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The animals that attract crowds pay dearly for our affection.
June 25, 2014 6:00 AM   Subscribe

Finding out that the gorillas, badgers, giraffes, belugas, or wallabies on the other side of the glass are taking Valium, Prozac, or antipsychotics to deal with their lives as display animals is not exactly heartwarming news.
posted by paleyellowwithorange (64 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Zoos have long outlived their usefulness as an educational aid. The more we learn about animal intelligence, especially Cetacean and Primate intelligence, the more appalling they become.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:14 AM on June 25 [7 favorites]


I agree with the idea that exotic zoos should be replaced by teaching farms and petting zoos. In this age of the internet, where you can discover everything you want to know about an animal at the touch of a button or even watch them unobtrusively 24 hours a day in their own native habitats thanks to sites like explore.org, our need to witness exotic animals pacing back and forth in front of us is outdated.

I went to Colchester Zoo recently and even though it has won many prizes for innovative exhibits which afford the animals a degree of privacy and "natural" behavior (though the lions were spending the day sleeping on the bare concrete of their enclosure and the giraffes and elephants were surrounded by shrieking children banging on playground toys), I was still happier when I couldn't see them than when I could. I wished for them all to have a place to hide from us.
posted by fight or flight at 6:18 AM on June 25 [11 favorites]


Meaningless lives in an unstimulating artificial environment with the ensuing mental breakdown duct taped over with Prozac, Valium and antipsychotics. And then we go visit the zoo to see wild beasts we've made kindred souls.
posted by crayz at 6:36 AM on June 25 [83 favorites]


The Indianapolis Zoo recently opened their International Orangutan Center and, no matter how hard they try to make it look cool in the adverts, every time I see the tv commercials, I can only think how much the orangutans look like sad, resigned prisoners.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:38 AM on June 25


I can't go to aquariums anymore. The otters swimming on their backs in tight, endless circles break my heart. I guess I shouldn't be surprised...
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:45 AM on June 25 [1 favorite]


Braitman chides us for our delusion “that it is our right to see exotic wildlife like gorillas, dolphins, and elephants in every major American city … especially since it often costs the animals their sanity.”

Not to sound callous but it's possible to understand and regret the animals' suffering and still think it's outweighed by the collective positive experience of human visitors. I mean, maybe it's not, but I don't hear anyone even considering the question that way.

This positive side of the ledger is hard to measure because it's disproportionately experienced by children. I agree with others here that as an adult, seeing smart animals in stressful confinement is becoming more unpleasant than anything else -- but as a kid it was a really thrilling experience to see tigers, dolphins, gorillas etc in real life instead of just in books or on TV. Maybe not in a strictly educational sense but still really valuable.

Not that I'm the kind of pure utilitarian who thinks you can quantify these things exactly, but isn't that a pretty powerful countervailing interest? Every one of these animals is seen by hundreds of thousands of kids in their lifetime.
posted by neat graffitist at 7:09 AM on June 25 [8 favorites]


Zoos have long outlived their usefulness as an educational aid.

I wonder. In spite of their claims to the contrary, and often to justify the hefty ticket prices, it seems like zoos are really all about spectacle anyway. At the same time, I worry that a visit to the zoo is the only exposure to the "natural" world that many city dwellers have, and to take it away from them is also heartless. I say this as someone who, like Roland, can't visit a zoo/aquarium without experiencing deep sadness.
posted by sneebler at 7:10 AM on June 25 [1 favorite]


Not that I'm the kind of pure utilitarian who thinks you can quantify these things exactly, but isn't that a pretty powerful countervailing interest?

Hm, I don't know. I think it would be much more valuable to teach kids what animals look like when they're in their native environments and what they can do to help protect those environments for future generations. But then I guess nobody would be able to charge their parents $30 and the price of a stuffed toy in the gift shop for the pleasure.
posted by fight or flight at 7:18 AM on June 25 [1 favorite]


Watching a nature documentary is in no way the same as seeing an animal up close in person. Losing zoos means losing conservation dollars and efforts, which I find unacceptable. I am happy to lose some of the animals from most modern zoos - many are no longer keeping elephants, for example, because they roam large distances (safari parks are the only potentially ok place to keep them).

Our planet is in the grips of the next big extinction, and zoos will help us have these animals around for the next few decades, at least. I don't think that's a valueless thing.
posted by agregoli at 7:22 AM on June 25 [7 favorites]


I geeked out on everything as a kid except zoos. Museum, dinosaurs, IMAX, planetarium? Hell yes, let's get nerdy. The zoo on the other hand was where I bought rubber snakes and ate cafeteria food though I did like checking out the reptiles and giant bugs. IME zoos are optimized for the spectacle and consumerism, museums no. But maybe I just like dinosaurs a lot.
posted by aydeejones at 7:23 AM on June 25


I loved the very rare trips I took to zoos as a child, and I think for children they still serve a very valuable function that isn't replicated by video. But I'd never go to one now unless I was taking a kid, the captive animals make me too sad.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:24 AM on June 25 [2 favorites]


ALL of the captive animals make you sad? Or just the large mammals? Many are fine in zoos. Snakes, for example. Zoos aren't all lions and tigers. Many endangered animals would already be gone if it weren't for zoos.
posted by agregoli at 7:28 AM on June 25 [12 favorites]


What about the open-range kind of zoos? The kind you drive through in a car and its mostly grazing animals, but they have giraffes, zebras, etc, in a large open space. Do these animals have the same kind of psycological problems?

