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Zoos: Why a revolution is necessary to justify them (insider)

  • Jeremy Hance writes about zoos.
  • You and I and all of us are the reason these animals sit behind glass or bars; we are the reason only a fraction of their habitat remains; we are the reason they have been driven to almost nothing and may very well, sooner than we can imagine, be extinct and gone, forever cast from existence.
  • What right do we have to this authority? And what right do zoos have to exist, if not to show us our illusion of mastery, our waste of creation, and our responsibility to make it right — as right as it can be?
  • This is an insider story. To read, please become a member.

Watching a Siberian tiger kill a gray squirrel for a half-hour proved to be one of my most enlightening experiences at a zoo. It was a weekday; I was alone, not even an employee passed by. The tiger pounced on the squirrel, flipped it into the air like a juggler’s ball, pinned it and rolled it. A short reprieve from this unlikely encounter and the bloodied, half-crushed squirrel attempted an escape, dragging itself across the grass; the tiger watched curiously, let it go a few feet, then pounced again. My whole being suffered over the squirrel’s pain and torture while marveling in the same instance at the tiger’s power, the ease with which it knocked the rodent along the ground. Here, in an institution where nature is faked, was a relatively truthful half-hour: nature’s brutality, grace, ugliness, awe, beauty and tragedy were revealed. I never could conclude whether the Asian terror was just playing or if it simply lacked the knowledge (as has been proven with many captive cats) to finish off the squirrel. Either way, it took a long time for the rodent to die.

At 28 years of age, I have spent countless hours in well over 20 zoos spanning four continents. I present this fact as the main expertise I possess in writing an essay analyzing contemporary zoos and their visitors. That is to say, this is not an exploratory essay of a professional zoologist or biologist (or even a science major); rather this is one zoo-goer and environmental reporter’s view of the current state of zoos and, more importantly and rarely discussed, some general ideas that could transform the zoo’s place in our society. This is my hope. I won’t evaluate zoos separately (though of course they vary widely in quality), but rather sketch a general impression.

At the zoo: tiger versus squirrel

The True Purpose of Zoos

Think about it: the zoological park — in which living beings are subjected to strict confinement, where they must live a life, no matter the size and “naturalness” of the cage, wholly different from the natural one to which they are suited, where their instincts are dulled, tamed and corrupted, where eating involves no hunting or foraging, and sexual relations are interfered with and closely monitored — allows such seemingly needless suffering to fellow creatures that we, as (hopefully) ethical animals, must not only supply a very good reason for this subjection, but also achieve it.

Zoos have a long history. China claims the first (as it does with most public institutions), but Egypt, Greece and Rome all possessed zoos of some kind. However, our contemporary zoos are direct descendants of Europe’s first public zoos (replacing royal menageries meant only for the aristocratic class). A product of the European Enlightenment, late 18th-century zoos were built to harbor animals for scientific purposes and public education. These were noble ideas, but it would be 200 years before zoos began to consider the health and sanity of their inmates. At the same time, in the 1960s and ’70s, zoos began to rethink their general purpose. It was quite clear at this point that the Earth was on the verge of a global extinction, called the Holocene Mass Extinction, and only strong efforts by scientists and societies at large could save the vast biodiversity of our planet. Contemporary zoological parks have added stipulations regarding species health and well-being, while embracing the idea that they must focus on conservation efforts worldwide and environmental education locally. This is a purpose that makes sense. In fact, this is the only reason to allow such unnatural captivity: the zoo should be a local conservation center, focusing wholly on saving (or reinstating) species in the wild and on educating the public on the importance of conservation and biodiversity. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an accrediting body, exists to make this happen, and there are many quality conservation programs going in and coming out of most zoos. My skepticism lies not so much with zoos’ conservation programs, but with their effectiveness as educators.

Maned wolf in captivity. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Zoo: The Educational Institution?

It appears that most zoos believe the animals themselves are sufficient education: somehow by seeing a bear in a cage one will be environmentally enlightened. Yet what do captive animals, lacking context, teach one about the natural world and its importance? The zoo is an artificial “wilderness”; it is man-made and man-managed. There is no connection between a pen and an ecosystem. A visitor can look through the glass and see an insect, a snake, a reptile and “learn” nothing more than that they’re boring because they just sit there. In the same manner, polar bears appear as playful, cute and hardly menacing, though they can kill a 90-kilogram (200 pound) seal (or human) with one strike of the paw. Finally, it’s difficult to wrap one’s head around an animal being endangered when it’s just a meter (3 feet) from you. Without context, without quality information in a wide variety of forms, zoos only present us with illusions of nature and conservation. Yet many zoos still believe that the caged animal will say it all. If this were true, then according to my experience the main prey of Siberian tigers would be the North American gray squirrel.

