15, 2006

The moral dilemma of zoos

I know I'm not the first to wonder about this, and be even mildly concerned, but nonetheless, it bears mentioning. In the last two months, I've found myself at two different zoos, in Akron and in Denver, and those were the first times I'd been to a zoo since I was at least 14, maybe younger. We all remember our youth, and the wonder and joy and excitement at zoos when we're kids, but going as a 26-year-old gives a very different perspective, all relating to the animals, or better, to their pens.

First, there's the effect that, as a kid, when you're small and everything's big, the zoos seem enormous places of enchantment. Not so now. I couldn't help but notice occasionally in Akron, and a little more frequently in Denver, how small the spaces some animals had seemed to be, particularly the larger animals (part of the discrepancy between Akron and Denver was simple size of zoos - Akron has no way of sustaining elephants or giraffes, though they did have a tiger, a lion, a couple asian black bears, and a komodo dragon). The elephants in Denver looked absolutely bored, and each seemed to be occupying about 15 percent of its total space just standing still. Similar deal with the giraffes. While they ALWAYS look bored, their quarters weren't the largest. They were eating inside, so that was rather exceptional, I suppose, but outside wasn't much better. While smaller animals like monkeys seemed to be getting along all right, you couldn't help but feel bad for the larger animals, and even some smaller ones (such as some emu-sized birds) wouldn't leave the fences, continuously trying to explore what was beyond their pens.

The polar bears similarly seemed to be a little confined in their space, needing much more even for a zoo. Yet the polar bears themselves bring up a larger ethical problem for me. It was 100 in Denver yesterday - why the fuck do they have polar bears? And while I haven't visited it, I know the Albuquerque zoo has polar bears, too. This strikes me as completely horrible and ridiculous. I understand the draw - let children see animals they don't normally get to see, and I remember both the wonderment I felt as a child, and witnessed that wonderment among others often yesterday. While I support the idea in the abstract, some places, in my less-than-humble opinion, have no business having certain animals. It doesn't make anymore sense to have a lion from hot Africa stuck in an indoor pen all the time in St. Petersburg (which I know zilch about) than it does to have a polar bear in places that witness 100 degree heat not-infrequently. Two of the polar bears were trying to do their best to sleep in the shade, but you could tell that they were both really uncomfortable, and the third just kept swimming around in the same 10 foot circle (the pool was larger, but that was all he did). It just was heartbreaking to me.

What makes a zoo so contradictory for emotions, too, is the simple fact that, even while you see these animals looking less than happy sometimes, at the same time, you know that their survival to a large extent has been revitalized or even saved by the zoos themselves. Without the preservation efforts of zoos since the 70s, many of these animals would be on the verge of extinction (some still are), or even extinct. So you're left with the desire to see animals live happily conflicting with the desire to see them happy in their own environment, or at least a larger fake environment than they get.

If you haven't been to a zoo in many years, I suggest you go, and while perhaps remembering your childhood (not nostalgically per se - rather, just as an analytical mindframe), consider zoos today, and see how your local zoo appears. I'd love to get a zoo-comparison, and people's thoughts, on this.