Also, how many of the animals at zoos are wild-caught? I really don't like going to zoos because it is just mostly sad, especially with the apes (I guess because their expressions are so like our own). But I would feel just barely better about it if I knew that the zoos were the only home the animals had known. Like I guess I would prefer if they don't know what they are missing.
posted by LizBoBiz at 7:28 AM on June 25


Would any of these justifications be acceptable for keeping humans in zoos? I mean, we've had human zoos, and you could trot out the same rationales - conservation dollars, city dwellers seeing "nature", the thrill experienced by children when they see "real" people of [X group]. Now, I'm not saying that an otter is the same as a person (although I don't want to keep the otters either) but dolphins and elephants and gorillas (and probably parrots and others) have real, complicated, tool-using, self-aware experience of the world even as we do. A smart social animal is tormented by boredom, loneliness, stress and fear even as we'd be tormented.

Come to that, of course, it's not very appealing to bully a less self-aware animal into illness that it can't even understand.

I loved the zoo when I was little, I really did. I love animals. I think that human life removed from the rest of the animal world is missing something. But zoos really start to get into "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" territory for me.
posted by Frowner at 7:29 AM on June 25 [16 favorites]


The saddest animal exhibit that I ever visited was the reptile exhibit at South of the Border. And SOTB is already an immensely depressing place, so you can imagine how bad it was that there was a noticeable drop in my mood upon entering the viewing area. The whole thing reeked of death and decay.

On the other hand, the Singapore Zoo was almost refreshing in terms of the layout and the amount of space the animals had.
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:30 AM on June 25


But then I guess nobody would be able to charge their parents $30 and the price of a stuffed toy in the gift shop for the pleasure.

I'm sure you didn't mean it this way, but sneering at the gift shop just makes this sound even more to me like a cultural signaling thing than genuine concern for the animals. Being the kind of person who worries about the animals, as an adult, is about the easiest piece of moral high ground there is. All it requires you to do is not go to the zoo, which you probably weren't going to do anyway.

There's a class element too. As sneebler says, for many kids in big cities this is one of their few chances to experience nature, in however distorted a form. (Note that even those whose parents can't afford the $30 entrance fee often go on class trips or through other discounted means.) One of Braitman's suggestions to replace zoos is whale-watching tours. How many families can afford that, especially if they don't live in (more expensive) coastal areas to begin with?
posted by neat graffitist at 7:31 AM on June 25 [16 favorites]


Wow, Frowner, that analogy is so ridiculous that I'm out. Enjoy the discussion everyone.
posted by agregoli at 7:32 AM on June 25


Calvin and Hobbes: zoos
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 7:33 AM on June 25 [5 favorites]


One zoo I've been to as an adult without kids was on a beer night. A couple double dozens of local and distant brewers, serving samples from the bottle or on tap, a dozen or so food trucks. Live local music at select spots. Very hipster. Interesting to experience part of the zoo with NO children around excluding a bunch of tipsy adults.

"Oh, the ant eater, what's he doing? Where's he going? Oh, under the bridge ... aaaaaaaaannd he's pooping. Neeevermind."

The animals were somewhat moving as it was finally dusky and cool enough to be tolerable, but the adults were weird drunk and weird.

As far as I'm aware, a number of the animals at that zoo were rescues or otherwise unsuitable for surviving the wild. Not the majority of them, of course. Zoos do more than just capture animals and place them on display. There is science going on, and breeding and healing and sometimes they can release the animals back into the wild.

Now circuses, on the other hand. No way. Haven't been to any circuses that have animals, and never intend to.

In between, I've been to a Sea World but have no plans to return.
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 7:34 AM on June 25 [3 favorites]


Hm, I don't know. I think it would be much more valuable to teach kids what animals look like when they're in their native environments and what they can do to help protect those environments for future generations. But then I guess nobody would be able to charge their parents $30 and the price of a stuffed toy in the gift shop for the pleasure.


I work in environmental education (not at a zoo, at a wildlife refuge), and if you take away zoos in favor of kids seeing animals in their 'native environments,' lots of kids in urban areas just will never see animals or have much of any contact with nature at all.
posted by geegollygosh at 7:34 AM on June 25 [9 favorites]


There was a pacing sloth bear at the National Zoo when I was there Saturday. Really sad. And the ape house is awful and smells like ape shit, which smells a lot like human shit.
posted by empath at 7:35 AM on June 25


As sneebler says, for many kids in big cities this is one of their few chances to experience nature, in however distorted a form.

This is a good point and worth remembering, but I do think that the article's suggestion of replacing zoos with smaller farms or nature preserves centered around domesticated species (or species which don't suffer as much from being kept in zoos, as agregoli mentioned) would serve this purpose. Being smaller would also enable them to run more cheaply and charge less for tickets. There are a number of working and teaching farms in central London, for instance, which are free and offer children from all walks to life the chance to experience nature.
posted by fight or flight at 7:36 AM on June 25 [3 favorites]


What about the open-range kind of zoos? The kind you drive through in a car and its mostly grazing animals, but they have giraffes, zebras, etc, in a large open space. Do these animals have the same kind of psycological problems?

The closet zoo to me growing up was the state owned North Carolina Zoo in Asheville. While a lot of the exhibits are very typical zoo enclosures, the elephants and rhinos share (or at least shared, I think the exhibit is still structured this way) a very large, by zoo standards, area that offers them plenty of chances to get away from visitors, including places where they were completely out of sight. It was much smaller than an elephants would have in the wild, but it was 1) large enough to hold a decent sized social group of animals and 2) exponentially larger than a typical zoo elephant habitat. I liked it a lot as a kid and remember being fairly surprised the first time I saw elephants in another zoo who didn't have that kind of freedom.

It may be that this doesn't help and the elephants are just as unhappy at the NC Zoo and similar places, but I'd be curious to see research comparing different zoos. It seems unlikely to me that we're going to eliminate zoos anytime soon, but we could make them better.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:39 AM on June 25 [5 favorites]


Wow, Frowner, that analogy is so ridiculous that I'm out. Enjoy the discussion everyone.

Well, I'm sorry to hear that.

