The Trouble with Zoos
I have a confession to make. I’ve struggled in writing this particular blog post for several months now. I’ve drafted and deleted many feeble attempts but they always turn out the same. Meh. I just can’t convey the volcano of passion I feel for this subject in a concise, clear and compelling way.
And then last week happened.
For anyone blessed enough to be off of social media for the past two weeks consider yourself very, very lucky to have missed the soul crushing, disturbing and completely avoidable tragedy of the baby elephant at the Pittsburg Zoo.
For those of you who missed this vomit inducing display of marketing at the expense of another living creature play out, let me just tell you that the zoo in Pittsburg has a breeding facility, in which this poor little elephant was born. According to zoo officials, the mother was unable to care properly for her infant, (something which rarely, if ever, happens in the wild). The infant, born prematurely, was removed from its mother and put on display, even to the point of being paraded around wearing a branded sports team blanket. After several agonizing months, the little calf stopped eating. Amidst much media frenzy, and after trying, in the zoos words “everything”, the nameless baby elephant was euthanized.
Can we all see the problem here?
First and foremost, let’s put aside the inherent cruelty of keeping animals the size of elephants in small enclosures, and lets focus on the staggering emotional, spiritual and intellectual intelligence of elephants. It’s highly likely, that with their massive brains, they are fully cognizant of the fact that they are, indeed, prisoners, that their families have been stolen from them and that their babies are being born into slavery, deprived of every natural experience an elephant should have.
Few things draw such an intense reaction as zoos. People have fond memories of visiting zoos as children; they want to take their own kids to the zoo. Now, I can’t speak for other animals, and I can’t speak for every zoo, but I am going to go on a limb here and state, unequivocally, that elephants do not belong in any zoo, period.
Close your eyes and imagine yourself, just living your life. Imagine someone kidnaps you and takes you to a one-room apartment. Maybe this apartment has a lot of cool things you want in it (maybe it doesn’t). There is a catch, though, You will never, ever be able to leave this one room apartment, AND they are going to make you have the same routine every day until you die, with no end in sight. Additionally, they may force you to create a family with complete strangers, and when one of you has a baby, they will take that baby away from you and force it to grow up in its own tiny apartment where it will never, ever see you again.
People recoil when envisioning that life for themselves or their children.
Why then, is it OK for us to inflict this life on creatures that are as smart and emotional as we are?
Don’t even get me started on zoochosis*, the way bull elephants are treated, the drastically reduced lifespan of elephants in zoos, the number of lone elephants in substandard enclosures, the diseases and emotional trauma they endure, because, let’s be honest, for zoos, elephants are big money makers.
“But how will my child learn about elephants if they can’t see one in a zoo?” so the argument goes.
“Ask any 9 year old to describe a dragon, T-Rex or a unicorn. I guarantee you they can, and they’ve never seen one of those in a zoo!”
My intent isn’t to shame people who have happy memories of visiting a zoo. We can only make decisions based upon information we have at the time. The complexity of elephants is only now being discovered by scientists. Our moral compass for what is right and wrong must evolve along with our expanding awareness of the needs of these amazing beings.
I applaud parents who strive to inject a love of animals into their children. Compassion begins at home. Fortunately, now it is easier to entrance children with elephants than ever before. Stunning documentaries, fantastic, interactive programs even incredible, life sized puppetry**, are all wonderful ways to learn about elephants.
Ultimately, what needs to adjust is the way in which we look at the creatures we share this planet with. We must promote the idea that other beings exist WITH us, not FOR us. They have their own wants, needs and agendas, independent of us humans. Until we can make that leap and teach our children to make that leap, the future of these most majestic creatures will always be at risk and baby elephants will continue to die, nameless, in the zoo.
*Zoochosis is the term used to describe the stereotypical behavior of animals in captivity. Stereotypic behavior is defined as a repetitive, invariant behavior pattern with no obvious goal or function, brought on by the stress of forced, unnatural captivity.
** The Show- 1903 Circus uses gigantic, life like, elephant puppets, technology and choreography to create the thrill of seeing elephants.