Browsing the children's section at my local bookshop, I despair at the available selection of titles: "ABC Zoo," "Dear Zoo," "Peekaboo Zoo" – what a lack of imagination, and what an absence of discernment, on the part of authors, publishers and booksellers.
Perhaps this is symptomatic of our ambivalent attitudes towards animals. We raise our little ones in a make-believe microcosm populated with lovable furry and feathered friends, whilst our societies subject millions of real-life creatures to extreme forms of institutionalized violence such as factory farming and vivisection. But I can't help feeling that it's one thing painting an idealized picture of our relationship with animals (by all means, let's inspire in our children a desire for harmony with nature), and another integrating our abuse of animals into that picture.
So while there are plenty of books featuring animals on my daughter's shelf, many of them full of lies about healthy cows happily grazing in green fields with their calves by their side, none of them depict captive animals enjoying themselves in zoos.
Zoos are miserable places for animals. To be honest, the clue lies in their definition as places where collected species are caged and exhibited to the public. You have to admit the concept doesn't sound like a particularly respectful or compassionate one. Of course there are wide variations in their standards of animal welfare. The worst zoos confine animals in small barren cages allowing very little possibility for exercise; the better ones provide larger enclosures furnished with environmental enrichment enabling the expression of some natural behaviors.
But even with the best will in the world where they have it, zoos simply can't meet the physical, behavioral or social needs of the animals they keep. How can they ever hope to offer appropriate living conditions to a polar bear when they force it to live in a temperate climate?
How can they ever hope to provide a tiger with adequate exercise when they confine it in an enclosure 0.005 percent the size of its natural range? How can they ever hope to allow a naturally nomadic gorilla to thrive when they have it living in a settled enclosure? How can they ever hope to satisfy the complex social needs of an elephant which would normally interact with 100 plus individuals when they give it no more than one or two companions?
As a result of restrictive and frustrating captive conditions, animals in zoos exhibit stereotypical (abnormal repetitive) behaviors such as pacing, circling, tongue-playing, bar- or fence-biting, neck-twisting, head-bobbing, swaying from side to side, excessive grooming, self-mutilation and coprophagia (consumption of excrement). These are all symptoms of distress which can also function as coping mechanisms, with the animals attempting to soothe or stimulate themselves. On average, lions in zoos spend 48 percent of their time pacing – in other words, they spend nearly half of their lives displaying signs of suffering in the unsuitable environment with which they are attempting but failing to cope.
Other symptoms of the inadequate living conditions in zoos include animals dying prematurely (the lifespan of African elephants kept in zoos is generally three times shorter than that of elephants in the wild), animals failing to breed (giant pandas spring to mind), and young animals born in captivity not managing to survive (40 percent of lion cubs in zoos die before they reach one month of age – compared to 30 percent before six months in the wild, with one third of those deaths being due to factors such as predation which are absent in captivity).
Presumably in an effort to distance themselves from the negative images associated with traditional zoos, some places now refer to themselves as safari parks. They usually offer more space for the animals, but don't necessarily provide enclosures designed for the specific needs of the animals which they house or furnished with environmental enrichment. Nor do they always place the animals in suitable social groups, and so their fancy denomination is no guarantee of better welfare standards.
Also in an attempt to create a more positive image for themselves, zoos have increasingly justified their existence on the basis that they serve conservation purposes. Beside the fact that this does nothing to address welfare concerns, they actually do very little to save species from extinction. Their breeding programs are essentially designed to ensure the survival of captive populations, and if zoos ceased to exist, so would the need for most of their research.
For obvious economic reasons, zoos favor crowd-pleasing animals rather than endangered ones. A minority of animals kept in zoos feature on the list of species threatened with extinction, and an even smaller minority are released into natural habitats – partly because, having been born and raised in captivity, they wouldn't be able to survive in the wild. Endangered species are saved in their natural environments, not in zoos, which only divert attention away from real conservation issues and efforts.