Just a week or two ago, someone posted that essay about the woman who took part in the dolphin experiment (and I can't seem to find the link), spent all her time with the dolphin, built a really strong bond with it...and the experiment got defunded and then the dolphin got shipped somewhere else and, as far as people seemed to think, killed himself by choosing to sink instead of rising to the surface to breathe. The speculation was that he was lonely and in despair. That's why I think that keeping dolphins in zoos, experimenting on them, etc, isn't very different from doing something similar to humans. I don't think that's over -egging it at all - we have lots and lots of evidence that certain animals are mirror-stage self-aware, use tools and remember their dead.

Again, we have had human zoos. I actually accidentally went to a human zoo with some students when I worked in China (we were going somewhere else and they wanted to stop and I didn't realize what it was). It wasn't very nice, and that was a good one as such things go, where people were paid and had reasonable housing to retreat to. And my students said much the same things that people say about gorillas and dolphins in zoos - that it's important for city dwellers to see these "authentic" ways of life, that it builds political consciousness, that the tourism dollars are important, etc. My students weren't monsters - the ones I was with at the time were good, kind people who'd gone out of their way to be nice to me - but they were wrong.
posted by Frowner at 7:40 AM on June 25 [10 favorites]


Wow, Frowner, that analogy is so ridiculous that I'm out.

Human beings were exhibited in zoos well into the twentieth century. The Bronx Zoo exhibited a Pygmy from Africa in 1906.
posted by empath at 7:41 AM on June 25 [5 favorites]


Oh and the Austin Zoo and Sanctuary takes in older animals from other zoos and animals that cannot be released into the wild. We went alot when I lived there since admission was only $6. They had 2 tigers that had been seized in a drug bust and lots of animals from other zoos.
posted by LizBoBiz at 7:41 AM on June 25 [1 favorite]


lots of kids in urban areas just will never see animals or have much of any contact with nature at all

Lots of kids still don't have those chances. Why do we think so little of children to assume they have to see an endangered leopard pace up and down behind a mesh fence for five minutes before they start to care about it? I've never in my life seen a giant panda in the flesh (and probably never will) but I had posters of them all over my walls as a kid. Why are we so ready to defend zoos and not the amount of environmental education in schools?
posted by fight or flight at 7:42 AM on June 25 [10 favorites]


ALL of the captive animals make you sad? Or just the large mammals?

The more expressive ones mostly -- bears, say. The reptiles seem to mostly be asleep when I've seen them.

If I had a kid, I'd take them and as they got older have increasingly nuanced conversations about what we were seeing. But alone, as an adult, there's no way I'll go to a zoo again.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:42 AM on June 25


ALL of the captive animals make you sad? Or just the large mammals?

Mostly the ones painting frowny faces on their cage walls.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:48 AM on June 25 [1 favorite]


Zoos make me despair like very few other things can. I've long been one of those vegan killjoys who steadfastly refuses to patronize any place of business where non-human animals are held in captivity and put on display with the intent of hopefully eliciting a few brief flashes of human enjoyment, but this was still utterly crushing to read. I don't know why I didn't just assume that we were medicating the hell out of those poor creatures to ensure their ongoing glassy-eyed compliance. Unconscionable doesn't even begin to cut it.

This study [PDF] is linked in the article -- Do Zoos and Aquariums Promote Attitude Change in Visitors? A Critical Evaluation of the American Zoo and Aquarium Study -- and very effectively picks apart the faulty methodological approaches used in the 2007 AZA study that was celebrated for supposedly making a direct causal link between people's attendance at zoos and aquariums and a positive attitude toward wildlife conservation. "In summary, to date there is no compelling or even particularly suggestive evidence for the claim that zoos and aquariums promote attitude change, education, and interest in conservation in visitors."

Whenever I remember how curious, empathetic, and intelligent primates (or dolphins, or elephants, or...) are, and then realize that a terrifying number of them spend the entirety of their days on this beautiful earth boxed up in metal and glass, I can't do anything but cry. And according to the Slate article, "[a]t the National Zoo, only one fifth of the animals are endangered or threatened." So much for a laserlike focus on conservation.

I guess I just don't feel like we (humanity, collectively) have any right to assert that perpetual captivity in a high-stress, deeply unnatural environment is meaningfully better for wild animals than a natural life in their natural home, even if that life might end with a bullet from a poacher and a body rotting under the midday sun. All kids everywhere should be able to interact with animals, but I'm hoping we'll move away from shipping wild creatures halfway across the world so we can gape at them until they die and toward domestic animal petting zoos and urban farms. Do we really need a set of elephants and a dolphin tank in every major American city? We're literally torturing them for a decidedly nebulous benefit.

I understand that as humans we tend to believe we have the right to do this kind of thing to any living creature who lacks the ability to verbally communicate with us, but man, I wish we could try to live up to our moniker and be more humane.
posted by divined by radio at 7:54 AM on June 25 [10 favorites]


Meaningless lives in an unstimulating artificial environment with the ensuing mental breakdown duct taped over with Prozac, Valium and antipsychotics. And then we go visit the zoo to see wild beasts we've made kindred souls.

I honestly, honestly believe that the vast majority of mental illness is caused by the fucked up environment we've created for ourselves. The reason that so many of these are hard to pin on specific physical causes and hard to treat is that there is nothing wrong with the people suffering from them. They're perfectly healthy. It's society that's fucked up.
posted by empath at 7:56 AM on June 25 [16 favorites]


I think I say this on every zoo thread, but as a scientist, zoos are critical to my research. I have received finding for my fieldwork from zoos; learned, taught, and improved methods for my behavioral research; taken advantage of conditions for piloting aspects of my research on reproductive behavior and hormones; used lab facilities and technical expertise for analyses; and done lots of education. I take students in my human evolution course to our local zoo to supplement class lectures. And I enjoy seeing the animals. I promise that everyone working at zoos accredited by the AZA is working to make the animals as healthy and happy as possible.

