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Monday 5.2.05: Are Zoos Cruel?

Yesterday (gorgeous spring), Maria, Jim and I went to the zoo to get more animal footage for the video we're making. Personally, I love zoos but when I mention this project to people I get an occasional harrumph expressing the opinion that zoos are nothing but cruel entertainments. Animals in cages being stared at.

No argument that zoos are unnatural habitats. But is a zoo worse than living in a New York City apartment? Or working 8 hours a day in a 6-foot square cubicle farm? After all, human "natural habitat" involves roaming free in forests and on plains.

Would I want someone to "free" me from my artificial habitat so that I could run wild? Hell no.

Would the parrot who lives in my kitchen want to be freed up to go back to the jungles of Guatemala? Hell no. Her entertaining nature has bought her a continuous supply of food and taxi service around the temperature-controlled house. Her cage defines safety from large human visitors and from the crows and bluejays outside the window. Flying may look beautiful to the observer but it requires as much fitness as humans would need if they sprinted everywhere instead of riding in cars. And it's dangerous.

Are there cruel and abusive zoos? Of course. Just as there are cruel and abusive workplaces, living spaces, and modes of transportation (consider Coach Class on a jet airliner).

But the world is cruel. No creature gets a free pass. Living in the wild is a merciless daily competition for food, sex, and territory, no matter where you are on the food chain. There are no weekends in the wild.

And do humans have any more free will than brown bears? In 19th century Ireland, people gave up living off their beautiful land to squeeze themselves into tiny urban tenements and to work 18 hours a day in miserable conditions, just as immigrants today do. We give up what we need to, without exercising too much imagination about it.

My point is, I guess, that animals in the good exhibits in good zoos are working. Their ability to be entertaining buys them safety, nourishment, housing and health benefits. And their offices have windows.




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