Zoos have tried, a little, to incorporate education into the premier attraction. Some are satisfied with a including fascinating fact about each subject (“The chameleon can look in two directions at once!” or “The kangaroo is the world’s largest marsupial!”). It’s like if you went to see an exhibit on van Gogh and all it said was “He shot himself in the stomach!” Most zoos, however, have informative signs regarding the animal itself, including habitat, feeding, mating, nominal behavior, etc. Even when zoos offer more information, they expound upon the subject as though it occurs in a vacuum: zoos rarely explain an animal’s place in its ecosystem. Better information on this level would allow people to gain more respect for animals (or plants) they usually ignore and avoid — reptiles, amphibians, insects, arachnids — and new insight into the so-called charismatic species. A wide assortment of such information would help people understand why every part of an ecosystem is vital.

Herpetologist trying to save a Hyloscirtus colymba tree frog in Panama. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Conservation and Education

Since zoos embraced conservation, most include a display regarding the species’ conservation status. Some are even enlightened enough to include the reasons behind the animal’s endangerment. But even this proves hardly sufficient: when a visitor reads about logging in Sumatra or the bushmeat problem in Congo, what can they really do but shrug their shoulders and drop a quarter in a donation bin? Zoos need to take these conservation issues and make them applicable. If they want to stop logging in Borneo to save the orangutans, why not provide a list of tropical woods to avoid purchasing? Why not highlight that the rainforest isn’t being cut for Borneo’s needs, but to sate Western consumption? To tackle the bushmeat trade, zoos could address the larger issue of poverty in Africa. U.S. policy can have a large effect on this issue. These are merely two examples of how to make wildlife conservation meaningful to the average visitor. The zoo, as a conservation center, must make visitors aware of their responsibility in fixing these global problems. For in the end it is lack of funds, awareness and will that continually allows our world to be ravaged in unsustainable and wasteful ways.

To truly reach visitors, zoos should employ a variety of new educational strategies: signs in front of a cage are simply not enough. For example, I find it odd that science and art museums have continuously rotating exhibits, but zoos do not. Why not include such exhibits exploring a particular species, a famous wildlife expedition, or the state of our Earth? Imagine an exhibit on birds of paradise, the journeys and writings of environmental activist Peter Matthiesen, or the recent extinction of the baiji, a river dolphin in China? Quality and detailed exhibits may make some visitors excited in biology and conservation, who would otherwise be dispassionate to animals in cages. Displaying exhibits on conservation issues would kill two birds with one stone (excuse the completely inappropriate adage). Such exhibits could cover major topics like human population, rainforest deforestation or global warming. And if zoos are serious about shaping minds regarding conservation, they should pursue honest and effective information: the presentation should not wipe away the complexities of these issues or avoid our responsibility in making the difference. In the end, as I have related, conservation information must include concrete steps that the visitor can take to make a difference.

A theater presenting quality nature and conservation programs would be a perfect place for tired visitors to take a respite and learn something new. With amazing programming such as the recent Planet Earth, including its follow-up episodes on conservation, and Sir David Attenborough’s or National Geographic’s wonderful documentaries, it seems odd to me that zoos have not thought of this as a novel way to provide both entertainment and education. However, if the programs being presented have no interest in conservation and science, but merely display “funny” or “dangerous” animals to entertain, then they are not worthy of what should be a zoo’s higher place in society.

While most zoos lack quality education initiatives, they are still doing great things in the conservation world. The Bronx Zoo, arguably one of the best in the world, is run by the Wildlife Conservation Society which currently runs 660 field projects around the world. The AZA admirably brings zoos and conservation programs together around the country. But this begs the question: why are these conservation initiatives not proclaimed? Why don’t zoo visitors see firsthand information about what their local zoo (or zoos across the world) are working on? I’m not talking about just a little plaque and a few words, but an in-depth description of the project and its goals. Let the visitor know that the zoo doesn’t exist solely for their needs, but as a research institute and base for overseas conservation. Allow them to understand that animals are not mere entertainment for humans, but a vital part of ecosystems around the world that the makes our Earth as wondrous (and effective) as it is.

Snow leopard at the Bronx Zoo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

The Green Zoo?

