The Show Is Over

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For many decades human fascination, curiosity, and affinity for other animals has shaped what the zoo experience is like for us and for animals. While a fascinating history, it’s not one we should necessarily be too proud of. Coming out of a 19th century “Bedlam” model (named after the Royal Bethlehem Hospital—an Insane Asylum), zoos were “freak” shows finally open to the public. We’ve surely come a long way. Regardless, the show must not go on.

I recall receiving an elephant from another zoo about twenty years ago. As she contemplated coming off the special transport truck, she screamed. My heart sank because our intention was to give her a great life. But really there was nothing mysterious about what her cries meant. She was terrified. Why is it so hard for us to understand that non-human (and particularly non-domesticated) animals are often scared and challenged by the human world? In a zoo or aquarium, they are aliens. Wouldn’t we be anxious?

Zoo professionals are like physicians and nurses: Wonderfully caring, highly trained, clinically proficient, and science-driven. We are expected to be logical and emotionally unencumbered. In other words, we shouldn’t anthropomorphize. We believe that advancing conservation in the name of science gives us a kind of license. And though I’m a fan of both Darwin (survival of the fittest) and Mr. Spock (the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few), these concepts are useless when we intervene in nature. Under this scientific paradigm, compassion for an individual becomes a nuisance. Shelter, food, and water (which are basic provisions to survive) do not necessarily ensure great welfare. Along with captive breeding these two efforts are believed to result in effective care and conservation. Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily add up and neither necessarily lead to good welfare.

If you recognize that zoo dwellers are individuals, you think and act differently. For example, we’ve recently discovered that turtles have individual personalities. Can turtles then be considered part of a “collection”? Our vocabulary reflects our problem. Animals are not inanimate objects like cars and stamps. They are not biological robots, nor technically are individual zoo animals “ambassadors.” Although they may have benevolent caretakers, animals didn’t volunteer for a captive experience or a “statesman” role.

We scientists now know that animals feel and think, obviously in a species-relevant way that is not identical to the way humans do these things. But it’s not better or worse than us. Nonetheless, just because a captive Elephant or Orca can’t say “I’m unhappy” in English, doesn’t mean that we couldn’t (and shouldn’t) have figured out long ago that the compromises created by their captive physical and social environments were beyond their ability to cope.  

Our good intentions have been flawed by assumptions, by human arrogance, and by our perceived superiority. Human selfishness, the desire to own and hold exotic creatures, has not been balanced by the wonderful human capacity for understanding and compassion.

Researchers have demonstrated that it’s difficult for us to relate to each other in this way, let alone connect empathetically with a being who appears to be very different from us. One way my colleagues and I have tried to change things has been by developing a motion-based simulator that allows humans to see, feel, and experience life and its challenges, including some human-induced challenges like habitat destruction, through the senses of animals. It creates empathy.

The question and research findings that prompted this essay recognize that zoos and aquariums might not be fostering a compassionate culture in our society. Of course creating a culture of compassion isn’t exclusively or entirely within zoo professionals hands. Books, movies, art, and ads are among the various forms of competing messages that we are faced with every day. Some distort the reality of nature and our relationship to it.

Elephants in a zoo Life in the wild is rough for just about everyone. Yes, one is theoretically “free” in the wild but most definitely not free from predators, competitors, drought, famine, climate change, floods, fires, disease, etc. It’s easy to romanticize nature, but as I watched thousands of penguins in Antarctica last week have their chicks relentlessly devastated by Brown Skuas, or shredded by Leopard seals when they entered the water, I was reminded that there is no sanctuary in the wild. Bambi may very well have been beloved by humans, but in real life he would have probably been shot, or caught by a predator, right after the movie premiered!

Zoos can and should be sanctuaries. They may not let the animals leave, but they can honestly demonstrate how humans can and should be responsible and compassionate if the animals come first and are given substantial control and significant choice, under captive circumstances, in their lives.

There should be some zoo dos and don’ts. Don’t capture or otherwise exploit animals. The circus was a horrible idea and in the beginning differed only slightly from zoos in that they traveled their animals causing enormous additional stress. Demeaning shows, first requiring harsh training, then portraying animals as clowns, exemplify our efforts to dominate and our ability to be oblivious or even to ignore wrongdoing. Shows mislead people away from healthy ethical and moral relationships with other animals. Most readers won’t know this, but people from other cultures were once captured and put on display in some zoos. A kind of Bedlam 2.0.

Instead, let’s rescue (if it’s truly rescue). We can’t rescue or care for every being, so we had better really be intentional about the choices we make. Our zoo has rescued thousands of animals over the years from circus bears to crack house (on guard duty) lions. If we had better laws, we wouldn’t need to do these rescues. Zoos should be strong advocates for sensible and compassionate public environmental policy. Zoos should save and rescue what others can’t. However, we should be very mindful that helping one species can hurt another. Zoo-bred Black-footed Ferrets released in the wild have ironically (but not surprisingly) made life much harder for wild Prairie Dogs. Conservation historically has not considered this. Every individual animal matters, even if they aren’t endangered or indeed charismatic in a human’s eyes.

Let’s also study and teach how to learn about non-human animals without harming them. Zoos can teach humane education methods that instill an ethic of “treading softly.”

The zoo experience shapes attitudes, values, and expectations of what our relationship with “others” can and should be like. Zoos have been unintentionally doing that all along but not always in a helpful way.  For example, by placing animals in cages that resemble prison cells we lead people to associate animals with concepts of guilt or danger. Let’s be less selfish, not insist on being next to, or touching, every exotic or “cute” being. Let’s be more guardian-like.

Zoos can help people connect in a healthy way with other beings, see compassion at work, and feel passionate about acting as guardians. We just need to make zoos true sanctuaries for human and non-human animals. Not all species or individuals will thrive in zoos or aquariums; so we needn’t keep every animal. It’s time to pull the curtain on the show and open the door to the sanctuary.

Image Credit

“Elefantes” by Michelangelo-36.

  • Ron Kagan

    Ron Kagan is CEO of the Detroit Zoological Society and an advocate and activist for compassionate conservation, animal welfare, and humane education. He has worked at and consulted for numerous zoos and aquaria, and he lectures at universities and conferences around the world.

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