Concrete Jungles. ~ Catherine Burt

Via on May 4, 2010

concrete jungles cage in a zoo

He wakes up and looks at the grey cement floor below the bedding. Blinking his eyes to see what kind of day it will be, he is reminded. It will be a day seen through metal bars. He’s hungry, and remembers that someone will be along to bring him some food, some of which he will like, some not so much. Hungry and restless, he will eat.

His keepers do try. There is a courtyard outside. He will be allowed to walk around and play with the equipment there, or even swim.

He will spend the day with—but just beyond the reach of —other inmates. Some make him nervous, some attract him—and some make him want to kill.

He paces. A high fence surrounds the courtyard. He thinks of freedom.

Being able to eat and sleep where he wants, to spend his time with his family. Perhaps starting a new family, far from the eyes that now watch him pace the yard.

The people who put him behind these bars never told him how long he would have to be here. Every day for many years he has simply wished to go home.

He is an Bengal tiger, living in a North American zoo.

Are zoos educational?

Zoos are a good way to learn about animals – in captivity. That’s not normal for us, and certainly it’s not normal for them. In captivity, the natural activities of wild animals often give way to neuroses. Large cats pace. Elephants swing their trunks and sway. Polar bears swim in endless circles, and gorillas eat their regurgitated food.

Stephen Rene Tello, Executive Director of Primarily Primates, a non-profit sanctuary in San Antonio, TX, cares for many former zoo animals. Tello says the animals often come to the sanctuary because of lack of funding or closures, or because of physical defects. Among these are large cats with arthritis, a monkey whose tail is not as long as the zoo liked, and another who was too old to breed.

Many of the primates arrive at the sanctuary with neurotic behaviors, such as hair plucking, rocking back and forth, and continual masturbation. Through improved diet and exercise, species socialization, and limited human interaction (i.e., they are no longer on display), the animals often resume natural activities and behaviors.

Alternatively, today’s technology allows us to observe and film animals in their freedom, with sophisticated cameras and night-vision lenses. If we must, we can track their movements with GPS to learn about them, and to help prevent poaching and other man-made dangers—all with minimal interference to their natural lives.

Are they needed for conservation?

Isn’t it better to put animals in a zoo than to let them go extinct? Arguably so. Yet there is a vast difference between existing and truly living. We don’t have to choose between the two. We can ensure animals survive by preserving their habitats. Avoid palm oil, for example—and thereby avoid an industry that destroys free-living orangutans at a terrifying rate.

We can reduce pollution and waste, and ask our politicians to support alternative fuels to oil and coal, and enact legislation that protects the environment.

deforested land for grazing concrete junglesThen there’s animal agribusiness. Free animals are displaced by “organic, free-range” cattle grazing on wild land, and on the cut forests that now produce feed. Maybe you never thought that vegan living could make zoos seem less necessary. But adopting a vegan diet is indeed an excellent way to reduce pressure on habitat.

Deforestation for cattle grazing in Paraguay/Wikimedia Commons User Peer V

What happens to zoo animals?

If a zoo is forced to close or has too many animals, what becomes of these “surplus” animals? The lucky ones might go to a sanctuary or preserve, where they will be able to live out as natural a life as possible—but some end up as targets or breeders in the exotic hunting industry.

What these hunting ranches offer is a guaranteed kill (for a price), of an exotic animal, contained in a fenced area. The animals are completely dependent on human caregivers, and have likely been in captivity their whole lives. Among the species typically found on these hunts are yak, zebra, scimitar oryx, wildebeest, and others. Many are endangered in the wild, but have either come from a zoo, or were bred from former zoo animals.

Hunting outfits also claim to educate and conserve, but operate through a loophole in the endangered species act. It’s hard to think of a bigger betrayal than shooting a confined, captive-bred animal. Although some animal rights groups are working to stop these hunts through the legal process, the source of the problem is the source of the animals: zoos.

