Recent weeks have found me exploring zoos, and engaging both the experiences and the questions they pose. There is a lot of very black-and-white sentiment around zoos and captivity, but so far my opinions are muddled, nuanced and dependent on different variables — as is often the case with me.
The most enjoyable part of this has been feeling drawn to specific animals — a polar bear here in Indianapolis and in St. Louis, a charismatic gorilla. I have no concerns about keeping some animals, like butterflies, most reptiles, and many smaller creatures, in captivity. I remain uneasy about keeping large, ranging animals in captivity. And with some species, I oppose it entirely. But I also understand that it makes no sense to release an animal into the wild that has always been captive. I also see that evolving standards can ameliorate some of those concerns. And finally, I’m all too aware that a non-wild life is becoming necessary for some species, as habitat dwindles.
This leads me to an often-repeated claim about zoos — that they are important tools in raising conservation awareness, which in turn benefits the captive animals’ wild brethren.
This idea was on my mind as we visited the St. Louis Zoo last weekend. The place was packed with people. Sunday was among the first really beautiful spring days, and it seemed that everyone decided they wanted to go to the zoo. So there were some people-watching opportunities. And watch I did, as some families breezed through each exhibit, skimming the surface, some adults declaring an animal “boring” because it was currently at rest without stopping to truly see it. Then I watched as other children, and some adults, stood transfixed — at the approach of a swimming hippo, the intent gaze of a cheetah, or the flutterings of a blue morpho butterfly. I could see something of the transcendent taking hold in some visitors. In others, I could see nothing beyond a demand to be ceaselessly entertained. That is not necessarily unforgivable; we are all like that sometimes.
I have no doubt that some of the zoo visitors had some kind of appreciation for the wild creatures of the world wired into them that day. But with others, I wonder whether the zoo had just normalized captivity. I don’t know.
I stopped in an unusually quiet area of the zoo to process all of these thoughts, on a bench near an open pool where a river otter lives. As the laughter of the children who would inherit the world echoed around me, a kind of heaviness settled in. I thought about the dead sperm whales that recently beached in Germany, their stomachs full of car parts and plastics. And then I thought of the gift shop just up the hill from where I was sitting — in a zoo trying to teach a conservation ethic — full of plastic toys and plush animals.
Why? Why would this gift shop ply the same items that fill the stomachs of dead wild whales? Why are visitors able to purchase a tiny plastic representation of the same species of whale dying from ingesting that plastic?
Because we demand it.
To be sure, the gift shop was also full of beautiful, environmentally friendly, artisan items. But still, after touring a zoo and reading about the dire, human-imposed challenges to wildlife, we demand the same cheap plastic that’s killing ocean wildlife.
And the heaviness settled in again, more deeply this time.
I’m not immune to this. I don’t somehow float above the damage humans are doing to the natural world; I contribute to it. Human beings are mostly obliged to live within a social paradigm, and individuals often have limited means to alter that. Hell, I drove to St. Louis to visit this place; I was in a Prius with two other people, but our journey still released carbon dioxide. If I asked someone at the zoo about this, the answer would no doubt involve the fact that admission to the zoo is free, and therefore gift shop revenues are important. And the St. Louis Zoo does a wonderful job in other ways: they are solar-powered; they have a composting program for the waste from their concession areas; they have extensive resource-reduction and recycling programs for the rest of their operations.
This is a small thing. But it is a potent one, and at least a counterpoint to the idea that human beings are absorbing and then implementing a conservation ethic from zoos. So visit a zoo, perhaps. But be careful what you buy — with your brain and your wallet.
Commenting note: The topic of this post is sometimes a contentious one, and as usual, my conclusions are nuanced and lawyerly enough that they please no one. Please remember a few things: 1) Comment moderation takes me a long time, as I have a demanding full-time job; 2) Don’t be a jerk to other jerks; and 3) if you are so certain about your views that you can entertain no doubt about them, then you should go back to the drawing board. About that I am certain. 🙂 Thanks. I love the continuing conversation in my comments section, and I always learn something from it.