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The problem with zoos
Captivity is the problem, not the answer, to the extinction crisis
NOTE: I’m writing every day in memory of Lisa, who died on October 13. Not every post will be of the highest quality, and on January 1, I’ll reassess and create a new schedule for higher quality posts.
Over the next few days, I’m spending time with family at Disney World in Florida. It’s my first time here in around 30 years. And we’re lucky enough that we have a family member who works for the company, and another family member who has a time share in Orlando. That, plus some other generosity from my sister, has allowed me to join the family vacation even with very limited financial means.
I did not realize until coming out here, however, that Disney World owns… a zoo. Zoos have a perilous history in my personal life. They made a tremendous impact on me, as a child who loved animals. My first undercover mission as an animal advocate occurred when I was 7 years old at the Indianapolis Zoo. I would sneak past various barriers in an effort to hand sticks to young monkeys in the primate exhibit.
But after reading and observing more about zoos, I (like most animal rights advocates) am now firmly against what they do. While they provide many superficial and entertainment benefits to human beings, they are part of a relationship with non-human animals that is literally killing off life as we know it.
There’s much more that can be written on the subject, but here are 3 key reasons why I believe that to be the case.
First, captivity causes immense suffering. From pandas to elephants, so many species have been shown to suffer immensely from life as a prisoner to the human species. Female animals lose the ability to reproduce. Many develop psychotic or stereotypic behaviors. Some even appear to kill themselves. Wild animals simply weren’t mean to be held in a cage (or an amusement park).
Second, even if captivity can be managed — which in some cases, it can (consider, for example, domesticated animals) — the institution of using animals for entertainment creates incentives for a dangerous industry: kidnapping animals for profit. From gorillas to killer whales, the intense public demand for captive animals has led to devastation of animals in their wild habitats, as poachers hunt down adult animals in order to secure the valuable children for international commerce.
Third, the mere act of holding an animal in captivity, for entertainment and profit, poisons our relationship with animals, and with one another. The moment we commodify another living being’s life, it does violence against an ethical conception of our relationship with the natural world. This has large consequences in ways that we probably are just beginning to understand.
So I won’t be going to Animal Kingdom — and I hope no one else does either. But I’d be interested in hearing folks’ opinions as to whether there is any ethical form of captivity for wild animals? Sanctuaries? Rescues? Wild animal parks?