Does a trip to the zoo show our love for animals?

Many people who defend zoos say they love animals, and I know they sincerely believe that they do. I once felt the same way. We are all part of the same creation, humans and non-humans. It’s perfectly natural for us to want to be with them, see them, enjoy them. But is it really love when we demand and force reciprocation?

If someone took you away from all that was natural to you, kept you confined and exhibited you in order to let others learn about you or to preserve your traits, would you feel loved?

Loving animals means caring more about their well-being than our own curiosity and desire for entertainment. Putting animals in a zoo takes so much more away from them than we will ever get. Shouldn’t we stop rationalizing their plight?

leopard in cage concrete jungles

Leopard, St. Louis Zoo

Catherine Burt for elephantjournalCatherine Burt is a member of the Online Development/Production staff and a blogger at the Ogden Standard-Examiner, Ogden, UT. She lives a vegan philosophy, plays the cello, and wants peace and justice for all living beings more than anything. She occasionally enjoys talking about herself in the third person.

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10 Responses to “Concrete Jungles. ~ Catherine Burt”

  1. [...] This article is published on Elephant Journal!  Click here to continue reading. [...]

  2. ECB says:

    A zoo is a jail for animals. Period. As far as conservation goes, if we humans were better stewards of the earth, there would be no need for conservation.

  3. Nathan says:

    I won't argue that zoos are without ethical and moral problems. However, I disagree that the issue is as black and white as you claim. I think a true benefit of zoos is the awareness raising and relationship building that come from them. Kids connect with animals, and that connection can turn into lifelong advocacy. "Don't eat palm oil, save the Orangutans" is a great plan for the converted, but if someone has never made contact with those animals, they are less likely to make lifestyle accomodations to ensure their survival. There are conservation benefits to zoos, and some breeding programs that have proven vital to certain species. There has also been enormous progress over the years in the quality of exhibits and the ability of animals to engage in more natural behaviors. Again, I am not saying the zoos aren't morally complicated, just making an argument that the good that come from zoos, and the striving to improve their quality, may be a service to the species, and to the earth's ecology.

  4. Maryanne Appel says:

    What zoos (and aquariums) teach is that nonhuman animals are ours to subjugate, to use for our own pleasure and commercial gain. Elephants, gorillas, dolphins, etc., are not teaching tools; they are conscious beings whose primary need is to be left alone to experience their lives free of human intrusion. Even the very best zoos, set up to please our human sensibilites, are still prisons, where captives. living in deprivation, can never reach their full potential, as nature intended for them.

    Young people can experience personal contact with members of other species by visiting local sanctuaries, where animals have been rescued from meat, dairy, and egg farms, fur and Premarin farms, zoos, vivisection laboratories, the entertainment industry, and the pet trade. This is a much better way to teach our children that animals should not be bred and used for any human purpose.

    There should be no necessity for a Primarily Primates or a Chenoa Manor; but since there is an obvious need for such places of refuge, it is incumbent upon all of us to ensure their viability by supporting them financially as much as we can.

  5. Henry Gale says:

    Great summary of the issues. I posted a link on my Facebook page. Thanks.

  6. [...] Concrete Jungles. ~ Catherine Burt | elephant journal. [...]

  7. Thanks for the update, Lee — anyone who cares about animals should be grateful for all that FoA does!

  8. Tiffany Hutchings Tiffany says:

    @Lee Hall:
    This is such wonderful news – thank you for sharing. I worked on that case when I was a law student in the clinic a couple of years ago, and I am so thrilled there was a positive outcome. Wow – this is just such great news! I can't stop smiling! Thanks to Friends of Animals as well!

  9. Thank you for your comment, sublime – yes, the purpose of a zoo is to make money. That means limiting financial liability and ensuring the "experience" to attract visitors – not caring for the best interests of the animals, whose interests are undoubtedly best served by living and breeding in the wild. You make many good points.

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