Zoo Be or Not Zoo Be
For the unaware, I recently started ‘working’ at a nonprofit called Food Tank as an unpaid Research and Communications Intern in my ‘spare time’. I bring this up because I recently wrote a piece on animal welfare recommendations from the United Nations that got me thinking about my experiences with zoos. This post will be part travel, part reflection and opinion, and a departure from the ‘norm’ for this blog. Let me know what you think!
One of my most troubling zoo experiences was in Phuket, Thailand. Phuket (pronounced ‘pu-kèt’ but referred to by us as ‘fuk-it’) is an island where the rich go to play. FantaSea is a tourist attraction where they pick you up at your hotel for an evening of food and entertainment at their pseudo-Thai-Buddhist compound with numerous skinny spires and gold gilding. Their two buffet restaurants are huge, seating hundreds, and the décor and extravagance would fit right in at Las Vegas. After eating, you have plenty of time to wonder around their shops and pay extra for additional experiences while waiting for the show to start.
We walked through the Tiger Jungle Adventure, a “Theatrical Safari” using lights, noises, and various caged animals to make you feel like you are in the “enchanted Kingdom of Kamala.” The affair culminates with white tigers. Most of these beautiful creatures lay languid about the enclosure while one neurotically paced an endless circuit around the perimeter, tourists anxiously waiting for his path to near the window for them to snap their pictures so they could move on. For a little extra, you can hold a tiger cub, though the practice is controversial.
Back outside, there was a constant stream of ecstatic tourists climbing on board platforms strapped to the backs of elephants, who then shuffled around an oval track, stopping at platforms manned by employees to take pictures for later sale. You could also pay to feed them. Instead, my focus fell on an elephant standing to the side, perhaps waiting her turn to provide a ride. Her attendant ushered us over, and I was inevitably drawn in by my curiosity. Making eye contact was thrilling and devastating. Elephants are known to be incredibly intelligent and compassionate. This one seemed disinterested, with no light to her eyes, only reaching out her trunk in the hopes of getting a treat. I did get my picture taken with her (for free), but that action feels wrong to this day.
Eventually, ushers herded us into the “Temple of the Elephants” for the show. It was an extravagant mix of gaudy costumes, pyrotechnics, and elephant acts. Although inspired by Thai mythology and history, the show is all about the ‘wow’ factor. Think Cirque du Soleil, Las Vegas extravaganza, with old circus stunts like elephants on small platforms. We left confused and felt dirty. Later we found out elephants are treated horribly during the training process. Regrets, I’ve had a few.
What we witnessed on Phuket was a thinly veiled animal welfare tragedy wrought from and for tourist money. It is hardly the only place that mistreats animals. Last fall introduced us to the ‘world’s saddest polar bear’ in China, SeaWorld has come under fire, and Harambe was not the only zoo accident last year. A quick Google search for ‘worst zoos’ reveals heart-wrenching pictures and stories. Fortunately, most zoos support conservation efforts and properly care for their animals.
Tiergarten Schönbrunn is the world’s oldest zoo, located in Vienna, Austria. It has a diverse history: founded by an emperor in his backyard, cannibalized during WWI (some animals were sacrificed to feed others), bombed in WWII, and birthplace to the first elephant born from artificial insemination. Its old world charms include wrought iron fences, Enlightenment-era frescos, and a scattering of outdoor cafés. You can still make out craters carved by war as you walk past menagerie-style cages. There is a mix of old and new, having evolved from an exotic display of wealth, through dark periods of abuse and malnutrition, to a pioneer in genetic diversity and conservation. When the park closes, the zoo comes to life. All the docile, bored, withdrawn animals start to shout out, a crescendo building to a tumultuous cacophony of howls, roars, and cries.
The top rated zoo in the world is in San Diego. It is a leader in animal care and conservation. The habitats are spacious, and the employees are passionate. Although it has a feel of an amusement park, complete with cotton candy and train rides, they work education into the experience through informational tours and teaching stations. Admission fees help support conservation efforts around the globe. This facility embodies the benefits of a zoo: public outreach and building awareness, preserving genetic diversity in endangered species, and financially supporting global conservation. Yet, what I remember most was a Secretary Bird that deepened a well-worn path in the grass along the edge of its world.
"Zoos are becoming facsimiles - or perhaps caricatures - of how animals once were in their natural habitat. If the right policies towards nature were pursued, we would need no zoos at all."
~Michael J. Fox
"I am personally not against keeping animals at zoos, as they serve a huge educational purpose, but treating them well and with respect seems the least we could do, and with 'we' I mean not just zoo staff, but most certainly also the public."
~Frans de Waal, primatologist, ethologist
As we eliminate habitats and drive species to extinction, zoos are more important than ever as safe harbors of genetic diversity. The education they provide can help society reflect on our actions and perhaps reevaluate them, which has led to SeaWorld ending their orca breeding program and saving vital panda habitat in China. However, whenever I leave a zoo, I have a pit in my stomach. I see the rhinos motionlessly standing with their heads down, large cats listlessly staring at the walls, elephants walking around with nothing to do. Polar bears float in the water to escape the heat, and the poet’s symbol of freedom stands on a perch, wings clipped in a cage. I cannot help but feel we have taken away part of their identity. Are the best of zoos a necessary evil? I think I can tolerate San Diego, but the FantaSea’s out there are beyond redemption.