Saturday, June 6, 2009

Trip to the Zoo

I am conflicted over the zoo. I love animals. I love to see animals in person. But I worry about the whole zoo set-up.

Some zoos (from what I understand it’s probably most of them...) let many of their animals breed freely because baby animals draw crowds. When the babies grow up, the zoos sell them to other zoos or petting zoos or those traveling roadside ‘wildlife park’ things. And then the animals have more babies, the crowds come, the babies grow, the crowds wane, they sell the ‘surplus’ animals, the cycle begins anew. I just don’t think that’s responsible caretaking.

Many exhibits of mammals, if viewed carefully, house frustrated, cage-mad animals. Pacing, picking at themselves, bored out of their gourds. Not a life any of us would want to live, even if we talk about how nice it would be to not have to lift a finger.

I read a book when I was younger (the title of which I cannot  for the life of me remember, though I can still picture its cover) that suggested the only way to save endangered species was to take them from the wild, use zoos to shelter them and visitor fees to pay for their keep, and to selectively breed them, destroying all offspring but the most superior. The book’s author told the reader that to feel compassion for the individual animals was to doom the species--that you had to be ruthless in demanding the best bloodlines and allow only the healthiest babies to grow to adulthood and then be bred again. In his plan, there needn’t be great attention given to the happiness of individual animals. That wasn’t the point. The plan was to make sure that there still were elephants and rhinoceroses and manatees in 100 years, not that the animals’ mental needs were met nor their individualism expressed. What the plan was for, after 100 years, I don’t know if he addressed. Plenty of rare animals for zoo exhibits?

And I just don’t know about all that. I think it is not too much to strive for a peace between man and beast, where at the most powerful, most destructive and cruelest animal (man) backs-off and allows the wildlife to live in peace. But that would mean addressing other human rights issues, like the feeding the people who try to earn money by cutting down forests to meet demand for western materials (or the razing of the rain-forest so that cattle can graze which will later be slaughtered and gobbled by western bellies--or by those who admire the lifestyles of the western world).  It would mean working with people toward sustainable farming. It would mean ensuring that those who hunt gorillas for their flesh have other food to eat. It would mean not just fences and guards around animals, but education, hope, an understanding of our place in the world (note: I’m not talking Manifest Destiny), and ensuring people have real options while living in the midst of wildlife. We don’t have that now. At least, not  enough of it. Yet.

Anyway, that’s just some of my thoughts. Sorry if they’re jumbled. Where was I? Oh, yes. The zoo.

We went. The Henry Vilas Zoo has free admission. So whatever my worries over zoos, I have less of an issue with Vilas. I won’t be buying any $5 sodas nor $20 onesies for Uli;  we’re just there for the view (good or bad). If the zoo closed due to lack of financial support, I would watch more Nature and be okay with it. (Full disclosure: I consider myself complicit in zoos’ methods since I have and will probably again pay to visit, though I feel less guilt over Vilas.)
We went, we walked, we looked. And really, it was nice to spend a morning outdoors with my husband and little one. I tried not to think too much about the morality of zoos and managed to focus more on the baby girl, who enjoyed watching the people WAY more than the animals. In fact, the only time she had a freak-out (and honestly, there have been very few freaks of this magnitude ever before) was when we entered the aviary. I don’t know if it’s because it was humid in there, or because it was echoey or because she hates parrots, but she screamed and screamed and sobbed almost as soon as we entered and stopped immediately when we exited. We won’t be going back in there anytime soon, free or not.


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