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.

021The 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.

Tundra, a thirty-year old polar bear at the Indianapolis Zoo.

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.



20 thoughts on “Captive thoughts

  1. My favorite tiger in my hometown (South Bend) zoo died recently. He liked to come up to the glass right next to you and rub his cheek into it.

    Thinking about what you'd taste like

    I know there are complicated ethics around zoos. I haven’t parsed them, but I feel it when I visit them: there really are just some animals that probably ought not be captive. Yet I love to visit zoos.

    I love your point about how we have to live in the prevailing culture and that often means we contribute to polluting our Earth. I choose to accept it, but I try not to go beyond cultural norms in my personal impact on our environment.

    1. I agree. I think we can lend our small voices toward changing the prevailing cultural norms, but I definitely don’t think individuals should be saddled with changing systemic problems.

      I hadn’t heard about the tiger. 😦

  2. There is a lot to think about here. I love seeing the animals and were it not for zoos most of them would be no more than a photo in a book for me. But I too am conflicted by the captivity and the junk sold in the shops.

    1. Candy, that’s a big deal to me too. I do wonder what would be lost without the rite of passage of experiencing these animals up close. For the inclined, I think it can be a life-steering experience.

  3. Our family lives in Stl. For as long as I can remember the Gorilla exhibit has been a favorite here. I went to the zoo a few years ago and instead of the rushed fly by that my kids tend to do, I just sat there. I watched. I learned. There was an intense sadness that washed over me as a mother gorilla held her ‘child’. That baby will never know the freedom it is missing, yet in his/her mothers eyes that sadness of her knowing what she is missing was infectious. I felt angry that this beautiful creature so like us was trapped in a world far from where they belong.
    I don’t pretend to know what the answer is to this dilemma, or the dangers many species face in the wild as a result of human greed…but there must be something better than an over sized cage. There must be a better way to show our desire to understand all that lives within our world.

    1. I can understand the reaction you had to the gorillas. I’m still not sure how much they know they are missing. I think it’s easy for us to project what *we* would feel onto them. But I just don’t know whether that’s accurate. I’m not sure there’s any way we could know, I suppose. All things considered, I would rather the gorillas have abundant wild habitat — or at least more abundant space than they currently have in zoos. Sigh.

  4. One of my favorite activities is whale watching. I like the fact they are observed in their natural environment. I do go to zoos and animal parks but after seeing the documentary Blackfish I feel a bit uncomfortable about supporting such places. Yet they do provide entertainment and stoke interest in animals.

    1. Orcas had been one of the animals whose captivity disturbed me the most. Then I read that marine scientists are deeply disappointed that SeaWorld is suspending its breeding program, because they will no longer have the chance to study things such as how mothers pass toxins to calves in their milk, which they say can help those in the wild. So uncertainty reigns for me again. :/

  5. Thinking over what you say about the gift shop, the plastic toys there among the earth-friendly items. I know that I have been as bad as anybody with respect to collecting such inexpensive souvenir items while my daughter was a child. Finding them and deciding where to send them during my moves since she grew up — and since my sense of environmentalism has sharpened — I guess I think the biggest problem may not be so much the accretion of plastic doodads as it is our consumer culture.

    It’s like eating meat. If a fair number of western humans would practice eating/buying less meat and less stuff, I think we’d be on our way towards getting plastic whales and car parts out of the stomachs of creatures like sperm whales. Baby albatrosses, puffins and so on.

    Maybe it’s partly due to clearing out so many things as I get ready to move into a far smaller place, but a more spartan existence gains greater appeal on a daily basis. As that fanatical, best-selling Japanese tidier tells her readers, keep only what you love. And for sure I’m not loving 95% of what’s been filling up my three bedroom, two family room “little” house with its enormous garage. Me, a retired person in a wheelchair, with so many things here, there and everywhere! I feel guilty every time I toss something into the rubbish. Where will it end up, this plastic bonsai pot, this old stuffed rat a dog chewed up, and so on? Why did I ever think I needed it to begin with?

    Mindful acquisition, there’s a thought.

