Anyone who has followed what I have written about animals over the years will probably guess that I am no fan of zoos. But its more than that: I detest zoos. (Not to confuse animal sanctuaries like Animal Place or Farm Sanctuary, which are wonderful places, with zoos). I’ve heard all the pro-zoo arguments. They leave me completely cold. The Australian/Indian philanthropist Phil Wollen says the meanest four-letter word in the English language is “cage.” I agree. I don’t care what size they are. An enclosure is a cage is a prison.
Education? Come on: name one fact you learned from a zoo-board in front of a caged animal. If you really want to know something about elephants, there are more than a dozen good books. Should somebody object that it’s not the same as actually seeing a living elephant, I would ask what it is that one see when looking at an elephant in the zoo? What you see is an elephant removed from her country, from her family, from her friends, from her forest and rivers and valleys, only to be constantly reminded that she is in a prison at the mercy of her most loathed predator (basically the only other animal who hunts elephants for fun).
I overheard somebody in front of an elephant enclosure telling the dejected looking animal standing motionless “You are a sorry excuse for an elephant.” You mean, I wanted to tell him, that after she has been traumatized during captured, probably witnessed the murder of members of her family, she should put on an act for your benefit? Pretend she’s happy? Show herself to be adjusted? In a circus, she just might learn to fake it, out of fear. But in a “good” zoo where she is not physically abused, she can revert to her default position: depressed, lonely, miserable and in existential despair. How can anyone go to a zoo and not see that?
I am saddened every time I go to a zoo. I took my sons to the Berlin Zoo recently. We were all horrified and by the time we left we were in a state of depression, not entirely dissimilar to that of the animals. How could anyone find it entertaining or educational watching animals live out their lives in completely artificial surroundings bearing not the slightest resemblance to their true homes?
When we left we were walking down a large avenue with a grass island between the two streets. On the island we noticed dozens of rabbits racing from hole to hole. We watched them, enchanted. Nobody we asked knew how they got there, only that rabbits had lived there for years, completely undisturbed. They had innumerable warrens and were safe from predators (foxes, mainly), living a completely autonomous existence. We saw them lying about lazily relaxing in the sun, undisturbed by the unceasing traffic. I caught the eye of one and he gazed back at me confident in his wild state. He was free. What a contrast with the zoo we had just left behind. I would never visit another zoo in my life, unless I decide to write an entire book about why I dislike them so intently (I would probably call it Against Zoos, similar to my ). I am not sure what purpose it would serve, though. Those who feel the way I do already know why. Those who do not are not likely to be convinced of how wrong they are. Somehow, though, I feel I owe it to the caged animals. Who knows, one person might be moved to close down one zoo, if not now, perhaps some years in the future.