Currently, most zoos are standing contradictions. They use tremendous amounts of dirty power and water daily, for both guests and animals. Zoo cafes serve largely unhealthy and purely unethical foods. One minute you could be walking through a rainforest exhibit and the next drinking coffee or eating chocolate, both of which are grown in tropical countries. Or you might have just read about the devastating impact of climate change on amphibians worldwide and then have a hamburger or hotdog for lunch. (According to the U.N., livestock is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere — 5 percent more than global transportation). Munch on some chips while watching orangutans and despairing of their plight without even realizing the threat to them and innumerable other Asian species is in your mouth: palm oil, a product found in items ranging from snack foods to cosmetics and shampoo). Palm oil has ravaged forests across Southeast Asia over the last few decades, especially in Indonesia (which lost 24 percent of its forest in just 15 years) and Malaysia (6.6 percent). Or shop in the gift store and buy something, pretty much anything, and you’ll be supporting China’s industrial and booming economy, which is run almost entirely on carbon-emitting coal.

Imagine if the zoo put its ethics where its mouth is: power could be generated entirely from sustainable sources; water could be very carefully consumed, reused after treatment, and collected whenever it rains; the zoo restaurant could be filled with local foods; carrying chocolate and coffee that is both shade-grown and fair-trade (with explanations as to the importance of these distinctions) and offering a good selection of vegetarian meals. In addition it could make a point of carrying foods that either do not contain palm oil or carry sustainable-certified palm oil. The gift shop could sell materials that are only ethically and sustainably produced. Instead of gifts from Chinese sweatshops or Indonesian rainforests, we could be buying alpaca scarves from cooperatives in Peru or hand-carved animals from recycled wood in Kenya. If a zoo cannot live by the standards it attempts to teach, then our gluttonous society is perhaps beyond the point of help.

Obviously, many of these suggestions and ideas are dependent on funds. I am no economist, but I imagine making a zoo “green” would be expensive, but I also believe public benefactors and the government would quickly pony up funds for a green zoo, and then tout that sustainability as an example to the public.

Aquarium visitor interacting with an Arapaima. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

An Example of One Zoo’s Incongruent Decision

Despite continuous opportunities for zoos to improve upon their mission statement of education and conservation, some of their decisions simply boggle the mind. In 2000, the Minnesota Zoo, in the state where I grew up, decided to add a new attraction: a giant barn with lots of domesticated animals. In what way does this meet the goals of wildlife conservation and education? Here’s the description from the website: “The objective of the Wells Fargo Family Farm is to create a place for Minnesota Zoo visitors to become part of a community of people, plants and animals striving to maintain balance with nature.” That’s all well and good, but these are not endangered species! There are a few rare breeds in the barn, but a domestic breed, genetically managed by and for man, is not an endangered species. These are not wild species: they have no habitat, no prey, no ecosystem, so why are they taking up the zoo’s money and resources? The barn also features a unique exhibit: cloned farm animals. I almost have no words for this, for in whose devious mind does a cloned domestic breed of cattle inspire conservation?

This decision is odd for another reason. Minnesota already has several places one can go for this exact experience. Numerous small working farms incorporate educational programs for children and adult visitors. The decision by the zoo to spend $4.5 million — yes, $4.5 million — on this farm complex (when it could have used the money for overseas conservation, breeding programs, or any set of educational activities) is a direct threat to small family farms that gain a lot of their livelihood from visitors.

This giant barn illustrates a final disturbing trend in zoos recently. You may have noticed the barn’s evocative title: Wells Fargo Family Farm. I wonder if all the tellers at Wells Fargo came and did a barn-raising? Hardly. Instead, Wells Fargo shelled out the money to build the barn. But why didn’t any board members turn around and say the money would be much better spent on something, say, conservational? And does anyone remember those days when companies would donate money without requiring their logo to appear everywhere?

Visiting zoos now is like walking through a set of commercials: 3M, Cargill, Target, Wal-mart, Verizon, the list goes on. Even more ironic is the dubious, if not atrocious, environmental records of many of these corporations. Even on the Minnesota Zoo website, Wells Fargo has made its mark: just under an adorable picture of a girl feeding a calf with a bottle appears a direct link to Wells Fargo’s website. Such branding delegitimizes zoos, as though these animals could (or should) be “owned” by corporations. I don’t know how we reached a point where this must be said, but aren’t we overwhelmed with enough advertisements that we don’t need to shoehorn them into a public institution like a zoo? I look forward to the day when the library shelf sports an ad for Mountain Dew, the judge’s bench proclaims Home Depot, and the church pew has Hallmark carved into its wood. Not only has the Minnesota Zoo strayed from conservation to build this fake monstrosity, but it sold out to a big, big bank. And, of course, at the end of any strange decision process, such as the one that led to a big barn plastered with Wells Fargo, lie clues: in this case, one of the board members of the zoo is the VP of human resources at Wells Fargo.