Not only do zoos fail to return animals to their natural habitats, but they also use animals captured in the wild. 70 percent of the elephants in European zoos at the beginning of the millennium had been snatched from their natural environments. Sea Life aquariums admitted to taking animals from the wild as recently as 2013. Japan's brutal annual dolphin hunt is well-known to provide animal exhibits for marine parks worldwide (I believe aquariums and marine parks can be assimilated to zoos).
The bottom line is that zoos put animals on display for the purposes of entertaining paying visitors. When the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) in the UK organizes late evening sessions advertised as "after-parties with the animals," would you say it has the animals' best interests at heart? These sessions often involve large groups of young people celebrating birthdays or enjoying work nights out and unsurprisingly result in loud noise, drunken behavior, and disturbance and taunting of the animals. The ZSL describes these sessions as a vital source of fundraising for its conservation program; please forgive me for reacting with a dose of cynicism.
Sadly, there are countless examples of zoos treating animals as commodities. One example is that, through their breeding programmes and their efforts to produce cute babies that will draw crowds, zoos generate surplus animals which they end up "culling". Another is that, instead of providing lifetime care for the animals, they routinely trade, lend, sell or barter the individuals which they no longer wish to exhibit. This is a traumatic process for the animals, as their bonds with cage mates and carers are broken and they are repeatedly forced to adjust to new surroundings and routines.
Zoos' last line of defense is their educational value. But what do zoos really teach children? That might is right, and that we as humans have the power to reduce majestic creatures to a shadow of their natural selves, and to deprive them of all the things that make their lives worth living, in order to briefly entertain ourselves? That gawping at another being's caged existence constitutes entertainment? That despite a wealth of scientific evidence to the contrary (if common sense doesn't suffice), animals are machines devoid of the capacity to feel and suffer? That there is no unity in nature and that we stand alone, separate from the rest of the world, locked up in our concrete jungles?
Zoos certainly teach nothing about respect or compassion for sentient beings with intrinsic value. They teach nothing about the responsibility that comes with our power over the animal kingdom. They teach everything about separateness and nothing about our unity with nature. They also fail to teach anything about real animal lives – watching a cheetah pacing back and forth in its cage or enclosure says nothing about the amazing creature with a top running speed of over 100 kilometers per hour, and I can't imagine an information sign displayed on the bars or fence creating much of a sense of wonder or much of a lasting impression in a child. In this particular instance, I feel we're really better off putting our children in front of the TV. My own vivid childhood memories of the excitement I felt as my favorite wildlife program came on certainly beat my dull memories of school excursions to the zoo.
Perhaps children – or at least some children – are instinctively sensitive to the predicament of animal suffering? As a little girl, I was deeply touched by a Jacques Prévert poem which describes the harrowing look in the eyes of a zoo lioness as the morning sun wakes her and she discovers the "dreadful bars of dreadful human stupidity" momentarily forgotten in her sleep.
At the same time, I have no doubt that most people visit zoos (and most zookeepers choose their careers) because they love animals and want an up-close encounter with animals that fill them with awe but that they wouldn't have the opportunity to see in other circumstances. And so we come back to a familiar question: does our human pleasure justify the infliction of animal suffering?
The issue of zoos raises another common question: in a world where there will soon be no more elephants or tigers in the wild, isn't it better that our children can see captive elephants and tigers in zoos rather than never know live ones? From an animal welfare or ethical point of view, the answer is very clear: no.
In terms of both official and public attitudes towards zoos, the past couple of years have brought tremors of hope for suffering captive animals. In 2013, the Costa Rican government announced its plan to close the country's public zoos. Unfortunately, the environment ministry subsequently lost a court battle against zoo administrators, and the zoos will remain open for another 10 years at least, but the announcement constituted a significant milestone nonetheless. Also in 2013, the release of the documentary "Blackfish" led to growing public disaffection for SeaWorld marine parks.
In any case, "z" will never be for "zoo" in my book.