Given a choice between a world with no zoos where there are no unhappy elephants or orangutans but also no opportunity for kids in the Bronx or San Diego or central Ohio to connect with animals other than pigeons, squirrels, and raccoons ... and our imperfect world where, though a portion of animals are arguably worse off, people have the opportunity to feel a sense of connection and wonder with endangered wildlife, I will gladly take what we have. Zoos help develop a general conservation ethic in the past of the world with the funds to support conservation, and without them I don't think many people would ever be moved to feel strongly about the plight of polar bears or gorillas or elephants ... And this would then be s moot point because those animals, and all the less-charismatic ones in their habitats would already be gone.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:59 AM on June 25 [16 favorites]


Lots of kids still don't have those chances. Why do we think so little of children to assume they have to see an endangered leopard pace up and down behind a mesh fence for five minutes before they start to care about it? I've never in my life seen a giant panda in the flesh (and probably never will) but I had posters of them all over my walls as a kid. Why are we so ready to defend zoos and not the amount of environmental education in schools?


The zoo is more of a family affair-- parents who would never think of taking their kid to a wildlife refuge or wouldn't have transportation will take their kids to a zoo.

I work in environmental education, obviously I'm behind getting environmental education into schools and getting kids out into actual, non-simulated nature on school trips. But the sad truth is that those kind of programs reach only a tiny percentage of kids, and disproportionately reach kids in suburban areas. Bussing kids out of the city is too expensive, and it's simply a harder sell as a field trip to some administrators than a zoo would be. There are grant funded programs, but they're a drop in the bucket.

I do think in order for people to care about something, they have to see it, or they have to have a basis for understanding it that comes from their experiences, not from their textbooks.

Certainly I think that it would be fantastic to have a better network of urban farms or urban wild areas that could gradually replace zoos to some extent. But we are not yet to the place where zoos do not serve an educational purpose, in my opinion.
posted by geegollygosh at 7:59 AM on June 25 [4 favorites]


I honestly, honestly believe that the vast majority of mental illness is caused by the fucked up environment we've created for ourselves. The reason that so many of these are hard to pin on specific physical causes and hard to treat is that there is nothing wrong with the people suffering from them. They're perfectly healthy. It's society that's fucked up.

I shared the article with a friend, and she responded: "Pretty bloody despicable; but also very interesting to translate that across to human behaviour, and think that when a human acts in 'weird' ways which resemble neuroses or psychoses, is it because of that individual's microcosm, or because the world we live in is so unnatural to what we're really meant to be doing as a species?"
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 8:03 AM on June 25 [4 favorites]


A friend was recently describing his memory of the St. Louis Zoo primate house, and the gorilla which was on display near the main entrance. How this gorilla would bellow, fling feces, and once charged at the plexiglass window with a ferocious face, seemingly having picked my friend out of a group of thirty or more humans who were gawking that day.

It dawned on me then that these aren't just normal, everyday, wild gorilla type behaviors--especially picking up his own shit with his hand on a regular basis to fling it at windows.

His behavior actually makes more sense if you put yourself in his place. Imagine being imprisoned in a concrete room with glass walls. Your must defecate in this small area, with its fake trees and cement floor. On a regular basis small, weak, almost hairless apes draped in colorful material come in and obsessively collect and wash away your feces. Daily hundreds of similar apes--strangers all--come and stare at you, fascinated.

I'd be pretty pissed off, too. I'd behave like a lunatic.
posted by General Tonic at 8:17 AM on June 25 [3 favorites]


Folks thinking about the net good or evil of zoos tend to assume that the animals in the zoos are "worse off", but the fact of the matter is, without zoos, most of the animals in zoos would be dead or never have been born. Most of those big mammals have already had their wild populations reduced to whatever small numbers their tiny amount of remaining habitat can support. Captive breeding has saved a not-insignificant number of species from extinction. Given a choice between "zoos" and "vast wildlife sanctuaries where the animals roam free, unmolested by humans" yeah, it's a no-brainer, no matter how much I might like city kids (or even city adults) to get to experience the animals. But that's not the choice; for most of these animals, the choice is literally life in a zoo, or death. That's not so easy. If you posit that an animal living a miserable life who only gets by with help from antidepressants would be better off dead, do you extend that thinking to humans, too?

If you want wild animal sanctuaries, fight for those. They can exist side-by-side with zoos just fine, and if the day comes when the populations of wild animals are secure enough and comfortable enough and have enough habitat that keeping an animal in a zoo really is doing it a disservice compared to the long happy life it might live outside the zoo, then I will happily join in your anti-zoo crusading. But damning zoos because the lives of the animals there aren't as good as the pie-in-the-sky ideal you can imagine for those animals is a naive bit of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Let's stop destroying the non-zoo portions of the planet, first.
posted by mstokes650 at 8:19 AM on June 25 [12 favorites]


The St. Louis Zoo, and no doubt many others, are doing some really good conservation work.

The zoo is partially funded by St. Louis city & county taxes, partially by local businesses and other donors, and partially by souvenir/food sales/parking fees (admission is free). If you took the education/entertainment part of the zoo away, I expect most of the conservation funding would disappear with it.
posted by Foosnark at 8:29 AM on June 25 [5 favorites]


. Captive breeding has saved a not-insignificant number of species from extinction. Given a choice between "zoos" and "vast wildlife sanctuaries where the animals roam free, unmolested by humans" yeah, it's a no-brainer, no matter how much I might like city kids (or even city adults) to get to experience the animals. But that's not the choice; for most of these animals, the choice is literally life in a zoo, or death. That's not so easy. If you posit that an animal living a miserable life who only gets by with help from antidepressants would be better off dead, do you extend that thinking to humans, too?

But if "we" (and "we" does a lot of work in these conversations) are so concerned about the animals, why put them on display? It seems like being on display is as big a stressor as restricted habitat, so why can't "we" provide sanctuary without display? Why can't we provide, for example, large non-display animal sanctuaries in, like, the middle of Nebraskan farmland or something?