  6. It always makes me happy to learn that other people are thinking intelligently about things that need to be considered. Of course there are many downsides to keeping animals in captivity, but zoos also exist for a lot of very good reasons. They enable us to learn more about the physiology and ecology of individual organisms, and their group interactions. With this information in hand, we can better undertake conservation efforts, and improve life for animals in the wild and in captivity. Lots of important public education also takes place in zoos. Unfortunately, zoos must also appeal to the public for the purpose of increasing revenue, and this requirement influences many aspects of daily operations in zoos. If more people take the time to consider these factors, the things people demand and expect from zoos will change. In time, zoo practices can also change to reflect these changing demands, and the discrepancy between appealing to the public and improving animal welfare can be diminished. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and keeping this conversation going. And now, back to my senior thesis on reducing stress in captive gorillas!

    1. Thank you for your comment! I always love when someone with expertise in the area contributes to the conversation. (And also, a fellow fan of Dinesen, though “up in the highlands” is the potent part of that quote for me. 🙂 )

      I agree with and understand your points about zoos engaging with the public. Indeed, I think the gift shop reflects our demands, and responsibility for that cannot be avoided. I also think the St. Louis Zoo is particularly trapped here because they have no admission fee.

      I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but how *do* we reduce stress on captive gorillas? I understand how enrichment works, but I’m wondering what other steps there are. If you’ve written about it, I’d be grateful for a link. Thanks again for your comment. 🙂

      1. I’ve been meaning to re-read some Dinesen, because I think it’s been long enough to be struck by the magic as if for the first time. Glad to hear from another fan, because I don’t know any, personally. My work on my senior project has mostly involved proposing new ways to measure stress effectively, and to arrive at a better answer to that question. There isn’t a lot of data on which to base good conclusions at the moment. Things like inadequate space and inappropriate environments in captivity are known to create stressful situations. It’s also likely that large crowds, standing at close distances, and producing elevated noise levels increase stress. Particularly in gorillas, anything that impairs their ability to maintain normal, healthy interactions within social groups is probably related to or resulting from stress. I’ll be glad to point you toward some primary literature, but it gets a bit long and boring sometimes. I haven’t written on it anywhere public, because I generally steer clear of my current work when I’m writing for my blog.

      2. I understand! So do I. 🙂 Thank you for the information though. One of the thoughts I’ve always had about the captivity issue is that maybe improving captive situations is a reasonable answer to the issue, instead of doing away with it altogether. But I understand that is subject to the same financial pressures we discussed above.

        Again, thanks for stopping by and adding to the conversation.

  7. I had no idea St Louis had implemented such programs. Good for them!
    I know the Dallas and Ft Worth zoos are trying to make improvements and have come a long way from the depressing metal and concrete cages I visited on grade school field trips. But I always come away with much the same feeling I had as a kid. I don’t like seeing the animals who pace the edges of enclosures or hide with their backs to the passers-by. It just feels like they are hopelessly stuck where they just don’t belong.

    I am never completely in harmony with captivity.

    There is a place, Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, about an hour southwest of me. I’ve probably learned more about conservation and captive breeding from them in the my three or four visits than I’ve ever learned from our zoo. It feels more like a natural habitat, because of the open space made available for most of the animals and because that area of Texas is rugged and craggy with periods of long, hot days. But there are still enclosures for the cats and rhinos. In fact, one of the cheetahs has a hill in his enclosure where he can watch hoofed animals as if he were stalking prey. He just doesn’t get hungry enough to want to get out and chase them.
    Even so, they live a far better existence than those who are kept in the two zoos.

    A very delicate balance, that.

      1. They offer overnight stays in tents. I’ve had it on my bucket list for some time to do that. Imagine waking up to the sound of a roar nearby!
        Probably one of the best encounters I’ve had there was with a wonderfully mischievous giraffe we were hand-feeding. She loped down the hill to our truck and stuck her head under the canopy for food. Once she realized we were game, there were several minutes of us holding long food pellets up for her to wrap her long tongue around. The guide was telling us her story and we got a bit distracted. So, she shoved her head back in and popped the top off the food bin.
        It’s definitely a better experience than I’ve had in zoos.

  8. There is a double edge sword thing that goes on with with a zoo. We need them to protect animals that we have pushed to the edge of extinction but at the same time, to not let them live free is wrong. The question remains, what do we do? The answer is simple, be better stewards of the planet we share with the plants and animals. Big business and politics won’t let that happen easily but it is what needs to happen before it’s too late.

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