May 4, 2010

Concrete Jungles. ~ Catherine Burt

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.

Then 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, St. Louis Zoo

Catherine 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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