Money, of course - but that suggests that our collective commitment to animal wellbeing isn't as deep as we say it is.

And what if we can never return animals to the wild? How long are "we" justified in keeping a population captive in misery?

As far as the "would animals be better off dead than in misery" bit - I don't think people are really taking that one seriously. We could easily say "zoos are wrong, we're going to ameliorate the lives of the animals we already have as much as possible, minimize breeding and wind down the whole zoo enterprise". We could stop at any time. "Animals are better off in misery than dead" seems to me to allow us to sidestep envisioning any alternative to how things are now, because it postulates "animals who exist now being immediately killed" and "misery for more animals going forward indefinitely" as the two choices in play, when that's far from the case.
posted by Frowner at 8:31 AM on June 25 [2 favorites]


why put them on display

My guess would be funding.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:34 AM on June 25


Yeah I don't mean to say that the St. Louis Zoo should be shut down, or that the zoo is morally reprehensible. They are doing a lot of good work, on many levels.

Just that I really empathize with some of these animals and we seem to be abusing them.
posted by General Tonic at 8:35 AM on June 25


Well, in a couple of decades the problem may just sort itself out. We can just replace real animals with realistic robots. It already happens at Disneyland. It's much better for the animals.

Welcome to our cyberpunk future.
posted by FJT at 8:47 AM on June 25 [1 favorite]


If zoos (or whatever Nebraskan rainforest paradise we're creating for them)aren't contributing to education and conservation, there isn't a need for them. The number of animals being safeguarded in zoos until they can be released again is vanishingly small. Captive breeding programs with the goal of seller have been only limited at best in their success... I can only think of California condors and golden lion tamarins as examples of this. Having the animals on display IS one of the important functions of zoos, and literally every AZA accredited zoo is working to minimize stress on those animals they have on display.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:51 AM on June 25 [1 favorite]


The study that divined by radio links is what gets me. All the people saying "yes but it's worth it so our kids can see these animals For Reals because that makes them appreciate the natural world"-- NO IT DOESN'T. Doesn't do a damn thing. These Kids Today don't give a damn about animals whether they see them on a screen or in a box behind bars-- or at least, seeing them in said box isn't going to make them care any more about them than they already do or don't.

I love animals. I actually want/wanted to BE a zookeeper. I even have an AA degree in Zookeeping. The only way I could be morally OK with zoos, while still keeping my love of animals, was "the ends justify the means"-- Zoos have value, in my opinion, first and foremost for Conservation. Then, for Research. And finally, for Education-- the whole "if it helps make other people want to help animals, the suffering of a few animals is worth it".

Now, Conservation is mostly worthless-- there's no real point in keeping endangered species alive in captive breeding if they will never be able to be released into a natural habitat-- you might as well keep the world's best poet alive with his brain in jar. And the way we're destroying habitat and, for that matter, the entire climate, it's pretty clear there's no long-term hope for conservation of anything larger or more fragile than rats, roaches and pigeons.

Research, well, there's some use for this, I suppose, but it would be just the same damn selfish reasons we do research on any animals, not for their benefit, but for ours-- if there's no conservation, all you can do is "Does honey badger saliva cure cancer in humans?". Animals are only worth what they can do for us, in the human world. When we're all dying of starvation and poisons, we don't have time or money to do anything for any species other than US US US.

And clearly, Education is a bullshit reason--- I always argued that it was, with my teachers at Zoo school-- people don't go to zoos to learn, they don't pay attention, they don't read, they run around and scream and want to be entertained-- I saw it every damn day-- and now I'm proved right. And keeping animals in zoos for entertainment is absolutely worthless. There is no, NO excuse to torture animals, fast or slow, lightly or viciously, for FUN. And if that's all Zoos are providing, then they should be shut down as fast and as firmly as a dog-fighting ring.
posted by The otter lady at 9:06 AM on June 25 [5 favorites]


I honestly, honestly believe that the vast majority of mental illness is caused by the fucked up environment we've created for ourselves. The reason that so many of these are hard to pin on specific physical causes and hard to treat is that there is nothing wrong with the people suffering from them. They're perfectly healthy. It's society that's fucked up.

Uhh... no. Just no.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:19 AM on June 25 [6 favorites]


I wonder if large mammals and especially primates would benefit from one-way glass, hidden look-ins etc. The constant awareness of alien observation must cause at least as much stress as the physical environment does.
posted by forgetful snow at 9:27 AM on June 25 [1 favorite]


That study didn't address the educational effects of zoos at all. It was just about why the aza study was not credible. It makes no comment on the educational value of zoos, simply calling for better research.
posted by geegollygosh at 9:28 AM on June 25 [1 favorite]


"Does honey badger saliva cure cancer in humans?"

This is not even remotely an accurate description of the kind of research done by the scientists I know who work with zoo animals.
posted by naoko at 9:38 AM on June 25 [6 favorites]


I wonder if large mammals and especially primates would benefit from one-way glass, hidden look-ins etc

I was thinking the same thing when I visited Colchester and observed the chimps. At one point one of them walked up to the glass to look out at the exhibit and kept trying to peer around the people trying to take her photo (or didn't want to make eye contact). I've seen people cite the two-way glass as "enrichment" as the animals have something to look at as well, but for species who use eye contact as a form of threatening/social behavior it must be very confusing. I'm by no means an expert on this though, so happy to concede the point if someone with more experience wants to weigh in.
posted by fight or flight at 9:39 AM on June 25 [1 favorite]


What about educational animal facilities? This is a very personal topic for me. I intend to open a facility on a hundred acres with separate enclosures for captive-bred and captive-raised coyotes, foxes, and crows. The enclosures are on wooded farmland. The coyotes will have a big, wooded hill with natural dens, fallen logs, and big swathes of trees where they can run around and hide, but of course the total territory isn't any bigger than the size of a small public park. The idea is that my nonprofit's educational program will hold presentations and lectures on the property, giving the public the opportunity to see these animals in their enclosures... if the animals aren't hiding on the other side of their property, that is. The foxes can become tamed and people-friendly, not sure about the crows, but it's distressing to think that any kind of artificial enclosure is automatically cruel to animals. The educational program will specifically target people who do want to learn more about these animals and help to preserve them, in accordance with the other outreach aspects of our nonprofit.

