Last week, someone I have never met wrote a lengthy missive on her assumptions about my opinions about zoos. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was wildly off-the-mark and (in some cases, quite spectacularly) failed to grasp the reasons I hold the views that I do on establishments which hold animals captive for their lifetimes. I suppose this is the danger of trying to write authoritatively on someone you have never had any association with.
I don't necessarily feel the need to respond in detail to the piece; not least because I have written fairly extensively on most of the points raised and so my actual views on these issues are easily found. However, there was one point which struck a chord with me; in part because it is one leveled at those of us who oppose captivity on a regular basis and, I think, is something which I have never attempted to address in any detail in my own writing.
The question raised by the author was this: "Should rich kids be the only ones who ever get to see a lion?"
Her question was based on the premise that not all families can afford to go on safari and see animals in the wild -- and therefore this means that only "rich kids" get to see a real-life lion, unless they go to the zoo. Implicit in this question (and increasingly explicit as the article in question progressed) is the suggestion that we all have a "right" to see wild animals; regardless of any potential loss that the animal suffers in order to allow us to do that. Ergo, zoos must exist in order that poorer children can see wild animals and by being opposed to zoos I was somehow discriminating against those children.
Before I tackle this question directly, bear with me while I digress for a moment to tell you about my dad (I will come back shortly to the case in point, I promise)... My dad is 65 years old and born and bred in Manchester (a city in the north of England). He is a lifelong Manchester City fan (not to ever be confused with the *other* team from the Manchester -- make that mistake in front of a Mancunian at your peril!). Those that follow football (or soccer, if you are reading this outside of the U.K.), might know that City's current winning form has been a long time coming; a really, really long time.
My dad has stuck by City through thick and thin; never wavering in his support for the team that, for decades, were very much Manchester's underdogs. He has traipsed up and down the country to watch them, sat in the opposition stand when there were no home tickets left and brazenly cheered along for his team (despite my mum asking him not to) and, if he couldn't get the match, sat glued to the radio or television to make sure he didn't miss a second. In short, he put the time in over the years for his team.
In all these years of support, my dad had never been a season-ticket holder at City; although my mum and brother had often encouraged him to get one. My dad is a very generous man when it comes to others but balked at paying the (to be fair, extortionate) cost of the ticket for himself; he was always happy to pick up matches when he could and follow the rest on TV or radio. I am not sure exactly what happened this season -- I get the sense my brother may have had a lot to do with it -- but for the first time ever, after 65 years of unfaltering support, my dad found himself the proud owner of his very first season ticket. He has attended matches this season religiously. I couldn't be happier for him.
So that's my dad. I am meandering my way back to the case in point, honestly. Now, let me tell you briefly about my experience of seeing animals in the wild...
Ten years ago, I left a very secure job in London to go and work at a rescue centre for ex-pet monkeys in the south of England. My days consisted of cleaning out monkey enclosures, looking after the amazing individuals in need of care, working on environmental education projects to encourage people to think and behave with more consideration towards the environment and the animals that inhabit it and learning all I could about "the wild". I lived in a shared house (well, for the first few months I was in a leaky caravan, before getting my own room) and a large proportion of the work, which was full-time, was unpaid. I am not complaining -- and neither were my incredibly dedicated colleagues -- that was just how it was.
Three years later I made the decision to move to Colombia in order to help set up and run an organization founded by a group of conservationists working in primate conservation with indigenous communities in the Amazon region. Again, this work was largely unpaid -- and was to remain that way for the two years that followed. I paid my own way with rapidly-dwindling savings squirreled away from my time in London years before and lived frugally in order to pursue my dream. At this point, although I had cared for rescued woolly monkeys (who are, in my admittedly biased view, the most incredible of the primate species) for over three years, I had never seen these animals in the wild. I hoped against hope that I might get the opportunity in my new life.
It was six months after I arrived in Colombia that my wish came true. We were half way through a grueling ten-day field trip; carrying out a reconnaissance of a largely unknown area of forest which was being assessed for suitability for a release site for rescued wildlife confiscated by the environmental authorities. On that particular morning, it is fair to say were all pretty fed up. I had been carrying a 36 kilo pack for over eight hours a day over difficult terrain, my back and knees were killing me, it had been raining heavily all night and the first sudden downpour meant water had rushed through our camp before we had had chance to move to higher ground. We had ended up sleeping five in a row under one mosquito net as it was the only space in the makeshift camp which was even vaguely dry.