To Zoo or Not to Zoo, Nov 05 | A Complex Ethical Question


Tigers pacing back and forth in sterile cages; polar bears usedto walking 45 miles of tundra a day just lying around; nocturnal civets insunny cement pens; naturally solitary orangutans housed in nuclear familieswhile a social gorilla languishes in solitary confinement for 27 years; a femaleelephant trying to kill her baby because the other elephants, who in the wildact as midwives, panic at the unknown sounds of birth; female clouded leopardskilled in courtship by the males due to the lack of safe haven in treetopswhere heavier males cannot go; older animals euthanized to make room for youngerand cuter ones; bored animals endlessly repeating obsessive behaviors: allin a day at the zoo.

Anthrax eliminated in hippos; twice as many Siberian tigers safe in zoos thanremain in the Russian steppes; nearly extinct Arabian oryxes and Californiacondors happily breeding; saki monkeys swinging playfully from constantly rearrangedvines; elephants enjoying pulling chains to activate showers; hidden food thatencourages foraging, replacing one-lump feeding; apparently sterile male ofthe endangered white rhino moved to larger acreage siring 59 offspring with20 females over 3 years and insuring species survival; multi-animal exhibitof baboons, Nubian ibex, rock hydrax, blue-winged geese, and other waterfowlsimulating the Afro-alpine zone of Ethiopian islands; real trees replacingfake metal leaves that used to cut animals; zoos changing their names to “conservationsocieties”: all in a day at the zoo.

In her fascinating book, The Modern Ark: The Storyof Zoos: Past, Present, and Future, Vicki Crooke illuminates the complex questions facing the modernzoo. How can 211 zoos with 800,000 animals serve 135 million annual visitorsin the U.S. (more than see professional baseball, football, and basketballcombined) while providing more natural environments for the animals? Zoosuse artificial insemination and egg harvesting to save endangered species,but with most zoo animals now born in the zoos is it just DNA, not naturalbehavior, that is being preserved? Are we breeding out their survival skills?Is it wrong to cage any animal? But otherwise, how would we be inspiredto leave natural spaces for them? We owe these captive ones for showingus the wonder of the animal kingdom, but are we repaying them adequately?Are we destroying their natural habitats while improving their artificialones?

Another wonderful book that details global zoo history and also providesan intimate look at the development of America’s oldest zoo, Chicago’sLincoln Park, is Zoo: A Behind-the-Scenes Look atthe Animals and the People Who Care for Them, by Don Gold. Sitting on only 35 acres, compared withSan Diego’s 125 or the Bronx’s 265, Lincoln Park Zoo is free,open 9 to 5 daily, and equal to DC’s National Zoo in annual visitors(5 million). Started in 1868, by 1873, the zoo had 27 mammals and 48 birds;by 1908, 117 species of mammals and 782 birds. The lion house was builtin 1912, followed by the reptile house in the 1920s. Gold tells how duringthe Depression the animals had to be fed only at night with the patron-donatedprovisions for the zoo not to seem callous. The TV era precipitated theLincoln-Park-based show Zoo Parade. In 1959, the zoo society was formedand today provides half of the operating funds. The 1960s saw the beginningof the children’s zoo, the farm in the zoo, the sea lion pool, andthe gorilla-breeding program. A new ape house and a climate-controlledflamingo dome were added in the 70s. The 80s and 90s saw extensive renovationof Lincoln Park’s old buildings and the introduction of a four-acreantelope and zebra area. Gold’s vivid interviews with the directorand his assistant directors, curators, vets, keepers (half of whom arewomen), and zoo society members make the zoo come alive for the reader.

Other recommended books are Animal Attractions: Natureon Display in America’sZoos, by Elizabeth Hanson, and A Different Nature:The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future, by David Hancocks. If you’venever read the classics, Gorillas in the Mist, by Diane Fossey, or TheChimpanzees of Gombe, by Jane Goodall, first breathe in the wild to moredeeply appreciate the question of whether or not to zoo.