Maybe we'll put an unobtrusive hidden camera inside the enclosures.

Basically, I hope it's more of a sanctuary than a zoo.

When I visited our local zoo on 33 acres of land, I was pissed off beyond words. The wolves were pacing in an enclosure the size of my one bedroom apartment. The coyotes lived in a glorified dog kennel. The jaguar had about 100 square feet of space and one ledge to jump onto. That's all. Nothing to climb, nowhere to roam. He was sleeping the day away. The tigers also lived in glorified dog kennels.

According to past visitors, the zoo owners used to bang on the big cats' enclosures at feeding time to irritate the cats and get them to snarl and roar to please the audience.

The lynx enclosure had one layer of fencing between the lynxes and the property beyond, where goats and other natural prey were roaming happily, only metres away from the frustrated lynxes, who kept advancing toward the fencing.

As for education? They had a small blurb on each enclosure with a few sentences about each animal. The coyote enclosure featured a picture of Wile E. Coyote and said only that the animals tend to be tan-grey and that they prey on livestock. The zoo owner told me personally that he hates coyotes because "they will eat anything".

I wish to shut down that horrible, horrible torture place and send the tigers to a sanctuary with hundreds of acres of wild land, and so on for the rest of the animals, but a local sanctuary for big predators informed me that it's more likely that all of the animals will be euthanized if the zoo is shut down.

While I'm ranting, the zoo owner told me that they plan to take the coyotes on leashes to stand in front of school audiences as part of an educational program they are developing. Coyotes are people-shy, skittish animals. It would be literal torture for them.

I left that zoo filled with hatred of certain people and their selfish need to view animals as property, automatons with no minds or wills or rights of their own. No one who visits that torture center is learning anything about the animals. I want to keep captive animals, but the more land and fencing I get for bigger enclosures, the better, because I don't want to be associated with the cruelty of small zoos like this one.

People who see wild animals as living entertainment should not ever be in the care of wild animals.
posted by quiet earth at 10:34 AM on June 25 [4 favorites]


I grew up going to the Brookfield Zoo, which is pretty nice as things go. One of the big early investors in the idea of "natural" habitat, where a lot of species are in the same huge enclosure with native plants and water features, etc.

But back in April, I went to the National Zoo, and it was one of the most depressing things I've ever seen. It literally read as animal jail — from the elephants repeatedly banging on the enclosure door to get out, to the gorillas looking plaintively through the bars, to the pandas turning circles (which the informative signage helpfully pointed out was agitated behavior). Pretty much every animal I saw there looked just abjectly miserable.

I went from being largely fine with zoos to a lot more concerned with how they actually function.
posted by klangklangston at 11:15 AM on June 25 [1 favorite]


I don't know. I'd rather have a depressed Rhino than an extinct one.
posted by Cyclopsis Raptor at 12:34 PM on June 25 [3 favorites]


Aquariums, too -- let's not forget that fish are also animals with feelings. My mom and I just went to the Dubrovnik aquarium and they have some horrendously small tanks for some very large fish, they're also filthy, it's the worst (lovely to see an octopus up close, I must say; it was clearly very agitated and upset though, trying to climb out of its tank and swooshing all around in a fury of limbs).
posted by Mooseli at 12:39 PM on June 25 [1 favorite]


But if "we" (and "we" does a lot of work in these conversations) are so concerned about the animals, why put them on display? It seems like being on display is as big a stressor as restricted habitat, so why can't "we" provide sanctuary without display? Why can't we provide, for example, large non-display animal sanctuaries in, like, the middle of Nebraskan farmland or something?

Because they'd probably end up like most the habitats* in Silent Running: they'd be nuked and the funding would be reallocated once someone questions why we're spending money on something with no constituency.

* basically nature preserves hidden away in deep space rather than Nebraska
posted by cosmic.osmo at 1:07 PM on June 25


But back in April, I went to the National Zoo, and it was one of the most depressing things I've ever seen. It literally read as animal jail — from the elephants repeatedly banging on the enclosure door to get out, to the gorillas looking plaintively through the bars, to the pandas turning circles (which the informative signage helpfully pointed out was agitated behavior). Pretty much every animal I saw there looked just abjectly miserable.

Blame Washington, DC's love affair with concrete Brutalist architecture, which dominates the National Zoo (except for the lovely older buildings, such as the Reptile House) and the Washington, DC Metro subway system, as well as many federal buildings and museums.

Perhaps (tongue in cheek) lobbyists for the concrete industry also played a role?

I think you've also explained the bad attitude of most of the Metro's on-site managers and staff. Humans shouldn't work in such places either.

But the Zoo's massive concrete structures are like nothing in nature. One can only wonder what the animals make of them.
posted by bad grammar at 1:21 PM on June 25 [1 favorite]


I can understand the general antagonism towards zoos. The themes of confinement, unnatural behavior, restrictive habitats generate in me strong strong negative emotions, too.

But this article seems to sound a battle cry for the fight of "perfect vs. good" in terms of animal husbandry, when I think everyone -- animals included! -- will benefit far more from a framing of the issue in terms of "progressive husbandry practices vs. exploitation".

Zoos have made enormous strides, in a generation's time, with regards to humane care. Chimps used to serve tea at zoo functions. The whole 'locked in cage' sort of exhibit was more commonplace. Zoo expeditions to take animals from the wild. No natural light in animal exhibits. The current incarnation of zoos is far from perfect, but the progress made from pure exploitation to societal institutions, integrated with conservation, research, and educational organizations is a real, positive change. There is an accreditation body (the AZA, mentioned in the article) to catalog these developments, and to further it amongst member zoos.

