Dear reader, today I’d like to make a confession. I’ve never been to a zoo. Despite having lived for three years in a city with a sizeable collection of animals of all kinds for the enjoyment and, one would hope, edification of the public, I never made it there. For most of my life it was understandable, living as I did in Canada’s eastern most province where there are no zoos to speak of, and the wildest animals were often the population itself. Despite having since relocated to larger metropolitan areas, I have not yet had the temerity to grace the entrance of a zoo, despite a tremendous desire to gaze with my own eyes on a selection of the magnificent cornucopia of fauna that populate our planet.
So what stays my hand you ask? I was never quite sure until recently, when I found myself wondering: Was it not possible that future generations would look back with amazement and distaste at our casual willingness to allow the imprisonment of animals?
The moral dilemma this creates is a very interesting one. Perfectly decent, kind and considerate people two hundred years ago kept slaves, owned shares in plantations that used nothing but slaves and wore clothing made from cotton that they knew perfectly well had been picked by slaves. If you went back and told them they were participating in and encouraging one of the most heinous and inhuman practices imaginable they would have thought you insane.
But these people were not evil, nor incapable of grasping the moral arguments that we now take for granted. History has shown that morality is largely based on custom, and we are (thankfully) accustomed to the idea that it’s wrong for one human to own another, that it is pernicious for women or any citizen of legal age to be denied a vote and that freak shows are disgusting (reality television not withstanding).
What then, will our grandchildren think our world? Which of our practices will turn their stomachs and leave them amazed that we could ever have called ourselves civilized? I have the distinct impression that zoos will figure high on that list.
Human beings have rich imaginations, and the ability to distract themselves by remembering poems or writing new ones, and we find it almost intolerable to cope with incarceration. Animals, so far as we know, do not have an interior life that can make captivity less traumatizing. They simply turn slowly from rage to despair to neurosis… and finally to a kind of numb lethargy.
At this point you may be asking, “What about the scientific side of things, the conservation of endangered species and all that?” It is true that zoos are staffed by humans who genuinely love the animal kingdom and who do their best to protect the myriad creatures that roam the surface of this big blue marble. They learn as much as possible about our animal friends so we may understand them better, and yes, even preserve some that have been, shamefully, brought to the edge of extinction by humanity’s shortsightedness and arrogance.
There are those who will argue that animals have rights. It would be easy to argue that argue that they don’t, on the grounds that they are not as intelligent as us. They do not build cities, create music or dream of exploring the universe. However, they also don’t slaughter their own kind over absurd trivialities, so… there’s that.
At some point someone will start the debate about food hunting, veganism, etc. I am not a vegan myself, nor do I deride those who are. I simply have my own view of the world, one that I think we arrogant humans all too easily forget: We are animals. We are a vital part of the food chain. Don’t believe me? Spend a few weeks living in the Amazon jungle, or the plains of Serengeti, or the oceans of the world, and nature will be glad to show you where you fit in the food chain. Somewhere between the aperitif and the main course I should think.
In terms of zoos and (heaven help us) theme parks, the distinction is a little more clear. Animals may provide sustenance sustenance, but not entertainment. They do have a right to be left alone, especially when the need for food hunting no longer applies.
There are also certain rights that we do not have. We do not have the right to put other creatures in prison, especially for so obscene and bizarre a reason as for the furtherance of our appreciation of them. We do not have the right to tease, bully or torture them.
Someday our grandchildren may very well ask: “Is it possible that people actually took polar bears away from the arctic and set them in concrete-floored cages in southern climes to be gaped at? My grandparents would never have allowed that, they would have protested, lobbied government or written to the newspapers. My kindly old grandparents would have been ashamed to live in a world which imprisoned animals for show. Wouldn’t they?”