By: Briana McDonald
The area is dry and cramped compared to home. You and your neighbors don’t get along. You might have 1% of the space you’re used to. People stop and stare at you all day. Little kids tap their filthy fingers against the glass. They press their noses to it. They fog it with their breath then act shocked when you become hostile. Someone you cannot see throws food at you twice a day. You might get it three times if you’re lucky. There’s no break from the noise. You’re captured and forced to live in a box for the rest of your life. You have limited time outside. You’re allowed to rope through the park at night. It’s isolated and dark. They poke at you with electrical prods until you return to the cages. If you do manage to escape, you’re a frightful, dangerous predator and – most likely – you will be shot on sight.
This is reality for many zoo animals.
In more lenient and forgiving zoos, animals have more freedoms. They have more room, more time outside that isn’t restricted to the dark hours, and they might get a pound of food more a day than animals that live in money-grabbing zoos, ones that don’t care about their well being. But authentically, many zoo animals suffer from an illness termed “zoochosis”–psychosis present in animals that are kept in confinement. Zoochosis is especially found in animals that are close-knit and stick together in groups, such as elephants or gorillas. The effects of this can be detrimental to an animal’s health. Animals can participate in behaviors deemed repetitive and unnecessary: bar-biting, pacing, swimming in circles, hair-plucking. There’s a reason animals break out of zoos.
The argument for zoos is that humankind is incapable of preserving our ecosystem, that animals need to be protected because the lowest and most disgusting of our own species – the ones who hunt for sport – will inevitably justify shooting them for wall mounting. Well here’s a solution to this problem: adequately prosecute humans who do hunt for sport. Often, these people are rich and infamous and have endless money to throw at fines and/or bail. Therefore, rather than fining them, we should put into place this system: if you are caught hunting big game, causing endangerment and a “need” for zoos, you are thrown into the pen along with the animal you elected to murder – at the zoo of your choice! Swim with the otters; run with the wild African zebras. Take your chances with the elephants at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., or the lions at San Diego Zoo – bonus points if your name happens to be Daniel. While this may be a brutal, sardonic idea, there’s no denying that big game hunters need to be put in place. Steve West, a hunting advocate for the Outdoor Channel, tries to rationalize hunting. He told Travel, “These are salt-of-the-earth people. They may be wealthy, but people who hunt consider themselves conservationists.” The so-called conservationist argument is that putting a price on these animals’ heads will ultimately save them from extinction. What West doesn’t understand is that we’re putting a price on these animals’ heads, not their lives; therefore, in order to make money, people will bring back the heads.
There’s also another issue here – not all zoo animals are endangered. At the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., only one-fifth of the animals housed are on the endangered species list. Not all zoo animals live longer, either. The journal Science found that wild African and Asian elephants in protected zones lived almost twice as long as elephants held in captivity, and their expanded environments lent them more freedom and less anxieties.
Some zoos have tried to give their animals ways to combat zoochosis: enrichment programs that test the animals’ minds and distract them from their captivity, pharmaceuticals that help reduce their anxieties. But the idea that distraction and deflection must be used to keep zoo animals content isn’t a comforting one; it means that humans are, once again, butting into an area of the world that is not meant for us to own.