One zoo over the cuckoo’s nest

One of our favorite signs.
One of our favorite signs.

I used to make the internal “cuckoo” gesture when I heard people refer to their pets as their children.

But, as our dogs grow older, I get it. I see the reflections in the roles and life stages, experience what it’s like to have something I provide for willfully disobey me, find balance in the irony that even though I don’t have to put the dogs through college I will have to work for the rest of my life because they ate the money I should have been saving for retirement.

Jane Goodall: "The voice of the natural world would be, 'Can you please give us space and leave us alone to get along with our own lives and our own ways, because we actually know much better how to do it than when you start interfering.'"
Jane Goodall: “The voice of the natural world would be, ‘Can you please give us space and leave us alone to get along with our own lives and our own ways, because we actually know much better how to do it than when you start interfering.'”

One of the things I love most about dogs, however, is that they are not human. In particular, that they are not human children.

My partner and I were considering this fact, and humanity’s broader of view of animals, in the aftermath of the recent Cincinnati Zoo incident. The shrill debate that followed has largely focused on whether the zoo did the right thing. Of course it did. You can’t let a child be ragdolled to death by a gorilla in front of a bunch of people recording the event on their cell phone cameras if you have the opportunity to stop it.

The discussion we should be having is whether zoos still have a place in our society. Whether the resources would be better served in the acquisition and preservation of wildlands, and the expansion of wildlife sanctuaries. Whether we perceive our fellow passengers on this planet, especially those, like all gorilla species, that are endangered, as important enough to preserve outside of a few inbred specimens that exist only in prisons.

Reese knows “a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.”
Reese knows “a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.”

Is a human life innately more valuable than the life of another animal? Granted, a polar bear can’t create a work of art or cure a disease, but Shakespeares and Jonas Salks are few and far between. And I feel confident saying the world would be a healthier, more harmonious place if we could trade Donald Trump for an extra Amur leopard, or that rapist swimmer and his morally vacant father for a couple more black rhinos. Even the author/teacher of Ecclesiastes, which is thought to have been composed circa 250 B.C., observes that men “themselves are beasts” and asks, “Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?”

Zoos, aquariums and entities like Sea World provide a place to connect with animals we may otherwise never be able to see, but perhaps we aren’t meant to; at least not in such a setting. I loved zoos as a kid, but the older I got, and the more David Attenborough specials I watched, the sadder the animals in them seemed.

"The animals of this world exist for their own reasons," writes Alice Walker. Wyatt exists for filth.
“The animals of this world exist for their own reasons,” writes Alice Walker. Wyatt exists for filth.

Then, the burgeoning journalist in me that should have been a lawyer started to ponder questions like: How do zoos acquire their animals? What educational and preservation purposes do they serve? Is it ethical to interfere with the natural lives of, and imprison, wildlife? (The answers are: Mostly through interbreeding and animal-rotation programs; none to little; and no.)

A majority of the animals in zoos aren’t there for rehabilitation, or to protect the species, or for study. They are jailed for human entertainment, and because they have become so genetically attenuated, so dependent on caretakers for food and for health maintenance, their instincts so eroded, that they couldn’t survive in the wild.

The world is Wyatt's zoo.
The world is Wyatt’s zoo.

Zoos are a relic of a time when we misunderstood animal consciousness; when vivisection was viewed as a viable research method; when we didn’t have diversions like phones that can play those wondrous BBC Earth series, which feature animals up close in their natural habitats, or at least preserves established with their well-being in mind. The contemporary promotion of zoos as a means for species conservation is slightly evolved, but it’s still misguided and self-serving, and it doesn’t address foundational problems like habitat loss, climate change and poaching.

I live in something of a zoo, but the dogs have ample freedoms, and as a species they’re not being elbowed into extinction by people (though humans have likewise gone splashing carefree through their gene pool); they also go stir crazy if they’re confined to the house and yard for a full day, and relative to size they have way more space than a caged gorilla. Our dogs are as close as my partner and I will have to kids, but when I look at them, I don’t see children. I see complex, sentient creatures who share this world with me and let me in on a world wilder than my own.

Edward Abbey: “A world without huge regions of total wilderness would be a cage; a world without lions and tigers and vultures and snakes and elk and bison would be – will be – a human zoo. A high-tech slum.”
Edward Abbey: “A world without huge regions of total wilderness would be a cage; a world without lions and tigers and vultures and snakes and elk and bison would be – will be – a human zoo. A high-tech slum.”