Contrast: animal exploitation that still occurs, regularly, in non-accredited, roadside zoos. Circus animals. Film/TV animals. Medical research. This is the real fight: societal norms saying a monkey exploited in the Hangover movie is okay. Exotic pets flying below the radar of any regulations. Commercial breeding of chimpanzees. Heck, there exists a dual-level designation of chimpanzees as endangered species, because we don't want to lose our chimps for TV performances/medical testing!

That there lies so much below the surface of this topic, which the author dealt with oh-so-subtlely with the headline "Zoos Drive Animals Crazy" is troubling enough. But that her 'research' involved sitting at the zoo for an afternoon, rather than fleshing out any view of zoos as full-fledged, complex institutions is worse.

Zoos are doing good work, lots of it, in the face of an impossibly daunting task: finding an 'interface' between modern society with wildlife. But there are truly demeaning, undignified, exploitative ways of approaching that task, none of which were mentioned in the article.
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 1:22 PM on June 25 [11 favorites]


Money, of course - but that suggests that our collective commitment to animal wellbeing isn't as deep as we say it is.

Well, duh. Along with "our" collective commitment to many other fine and noble causes which do not impact our day-to-day lives. But it seems to me either you believe that can be changed, albeit not overnight, and that our species can grow wiser with experience, or else you pretty much have to assume that humans are going to destroy the planet, full stop, and spend your days hoping for an asteroid to wipe us all out.

And what if we can never return animals to the wild? How long are "we" justified in keeping a population captive in misery?

This is a fair question. Personally I'd like to believe there's no such thing as "never" as far as returning animals to the wild, and so the position I'd take is "as long as it takes". Once that species is gone, it's gone, but as long as there's life there's hope, right? But then, I'm in the optimistic camp rather than the hoping-for-an-asteroid camp. If you really believe in that "never" then yeah, it seems reasonable to think there's little to no point. But personally if I believed in that "never" it would almost have to be just one of a great many things I'd be fatalistic/nihilistic about.

"Animals are better off in misery than dead" seems to me to allow us to sidestep envisioning any alternative to how things are now, because it postulates "animals who exist now being immediately killed" and "misery for more animals going forward indefinitely" as the two choices in play, when that's far from the case.


It is our society's general belief that people, as well as animals, are better off in temporary misery than dead. It seems reasonable to me to extend that to the level of species, as well. And animals who exist now are dying off at a frightening rate. This is why comparing animal zoos to human zoos doesn't work: a human is pretty indisputably better off outside of a zoo because humans have made the non-zoo portions of the planet pretty friggin' awesome for humans. An endangered species of animal is facing extinction outside a zoo. A comparison to prison is maybe slightly more apt: it is an insanely miserable existence, but even so, 3 squares a day and a roof looks better to some folks than the alternatives they see for themselves outside. And just like prisons, I think we should look for ways to make them less awful wherever possible (one-way glass is definitely something I've seen in some zoos); but at the same time, I think talking about "winding down the whole zoo enterprise" should wait until after we're done "winding down" the whole mass-extinction event.

tl;dr: "animals are better off in misery than dead" doesn't assume "misery or dead" are the only two choices, ever, going forward - it does exactly the opposite. It assumes "misery or dead" are the only two choice for most of those animals right now, and that we can change that. I'd rather see the choices changed to "miserable [in captivity] or wild", rather than "happy [in captivity] or dead".
posted by mstokes650 at 2:50 PM on June 25 [2 favorites]


I feel like the move towards natural surroundings has up and down sides. It's not like it's a big enough area for an animal not to know the difference. I wish the zoos would come up with ways for the people to be fun for the animals.

When I was little, the elephant was by the concession stand and loved the little kids because it could reach across the moat and get peanuts or ice cubes from them. It was the most exciting thing at the zoo, to have an elephant happy to see you. This came to a halt when he ate a paper cup the ice was in that a kid didn't grip tightly enough so I get that it's not the best idea.

The last time I was at the new zoo was years. The elephants had a big enclosure with a huge moat and they hid as far away from the public as they could. If we're going to have zoos, trying to find a way for the animals and people to interact or have some connection so it's not just being stared at feels like it would be some kind of improvement.

The one time I went to Sea World, they had a program where you had to wash your hands in bleach water and you could buy a small tray of fish to feed the sea lions (I think). It was more of a supplemental feeding or treat for them. You were way above them and threw the fish down and they seemed to having a fun time. I didn't feel that way about the touch tank and feeding the sting rays. I think it stressed them out. It just seems like there could be a way to incorporate treats and play so that people add to the animals life, instead of being creepy onlookers.
posted by stray thoughts at 7:56 PM on June 25 [2 favorites]


The elephants had a big enclosure with a huge moat and they hid as far away from the public as they could. If we're going to have zoos, trying to find a way for the animals and people to interact or have some connection so it's not just being stared at feels like it would be some kind of improvement.

Wild animals don't generally like to interact with people in any way.
posted by empath at 8:42 PM on June 25


I was never a big fan of zoos anyway, but on my last visit, I saw two cheetahs in side-by-side cages. One watched while the other paced back and forth endlessly, losing its mind. That was heading into 20 years ago. The zoo discussion has points and nuances all around, but my heart broke for what was done to those cheetahs.
posted by bryon at 2:13 AM on June 26


I feel like a better way for people to learn how to interact with animals would be to encourage volunteership at animal sanctuaries and rescue facilities that rehabilitate and rescue wild animals. From that vantage people can get the message that ideally we wouldn't interact with most wild animals at all-- humans are a predator species and even those who are vegetarians at present would probably convert to meat eating if survival depended on it. Most species that regularly sense and hide from predator species are made to sense things like this.