Where could the Minnesota Zoo have better spent $4.5 million? The options make the mind reel: updating old exhibits, additional educational facilities, creating a new exhibit on a particularly threatened ecosystem. Or how about a program that brings lower-income children and families to the zoo who can’t afford the general admission price of $14?

Extinct-in-the-wild Micronesian kingfisher in captivity. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

A Zoo Is Not a Movie

Often, zoos are viewed by adults as a place for children, as though adults are too old to learn anything from encountering other species. Zoos are also rarely thought of as a place of science or serious conservation. Visitors view zoos as a form of entertainment, something akin to a movie, and most zoos have bought into that. Yet for the sake of the future, zoos need to rise above their self-belief and their public perception that they are a carnival or a Disney movie or theme park. (See: Disney’s ridiculous Animal Kingdom, in which the meld between theme park and zoo becomes so indistinguishable that animals are merely a backdrop to rides or confused with movie characters.)

While our cultural fixation on entertainment and distraction is bad enough, it is a terrible thing when zoos place themselves in this category. To do so only perpetuates the idea that other species exist solely for our amusement and use (or abuse). Animals in zoos are not Disney characters; they do not speak English and tell funny jokes. Animals are true and real because they are not us. These species are not our slaves or property. We have no claim, moral or otherwise, for mastery over them. Yet it was the expansion of this mostly Western philosophy of human dominance over pretty much everything that allowed previous generations to purposefully (or just lazily) bring species to the brink. One thinks of the American settlers who languidly shot bison from moving trains, killing at least 60 million animals (though they had an even more dubious reason added to boredom for this slaughter: our government wanted bison extinct to starve the Native Americans) or when the same Americans dropped the original population of 2 billion passenger pigeons to zero. The birds were ruthlessly hunted to provide low-quality meat for society’s slaves, poor, and domestic animals.

Uniquely, we are a species that often destroys something for the sake of destruction or a desire to feel powerful. When I was a child I used to torture ants with a liquid blend of pesticides, toothpaste, whole milk, window cleaner, etc. I would watch them squirm and die for hours. I always felt bad when I did it, yet I still went ahead. This is the place where the view of life as entertainment leads us.

If one seeks pure entertainment, there are many other options than a zoo. This is not to say that one can’t be entertained at a zoo, rather that such an experience should be complemented by education, awe, respect and enlightenment. These are living and breathing beings, not pixels or stuffed bears. While Western cultural humans may have a tradition of believing themselves vastly superior to all other forms of life, seeing the breadth of a polar bear, the social organization of an ant colony, the unruffled beauty of an eagle, the gaze of a mountain gorilla, the deadliness of a copperhead should be an avenue to question such beliefs, not reinforce them.

Discus cichlid in captivity. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Zoos’ Effectiveness: Analysis of a Study

In 2007, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums published the findings of a survey that addresses many of the issues explored above. This survey, three years in the making, interviewed visitors from 12 zoos and aquariums. They asked questions regarding educational experiences, conservation, and the place of zoos in society.

The AZA, an extremely respectable and noble organization, views its findings as proof that “visits to accredited zoos and aquariums prompt individuals to reconsider their role in environmental problems and conservation action, and to see themselves as part of the solution.” I am not surprised by the findings. Zoos do produce a lot of good. The problem, however, is that instead of looking at their findings and seeing the gaps for improvement, the conclusions of the paper state that all is well and good. They’re playing Pollyanna.

First, when they state that visiting zoos and aquariums causes reconsideration of environmental problems and conservation actions in the visitor and the belief that we, humans, are part of the solution, they really mean that 54 percent of visitors affirmed this. Fifty-four percent isn’t bad, but it’s hardly good. If we state that zoos are educational facilities and that their main focus is public education regarding conservation issues, then how do these zoos seriously feel about failing 46 percent of the populace? While the AZA sees this as a positive percentage, I only see it as proof that zoos are not doing near enough to change minds. I wish the AZA had followed up this question by asking visitors to then list the concrete steps they learned to lessen their impact on the environment.

Another curious finding from the AZA’s assessment was the results of a test given to adults to see if their knowledge of ecological concepts had improved by visiting the zoo. Only 10 percent of visitors were found to have better knowledge of ecology after visiting the zoo. The AZA states that this is because zoos underestimated the knowledge of the visitors. If this is the case, should they not be rushing to provide more and better information? If the visitors have graduated from Ecology 101, shouldn’t zoos step it up to Ecology 201? After all, the more knowledge our populace has regarding ecology, the better informed they will be in tackling complex issues like mass extinction and climate change. For decades, zoos have sufficed with the basics: name, habitat, a few sentences about behavior. Regarding conservation information it is more even pathetic. Inadequate information is not enough anymore, and this study proves that clearly. People are ready to come face-to-face with complex issues like climate change, biofuels, the Holocene mass extinction, poverty and conservation — and they must — but why just focus on the problems without solutions? You want to cut your carbon footprint: eat less red meat, buy less stuff, eat local foods, turn down your thermostat, and purchase a vehicle that gets at least 45 miles-per-gallon. If I can list a few big things in one sentence, you’d think a zoo could do a lot more than that.

