Why Do We Still Have Zoos?

The uproar around what happened in Cincinnati reminded me of my extremely ambivalent relationship to zoos. When I was a kid, I loved going to the zoo. I really enjoyed watching the animals, and learning about animals I’d probably never see elsewhere. As I got older, I got more and more uncomfortable about zoos, and about the lives most animals lead in zoos.

Zoos have a history not unlike many other parts of our society – a history based on both privilege and colonialism. Zoos started their history as “Royal Menageries” showing off the exotic animals of far-away lands – lands often colonialized. Zoos in general weren’t open to the public until the 18th century. Human beings, usually Africans or Native Americans,  were often in zoos even into the early 20th century. In the modern era, we think of zoos primarily as institutions dedicated to preserving endangered animals, and studying wildlife, but of course zoos make most of their revenue from visits from the public.

Of course, human beings have extremely complicated relationships to animals. Some animals we keep for food, others we keep as pets. Some are hunted, some are not. Some we think are really cute, others we kill when we see them. Our decisions about which animals are expendable and which aren’t is based on a very convoluted rubric of dangerousnes (or whether they are considered pests,) use to humans, and history. And, of course, between and within cultures, there is a wide range of attitudes about animals, sometimes consistent, and largely not.

Of course, there is the completely arbitrary separation of “humans” and “animals.” We are animals, and share 99% of our DNA with our closest relatives. Many animals and birds have intellects that are on par with human children. Some animals (such as cetaceans and elephants) might have intelligences that rival ours. And of course the whole notion of “intelligence” is completely constructed by us, and our own ways of being and doing and thinking are privileged when assessing intelligence.

But on the whole, with some rare exceptions (such as the Jains,) humans have been putting our needs before the needs of non-human animals for a very long time, perhaps forever.  Now truthfully, that’s not so surprising, given our evolutionary history as omnivores, nor is it necessarily problematic in a general sense. I think when it gets problematic are two things, one, when we forget that animals feel pain and emotions. And we forget how to compassionately and sustainably use the planet’s resources, including non-human animals. When we don’t take these into consideration, we create monstrosities, and in my opinion, zoos are one.

Of course, some zoos are better than others, but the things they all have in common is that the animals are 1) Generally in climates and ecosystems different than the one they are evolved to live in 2) Not free to wander very far, or free to choose their mates, develop their family groups or choose companions and 3) exposed to a human gaze most of the time. And I know that every single person would not find that kind of life a happy one (cue reference to “Planet of the Apes.”)

One thing I’ve heard a lot in this brou-ha-ha is that the zoos are one of the only places we can try to save some endangered species. And why is that? Why can’t we really address the loss of habitat, the effect of colonialization, and the environmental disaster we’ve created.

I feel for the mother, and I feel for the gorilla, it’s sad all around, and it’s also true that sometimes shit happens. But from my perspective, we’re not asking the right questions.