I want to put something out there for consideration. Is it just me, or does anyone else see most zoos as glorified prisons? Don't get me wrong; I used to go as a child, and thought nothing of it. I'm guessing my parents didn't either.
But take a step back. Pause. Now look again, as if you had never before in your life laid eyes on a zoo. Would it not look somewhat like a prison? Wouldn't an alien to this planet, upon first seeing a zoo, assume that those residing behind the bars were prisoners, incarcerated for some felonious behaviour?
I recognise that this point of view is somewhat controversial. I also recognise that not all ‘zoos' are created equal. It would be unfair of me to put certain wildlife parks in the same category as roadside zoos, for example. But those in an urban setting, coping with obvious space restrictions? Let's put emotion aside for a moment, and look at this intellectually.
Existence bias is a cognitive error whereby humans treat the mere existence of something as evidence of its goodness. Perhaps we are all okay with zoos, simply because they've always been there. Imagine that zoos didn't exist, and someone came up with the idea that we capture wild animals in their natural habitat, transport them long distances to various cities around the world, and put them behind bars so that they may entertain us. Surely this notion would be derided as cruel and unusual.
"Blackfish," the documentary that has so effectively crystallized the cruelty behind confining orcas at parks like SeaWorld, has received overwhelming public support. In fact, the only people who appear to debate the film's veracity are those who continue to profit from the whales' misery.
So why is it that we don't extend a similar level of compassion to other intelligent animals that we incarcerate for our amusement? I understand that unlike orcas at SeaWorld, zoo animals aren't generally required to perform tricks. But still, aren't we confining them against their will? And if so, aren't zoos prisons?
No doubt this is a complicated debate, and there are commendable facilities that focus on conservation, research and education, with ticket sales merely funding their ongoing work. But what of the others? What of the vastly profitable zoos that are little more than tourist attractions?
I can't help but feel desperately sad when I see an animal marking time in an enclosure, while children, unknowing participants in this theatre, gawk, point and squeal in delight from the other side of the glass wall. Animal and human. Captivity and freedom. The juxtaposition is stark.