Symbiotic relationships can occur with specific species but it would be good to look at the details of whether such relationships are mutually beneficial... I would say cats it would be yes, although cats now probably have a slight disadvantage to surviving conditions in the wild if abandoned, they still maintained some ability to hunt and survive on their own. Dogs have been pretty crippled in terms of surviving on their own as a result of their relationships with humans, especially since they are pack animals and we disband their packs in order to force them to bond wit humans instead of dogs.

While dogs do subsequently bond, it's a bit like stockholm syndrome--- I mean they need to bond with someone and humans are the ones there. Feeding wildlife could help or hurt various species and understanding the complicated consequences of trying to build mutually beneficial relationships with other species is a great thing to do. A lot of times people get disheartened and think maybe we just shouldn't care at all but I don't think that's true. Humans have a great capacity to understand problems faces various species (ironically frequency BECAUSE of humans so in some ways this is just cleaning up our messes and not actually being some amazing charitable species). We could use our ability to understand science and ecosystems and the build tools to work for the benefit of ecosystems as a whole, preserving species where possible. We could even learn to help animals build new skills by training them to master environmental variables they may be struggling with.

Of course as I kind of share a vision of peace and harmony with nature with philosophies like Jainism, I also think that our capacity for knowledge and understanding, and to generate great change and progress should be used to understand the feeling nature of all living beings and to work to reduce the cycles of violence we currently call "the way things are" among the species. We could creat robotics that gave other species opposable thumbs, we could likely hook plants up to the robot arms people use and see what happens... I mean there is so much we could do to advance not only the development of our own species but of other species as well.

When you think about how deeply rooted the idea that humans are better than all other species is, it's really very tribal, it's the same instinct that tells us our country is better than others, that our family is better than other humans.... that divide races and genders. That divide and rank humans based on abilities and leave disabled or struggling humans facing maltreatment because they are considered to be closer to the worth of animals than humans. I personally put value on the ability to sense complex and deep emotions, and I'm not convinced that plants don't have the ability to sense their existence as well. Currently we are in a very tribal state within nature and within our species. We like others like us, feel ok discarding the rest. This is natural and part of the brutality of nature but I think that what does make humans inspiring as a species is the desire to transcend "the order of things" and to value compassion for the experience of living beings over following a merciless state of existence in which the weak are destroyed and often the violent and cruel are able to thrive and dominate the rest. These are all forces that have balanced each other and kept various things in ecosystems in check, and especially if you believe gaia theory, that earth as an ecosystem seeks to maintain homeostasis in the same way the bodies of living beings do, tampering with that in any way can have huge consequences for good or bad and usually both. But things change nonetheless and we are PART of this whole system. We aren't some strange alien force above it that can say "Well let's just not get involved here because that could be messy"

We are already involved and we are destroying so much and we have no idea because we are pretending we don't have a duty to form symbiotic relationships with nature while using all that information we have about supporting ecosystems and creating balance between species and natural forces. Also it's possible if we help other species gain intelligence and physical ability and empathy and communication between species-- they could have a lot to offer to us as well.
posted by xarnop at 7:25 AM on June 26


How could a large zoo animal ever safely be released into the wild if they associate people with food? We relocate or shoot wild bears that get into garbage dumpsters because they are dangerous to humans. It seems like even smaller, non-threatening animals would experience some changes to their instinctive food-seeking behavior.

This is a really hard ethical problem for me to face. The last time I was at the (Milwaukee) zoo was on a weekday in winter and there was almost no one there. The animals seemed pretty relaxed and I had a conversation with a llama for awhile while it gently snowed. That day was a truly magical experience at a really low point in my life. I'd hate not to have had that, but I realize that it's not about me, or any of the other visitors.
posted by desjardins at 8:03 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]


I am old enough to remember really bleak zoos. We usually as a family went when it was a little rainy out. That is because the animals were less stressed by crowds, and more likely to come close, where you could see them. We were frequent zoo goers. Later, I used to take my own kids. We would spend the whole day. We got to know some animals on an individual basis.

I think whether zoos are educational or good for children depends a lot on how their parents are approaching it.
If you familiarize your children with animals early, that they are alive too, and how they live, it can be very good, they'll grow up to love animals.

Nthing what's been said about conservation work by zoos.
Many animals are at least still around because of zoos.

American bison, Przwalski's horse, Okapi are just a few saved by captive breeding. In most cases these animals were in zoos. Most animals in zoos are not wild-caught.

We can do away with zoos when we can do away with poaching of endangered species, such as rhinos, and elephants, also habitat fragmentation and pollution are big problems for many animals.
Giraffe used to be a very abundant animal when I was young. Now for every 5 elephants, there is 1 giraffe. The balance was different. We need to repair a LOT of damage. More later going to watch an orphan rhino online.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:51 AM on June 26


Check out "Africam Rhino Cam" live on #Ustream! This is the little orphaned rhino I've been watching. He's 4 months old. His mother was killed and her horn was hacked off. This poor baby was found by his dead mother, crying. Fortunately for him, some people found and rescued him.

At the rate rhinos are being hunted for trophies, and poached for their horns, they really are at high risk of extinction.

Maybe being raised by humans isn't ideal, but it's certainly better than being dead. Someday, this little rhino may father other rhinos.

Some animals do have shortened lifespans in zoos. Elephants in particular do badly in captiviylty. Arguably a well cared for working elephant is likely to live longer than a zoo elephant, or a circus elephant.

Other animals live longer in zoos. Giraffes live quite a bit longer.

A LOT depends on the zoo. Private, road-side menageries ought to be illegal. Private trade in large exotic animals needs to be ended. No private individual ought to have chimps or elephants or giraffes or tigers or lions.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:21 AM on June 26


Animal Madness: How Deciphering Mental Illness in Our Fellow Beings Helps Us Become Better Versions of Ourselves
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:00 PM on July 7


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