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Do We Need Zoos in Modern Times?

January 28, 2008

This holiday season brings the saddest of news: A Siberian tiger mauled three visitors at the San Francisco Zoo, killing one, before being trapped and killed in turn by local police. Of course, everyone’s heart goes out to the families of the victims and the victims themselves.

A smaller percentage of Americans, enlightened to the suffering animals endure in captivity, mourn as well not only the passing but the life of Tatiana, the Siberian tiger who escaped her cage under the inadequate supervision of zoo authorities.

This terrible and unnecessary loss of life, not just human but animal as well, was not Tatiana’s fault. It was the immediate fault of zookeepers who managed her. On a grander scale, it was the fault of a public that continues to demand the right to view wild animals on display.

It is a public that ignores the misery it imposes on the beasts subjected to a dolorous existence indeed.

Zoo authorities are hip to the misery they impose. Some are politically correct enough to call themselves wildlife conservators. Such is the case with, for example, the Bronx Zoo which touts its association with The Wildlife Conservation Society on its Web site.

“The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild lands. We do so through careful science, international conservation, education, and the management of the world’s largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together, these activities change individual attitudes toward nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in sustainable interaction on both a local and a global scale. WCS is committed to this work because we believe it essential to the integrity of life on Earth.”

That is one view and it is a worthy one – worthier by far than some others I have witnessed. I shall never forget the poor polar bear I saw in a North African zoo more than a decade ago. He (or she, I’m not sure) was kept on a concrete pad with a small swimming pool in it, the only defense against the deadly summer heat. His nose was covered with big sores, and he was so out of his element and miserable, he looked as if he would not survive the day.

Consider by contrast the Wildlife Conservation Society’s home for its Congo gorillas in the Bronx: “This huge 6.5 acre African rain forest environment explains what a rain forest is, how it works, which animals make it their home, why it is threatened and how people can help save it. With more than 300 animals, including one of the largest breeding groups of lowland gorillas, it is the most spectacular exhibit ever.”

Wondrous indeed by comparison with many other zoo environs. But the Congo gorilla in its native habitat has a range of hundreds of square miles, not a mere 6.5 acres. Educating the public about the value of wildlife is critical indeed if threatened species are to survive. And the society also works to preserve habitat in these species’ native environments. But that does not mean the gorillas will ever live happily in captivity, no matter how capacious their cages.

One wonders in this era of virtual reality whether zoos and conservation societies that keep animals on display in artificial, urban environments are still necessary or a sad carryover from a bygone era? The Wildlife Conservation Society is quick to point out, as noted above, that its captive gorillas are procreating and therefore perpetuating the species. This is critical work. But the same enormous resources needed to keep them alive unnaturally could instead be devoted to preserving native habitat for these animals, protecting against poaching and disease and allowing them to reproduce on their own.

The San Francisco Zoo visitor Tatiana killed would still be alive today if the visit had taken place virtually. So would Tatiana. The two she mauled would now be unharmed. It’s a question we ought to rethink as technology has changed so much else: Has it obviated zoos?




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