I never much enjoyed the zoo. As a child, the prospect of a day’s visit with my classmates sounded fun, but beyond the attraction of a day off from school, singing on the bus, and the cotton candy, the experience was usually pretty depressing. The place stunk like a huge cat box, and the animals appeared sulking, bored and disinterested. The people roughhoused, threw food and didn’t seem to remotely appreciate these wonderful creatures and their place in nature. And what did we learn from polar bears that repeated the same back-and-forth motions all day long in their cramped cement pools, driven psychotic by their imprisonment so far away from their natural habitat and others of their own kind?
Jerry Russell Illustration
The zoos of my memory are not unlike the freak shows of bygone days, metaphors for our aberrant relationship with nature. It was exploitation on both sides of the bars: the animals yanked from their worlds, without regard for the individual or whole species impact; and the people exploited, too, duped by the illusion that wildlife was flourishing when it was, in fact, disappearing quickly. ("How can they be endangered? I just saw a whole family of them at the Bronx Zoo.")
But, as our timely cover story in this issue reports, some zoos have begun to re-think their roles. Many employ hard-working, concerned people, and are changing their priorities from entertainment to conservation—primarily by breeding endangered species with the hope of someday returning them to the wild. Ironically, though, the wild is no place for wildlife anymore. As long as we humans continue to lay claim to so much of the planet, while living under such economic and political strife ourselves, any wildlife released back to nature will quickly end up as "bushmeat," or a victim otherwise of someone’s economic desperation.
So here’s a radical idea: Close the zoos! Most are of questionable public education value anyway. And in our modern electronic age we have the Animal Planet, Discovery and Learning Channels, and many other ways to see wildlife on its own turf. Zoos whose biggest priority now is packing "em in for the new gorilla exhibit should instead focus all efforts on staving off what is being called the biggest mass extinction since the dinosaurs. Through captive breeding—and political action on global habitat loss—the wildlife conservation community should focus on reversing this terrible trend without the distraction of having to provide entertainment to the public, what with all the costs, time and mixed messages associated with that. Instead of selling popcorn and admission tickets, they could obtain their funding in other ways from individuals, and from private foundations, as do most other conservation organizations.
What better message to put out to the public: No more popcorn, no more clowns, no more cigar-smoking, roller-skating chimpanzees—we’re in a crisis. The show’s over, folks. Do the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace or the Natural Resources Defense Council need to fund their important work by maintaining petting zoos in their lobbies? Here’s a headline I want to see in The Washington Post: "National Zoo Closes Doors to Public, Issues Dire Warning, Turns Fully to Business of Saving World’s Wildlife." My checkbook and pen are ready.