“You’re captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live. You are captives—and you have made a captive of the world itself.”
— Daniel Quinn
Please allow me to introduce the following contemplations:
- Humans are just one of 8.7 million species sharing (sic) a planet
- Whether you call it a cage, a cell, a jail, a pen, a ward, a prison, a wildlife center, or an enclosure…captivity is captivity
- A culture that confines and abuses animals for profit is highly likely to regularly promote and engage in other forms of violence and exploitation
I pondered these truisms upon hearing that Libya’s Tripoli Zoo had been abandoned during fighting in late August. A website seeking to help explained:
“Left to fend for themselves during the chaos, the zoo animals weren’t given food or water for seven days. Although the fighting has ended, the animals are still in crisis. With low resources and few workers, the animals aren’t getting enough food. What’s worse: there is almost no fresh water, and in the sweltering summer heat of Northern Africa, fresh water is a necessity for survival.”
I could go on for days about the situation in Libya but I’ll let the indispensable William Blum take care of that. For now, I’d rather focus on the immoral concept of zoos and, tangentially, the plight of captive animals during war.
You don’t need me to tell you that we’re in the midst of an almost unprecedented mass extinction. Each day, over 150 plant and animal species become extinct. The human-created causes behind this eco-crisis are well-documented: habitat destruction, hunting and poaching, the animal-based diet, climate change, etc. One of the more common and widely accepted mainstream solutions to animal extinction is captive breeding performed in zoos or “wildlife centers.”
“The central question we need to answer as caring people is: do the benefits of accredited zoos to society outweigh cost to individual animal welfare?” writes Michael Hutchins, PhD, director and William Conway Chair of the Department of Conservation and Science for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. “I think the central ethical justification for zoos and aquariums in the modern world is their commitment to conservation.”
Weighing in for the opposition, Nicole Arciello Berhaupt, in the Albany Times-Union, explains: “Zoos range from large cage-less parks, or safari parks, to roadside attractions where the animals are kept in small cages with not enough room to move around in. The animals at larger zoos usually are taken from their natural habitats to ‘teach’ humans how these animals live. No part of a zoo is natural and a zoo does not allow the animal to exhibit natural behaviors. How can animals trapped behind metal bars with employees coming in and out to feed them and people gawking and snapping pictures teach anyone anything? People do not usually stay at a particular enclosure viewing the animals for long especially if that particular animal is doing nothing amusing or entertaining.”
To which, the folks at PETA add: “Most animals housed in zoos are not endangered, and those who are will likely never be released into natural habitats. The purpose of most zoos’ research is to find ways to breed and maintain more animals in captivity. If zoos ceased to exist, so would the ‘need’ for most of their research.”
If zoos ceased to exist, displaced animal prisoners would not become “collateral damage” during human wars, like this:
On February 13-14, 1945, Allied bombers laid siege to the German city of Dresden. With the famous animal trainer, Otto Sailer-Jackson ran the extremely popular Dresden Zoo. As the bombing commenced, Sailer-Jackson was forced to consider the standing Nazi order that if human life was endangered, all carnivores must be shot. However, before he could take the lives of his beloved big cats, a new wave of bombers set the zoo ablaze. The animal trainer recalled the scene:
“The elephants gave spine-chilling screams. Their house was still standing but an explosive bomb of terrific force had landed behind it, lifted the dome of the house, turned it round, and put it back on again… The baby cow elephant was lying in the narrow barrier-moat on her back, her legs up to the sky. She had suffered severe stomach injuries and could not move.”
Three hippopotamuses were drowned when iron debris pinned them to the bottom of their water basin. In the ape house, Sailer-Jackson found a gibbon that, when it reached out to the trainer, had no hands, only stumps. Nearly forty rhesus monkeys escaped to the trees but were dead by the next day from drinking water polluted by the incendiary chemicals. For those animals that made it to the next day, the assault was far from over. A US aircraft pilot came in low, firing at anything he could see was still alive. “In this way,” Sailer-Jackson explained, “our last giraffe met her death. Many stags and others animals which we had managed to save became victims of this hero.”
Modern day wars are no less lethal to non-human earthlings.
Shortly after the US invasion and occupation of Iraq commenced, the Bahrain Gulf Daily News (April 18, 2003) reported that looters had emptied Baghdad Zoo of its animals “Monkeys, bears, horses, birds and camels have disappeared, carted off by thieves or simply left to roam the streets after their cages were pried open,” the paper reported. “More than 300 animals are missing–only the lions and tigers remain.” And the big cats were starving.
Exactly five months, parts of the zoo were back up and running. US soldiers were partying with Iraqi police after hours. Here’s what happened next: “A group of US soldiers in civvies arrived at the zoo to party, armed with guns and beer. Mendouh the tiger was shot in the head three times after injuring a soldier who was trying to feed it through the bars of its cage. Head keeper Adil Salman Musa said: ‘The tiger bit his finger off and clawed his arm. So his colleague took a gun and shot the tiger.'”
7 Points to Keep in Mind When Contemplating Zoos and Captive Breeding
1. They are mostly focused on “cute babies” and ultimately create unwanted animals.
2. They can reduce genetic diversity and do not contribute to increasing robust animal populations in the wild.
3. They do little to nothing to seriously address the underlying causes of habitat loss and thereby lets the perpetrators off the hook.
4. Warehousing endangered species sends the frightening subliminal message that it’s acceptable to spend money to view animals in enclosures while, for example, forests are being clear cut to make way for doomed livestock—depriving many of those same animals the freedom to live in their own habitats.
5. Captive breeding can “create a false sense that the battle to save endangered species and habitats is being won.”
6. Animals are obviously not meant to live in captivity and, as a result, often display stress and/or psychological dysfunction and just as often, these animals are abused.
7. Encountering animals in a zoo setting teaches the wrong lessons about how our eco-systems work. Wrong lessons only serve to sustain a system that should be dismantled.
As Milan Kundera wrote in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “Humanity’s true moral test, its fundamental test … consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect humankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.”
The animals at our mercy—to borrow Kundera’s words—don’t need to be warehoused as for-profit entertainment in order to avoid extinction. They need their habitats protected from human encroachment and exploitation. Patronizing a zoo merely helps fund their captivity.
If you love animals and wish to help them, you must first recognize that our culture has put us out of balance with nature. A human culture more in tune with its natural surroundings would instinctively and reflexively choose cooperation over war and habitat conservation over animal prisons called zoos.
(With thanks to animal rights advocate, Marianne Bessey)