Related reading, including some opposing viewpoints on zoos and their ilk:

As Sea World Stops Breeding Orcas, What are the Impacts on Research?” This 2016 Science magazine piece questions whether the knowledge that may be gained from a close relationship with such animals justifies their captivity.

Five Things We Need to Stop Telling Ourselves about Zoos,” a 2016 post from Animals Australia that provides a counterpoint to zoos’ conservation and education sales pitches.

Many Animals can Become Mentally Ill,” a 2015 BBC report on the development of mental illness in animals, and the particular risks faced by animals in captivity.

Zoo Visitor Effect on Mammal Behaviour: Does Noise Matter?” This University of Salford study, the results of which were published the January 2015 edition of the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, found that zoo visitors and their corresponding noise levels have a negative impact on individually housed animals.

Zoos Drive Animals Crazy,” a 2014 Slate article about zoochosis—animal psychosis that stems from confinement—and how zoos attempt to prevent it.

Why Zoos are Good,” a 2014 column in The Guardian by paleontologist Dr. Dave Hone, the headline of which should tell you where he’s coming from.

Don’t Let Good Zoos Go Extinct,” author Ruth Padel’s 2013 column in The Guardian makes a case for zoos based on the perspective that since nature is vanishing, they’re wildlife’s best hope for survival.

When Babies Don’t Fit Plan, Question for Zoos Is, Now What?” The response, according to this 2012 article in The New York Times, is birth control or murder (the author is polite and calls it euthanasia, but euthanasia is, by definition, the merciful killing of an animal suffering from an incurable or debilitatingly painful condition; these animals are put down simply because there is nowhere for them to go).

Zoos and Aquariums Do Not Accomplish what They Claim to Do,” a 2010 Psychology Today column by ecology and evolutionary biology professor Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., who discusses a study about whether zoos live up to conservation and education standards, as they market themselves.

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8 thoughts on “One zoo over the cuckoo’s nest

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  1. I doubt somehow if you get The Supervet your side of the Pond, but the vet in the title, Noel Fitzpatrick, who does amazing surgery (every time I watch him I think I should have MasterB insured), says animals can survive without us, but we can’t survive without animals.

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    1. I have heard of that show, but we don’t get it here that I know of (unless it’s part of a cable/dish package that I can’t afford). I agree with the sentiment, though.

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      1. These are awesome! I wasn’t familiar with either program. The Fitzpatrick organization is incredible. It almost makes you feel as if human health care is lagging behind pet healthcare.

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  2. Love love love love this post. We are back to DH Lawrence and his Mountain Lion. MasterB is the first pet I have ever had for whom I have thought of myself as ‘Mummy’. In fact I need to go out to back him up in a minute as two new well fed cats have suddenly appeared and seem intent on taking over our garden, so I am hissing and spraying them with water to defend My Boy. The miracle of sharing my home with another species never ceases to amaze me, especially when that other species demonstrates pleasure at my presence and affection. What have we as humans done to deserve this?

    When habitats are destroyed putting species at risk and we are told it’s for humans, I start to question the balance in this argument.

    BTW, does Wyatt exist for Filth, or does Filth exist for Wyatt?

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    1. It’s funny you mention Lawrence’s Mountain Lion, because I almost referenced it (again). It certainly applies, though. The arguments for zoos seem kind of defeatist to me; one of the columns I referenced rationalized the necessity of zoos because we are destroying the environment. The answer to me isn’t sustaining zoos, it’s not destroying the environment. It’s the same line of thinking that applies to stopping gun violence; we need to decide what type of society we want to be and move toward it instead of accepting things as they are.
      (And I think you made me reconsider; I think filth exists for Wyatt.)

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      1. question I find hard to answer is what would have been the right thing to do had it been a human mauling a baby gorilla? I know we generally say human life comes first, but given the endangered status of gorillas and the huge population of humans, I wonder.

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      2. Oh, I definitely would have pulled the trigger in that circumstance. (Just kidding. I think.) I recently finished “Great Soul of Siberia,” which was written by a wildlife filmmaker and is about the years he has spent filming and studying tigers in Siberia. He is about as close to Buddhist as you can be without actually being Buddhist, but he talks about coming across a tiger that had recently been shot, learning who shot the animal, and having to suppress his rage and not kill the person with his bare hands simply because are so few of those animals left.

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