Kihansi spray toad, a species that was saved from extinction in the wild thanks to a captive breeding program. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Ineffective Zoos Are Immoral

When confronted with a caged animal, let us say the beautiful snow leopard, my mind sometimes flashes to Edmund Dantes from The Count of Monte Cristo, falsely imprisoned for 14 years (incidentally about the lifespan of a snow leopard) before making a desperate escape. Just because they aren’t human doesn’t mean that animals in a zoo don’t “feel” their confinement. Have you ever seen a polar bear pace back and forth, back and forth? That is called stereotypic behavior and has been compared to an insane man’s ticks. Gorillas will pound on glass walls (and occasionally escape). Tigers, who in the wild may have a territory of over 50 square miles, patrol the same small acre incessantly. Primates may appear listless and withdrawn or overtly active from stimulants to keep zoo-goers happy. An eagle may have nothing more to do all day than sit on a single perch and defecate (most zoo birds no longer have the ability to fly, something that would instantly doom them in their natural habitat). No matter how much someone wants to dismiss the “intelligence” or “awareness” of these animals (and this is becoming increasingly difficult with new scientific studies), one cannot argue against the fact that they are living a life to which they are not at adapted. These are not tame animals; it took humans centuries, perhaps millennia, to turn the now extinct aurochs into the fatter, duller, blanker cattle we see on farms today: animals so far from their ancestors that they can only survive in managed environments. Putting wild species in a managed environment is akin to locking a sane man in a madhouse.

If wild animals are not allowed to strike awe in the visitor and to educate them about what decisions they or their governments make that affect their wild relatives, then their incarceration is not merely reasonless, but criminal. These animals are ambassadors for wilderness, for a biodiverse Earth, for the planet as it is (or even as it was). This is not a role they have chosen, but one we have forced upon them. Zoos have a moral obligation to achieve the most good out of this sad state of affairs.

Puma. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Final Thoughts

An animal is worth more than a masterwork of art or an archaeological treasure, simply because it lives. It breathes, it eats, it sleeps, it thinks, one day it will die; its true nature is impenetrable, because we can only view it through our own prejudices and limitations as humans.

I realize at times I probably sound terribly dour and that my ideas would suck all the fun out of any zoo experience, making it dim and serious. I am quite aware of this personal stuffiness. My wife likes to say that I am a “zoo snob”; I don’t deny the possibility. But I do not mean to say that a zoo experience should not be enjoyable. Experiencing the zoo should never become any less fun than it already is; rather, it should be given the added dimensions of awe and education, of respect and a higher purpose to save the vastness of life on this planet, and in turn save ourselves.

Clouded leopard in captivity in Cambodia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

For me, I am a quiet zoo-goer. It is almost a spiritual experience for me. I stand before an animal — unique and beautiful — and I undergo a sense of meaning and rejuvenation. It is a strange thing to experience such emotions while the source of them is locked in a cage, but there it is. I understand those who can find no joy in a zoo and those who see zoos as cruel (inherently they are), and I would stand and protest with them, if not for the fact that all other species are in the midst of a devastating ecological crisis, and it may only be these caged ambassadors who make people wake up and act. But the institution has responsibilities that should no longer be overlooked. Next time you visit the zoo, remember to stare an animal in the face and know that the only reason this animal is here now is … You.

You and I and all of us are the reason these animals sit behind glass or bars; we are the reason only a fraction of their habitat remains; we are the reason they have been driven to almost nothing and may very well, sooner than we can imagine, be extinct and gone, forever cast from existence. What right do we have to this authority? And what right do zoos have to exist, if not to show us our illusion of mastery, our waste of creation, and our responsibility to make it right — as right as it can be? The zoo, if only it lived up to its purpose, could play a leading role in the preservation of creation, the saving of life. I hope it will take up its mantle and leave behind the many immaturities that still plague it.

Dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus sp) in a rehabilitation facility in Madagascar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

This story originally appeared on Mongabay October 6, 2008 and later appeared in Jeremy Hance’s book, Life is Good. Photos were updated when this story was re-posted in November 2018.