February 21, 2019
A Victorian Era Throwback We Can’t Seem to Throw Away
Urban zoos are an outdated, barbaric system for which habitat protection would be environmentally, and morally superior.
On May 28, 2016 a silverback gorilla named Harambe was shot and killed in the cincinnati zoo due to a lack of proper regulations on safety features on the gorilla enclosure. Many people rose up out of anger on both sides. Some called for justice for the gorilla whose was killed when other measures could have been taken. Some called for more safety features to protect humans from the animals that the zoo was holding. But what if the fundamental principle behind zoos is to blame?
What is a Zoo? A zoo is by definition a place where animals are held in captivity and are put on display for people to view. They contain animals from all over the world from many different habitats. Before there were zoos wealthy people would privately collect exotic animals and assemble them in menageries. “Wall carvings found in Egypt and Mesopotamia are evidence that rulers and aristocrats created menageries as early as 2500 BCE” (Zoo 1).
Urban and Suburban zoos are the biggest problems for several reasons. The first and foremost being that they are usually located in large cities where they sit in the middle of the city and there is almost no room for expansion. “In many urban zoos, animals are kept in relatively small enclosures. Some animal activists argue that keeping animals in urban settings is cruel because of cramped conditions, noise, and pollution” (Zoo 2). Most zoos are suppose to be primarily focused on education and conservation, but keeping this animals captive has been a point of contention for some time. There have been debates about individual animal rights as well as the welfare of these animals. “In a study of zoos in the United Kingdom, scientists at the University of Bristol found that elephants in captivity were less healthy and died faster than their wild counterparts” (Zoo 3). One of the biggest problems is the low success rate of the reintroduction programs designed to put animals born in captivity back into the wild. Critics of captive breeding programs say that releasing only a few animals into the wild doesn’t do enough to help the species population. Animals are extinct in the wild mostly due to loss of their habitat. The reintroduction of animals, especially large mammals that require vast amounts of land for survival, does nothing to recover lost habitat. Humans continue to destroy land for homes and businesses.
Jason Michael Lukasik is Assistant Professor and Director of the Master of Arts in Education program, Augsburg College. He writes “Before my academic career, I worked as an educator at a zoo for several years in Chicago. My experiences there helped me to realize the problematic premise that belies the zoo experience. Despite thoughtful effort on the part of zoos to engage visitors in meaningful conservation education, zoos invoke colonial narratives about people, places and animals. While we intend for zoos to educate the public about conservation, we should also be mindful of the hidden curriculum experienced in a zoo” (Lukasik 1). We are basically glorifying our dominance over nature. We don’t like to depict these animals in cages. We don’t like to think of them as being trapped, put on display for our own enjoyment and education. We put up a mirage of glass and call them “enclosures” and we are fine with these rules we’ve put in place. Until a little boy falls into a gorilla pit longing to see this majestic creature up close, and the gorilla is murdered to maintain this mirage. So that we can continue our colonialism as if nothing has happened. As if nothing is still happening.
We are not seeing these animals the way that they are meant to be seen. We have created a false construct to house these wild animals whose habitats should be being protected so that we could actually observe them and conserve them. If we focused more resources on that and saving what little habitat they have left we could save the lives of these animals. “By showing a tiger in a cage to a child, a zoo can teach that child nothing more than the size of a tiger, the colour of a tiger and the shape of a tiger. A zoo shows the animal completely out of context, outside of its natural habitat and the ecosystem it was designed to inhabit” (Tyson 2).
This system of zoos only shows the future generation that if they want to see a tiger all they have to do is go to the zoo. It does not make the very real habitat loss know to them in a way they could really experience emotionally and make them want to rise up and help. If you hear about bad things happening you think how sad it is but what can you possibly do about it? Telling a child that tigers are losing their natural habitat well make them feel sad but they cant experience it. Show them how majestic these creatures are in the wild and then show them what’s really happening to their habitat right now and you might just get a rise out them. With this method the tiger in the cage becomes irrelevant we would have no need to cage them and put them on display for educational purposes or to conserve them we could then use that money to actually help them. By showing these children that we can control nature and even if we destroy their habitat we can just put them in an enclosure and breed them ourselves and keep them safe from us in these cages we are sending a terrifying message to these youth.
One of the fundamental problems with zoos is the inspections and regulations. There are over 400 zoos in the UK alone with a number of animals ranging from around a hundred to several thousand animals. Many of these smaller zoos are not even subjected to licencing standards. The larger zoos are only subject to inspection once a year at best and every three years as a minimum. The worst part is that these very infrequent inspections are carried out over only a two day period. In this two day period they have to inspect hundreds or thousands of animals as well as review record keeping, health and safety, procedures, education and conservation contribution. This particular part of the system clearly needs reform as there is simply not enough time to complete a good inspection. “When we consider that the Zoo Licensing Act was introduced 30 years ago, and it is still not working, we would argue that rather than look to improve this ailing regime to maintain the status quo and legitimise zoos, we should agree [on] a point where we accept that the animals in zoos are not protected by legislation and work to phase out the industry” (Tyson 1). Is it really worth it? Subjecting an animal to a lifetime of captivity to educate or inspire the masses. Imagine a tiger pacing back and forth inside its too small enclosure day in and day out. There has to be a better way to handle this issue.
There aren’t many solutions that don’t require copious amounts of money and volunteers to see them through but the alternative is more of the same. One of the solutions would be transforming or transferring animals to safari parks. Safari parks are larger than urban and open-range zoos. Safari parks allow people to drive their cars to see non-native wildlife living in large enclosed areas. These attractions allow the animals more space than the small enclosures of traditional zoos. Another possible solution would be turning more wild areas into game reserves. A game reserve is a large swath of land whose ecosystems and native species are protected. This protection allows these animals to live and reproduce at natural rates. These animals are allowed to roam free in a space that is much larger than traditional zoos. One of the other problems includes hunting, but “A quick fix for hunting is to boost the amount of forest rangers who could patrol these habitats, which would also increase jobs” (Robison 5). As well as a tighter sanction on hunting and hunting licenses. This will not completely fix the problem but it could definitely help see an improvement in the lives of these animals. Most of these solutions would take a lot of money and time but the alternative is to slowly watch are planet lose its wild places and its wild animals, and we will live ina world where the only place where you can see a tiger is in a zoo. Instead of trying to desperately save these animals from extinction we need to focus on saving their habitat so that they can live in peace in their own corner of the world undisturbed by our toxic human footprint.
The systems of zoos in America and the world is grossly outdated and desperately needs reform and eventually a new solution for the problem of what we are doing to these wild animals. There are optimal solutions but they aren’t cheap and they take time. In the end the sacrifice of these resources to protect the remaining wild places and their natural inhabits is well worth it for the preservation of the majestic creatures that roam our planet.
Lukasik, Jason Michael. “Is it time to break with colonial legacy of zoos?” Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2019
National Geographic Society. “Zoo.” National Geographic Society, National Geographic, 9 Oct. 2012, www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/zoo/.
Robinson, Michael H. “Last Animals at the Zoo: How Mass Extinctions Can Be Stopped.” Issues in Science and Technology, vol. 9, no. 3, 1993, p. 83+
Tyson, Liz. “Zoos Are Cruel and Unnecessary.” Animal Rights, edited by Noah Berlatsky, Greenhaven Press, 2015
“Zoos and Aquariums.” Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2017