The shame of zoos

Barbara Amiel on the slums no one is talking about

Greg Southam / Edmonton Journal / CP

Now that Toronto’s elephants have reached the sunny lands of California, we can turn to the basic question: to zoo or not to zoo. Can we justify the suffering of captive animals? Canada still has slums and some of the worst are at our zoos. Lucy, the solitary elephant at the Edmonton zoo under the care of veterinarian Milton Ness, lives in a mental and physical slum. Ness thinks that since she has been separated from any elephants for six years now, she loves human beings instead. She lives “a pretty full and complete life and is very happy here,” he says. Unfortunately for Edmonton’s zoo, Ness is no Brigitte Bardot and can’t make this argument remotely sexy or credible. Perhaps he cares deeply for animals but you couldn’t tell listening to him. One yearns for just one commonsensical observation—possibly that hanging on to an African elephant in a climate that required her in lock-up in a small tiled cage for about 76 per cent of her time was wrong and now it’s too late to move her without serious health issues. But no: We have to hear tripe about the reverse anthropomorphic qualities of Lucy—the elephant who cares for us.

As a child, the zoo was my favourite destination, but it taught me nothing about animals. The primates seemed angry or listless. The polar bears paced round and round. I went to circuses too and never gave a thought as to how trainers got wild animals to jump through a hoop of fire. It was fun; there were sweet crunchy things to eat and ladies in sparkly costumes with top hats and fishnet stockings. No one asked about where the animals lived after their 10 minutes in the ring. We didn’t see the scars from hooks and sharp sticks shoved into anuses, trunks and above the eyes till the animal only had to see the stick in the hand of the smiling trainer to get the message.

Incredibly, Canada still allows circuses with wild animal acts: The Shriners bring them in. The Tarzan Zerbini Circus has a video to prove they train their lions with snacks on a stick. I’m no genius but I’m pretty sure there is an initial stage when you have to break the spirit of a wild animal and instill a terror of the ringmaster’s baton. Some jurisdictions in Canada have legislation preventing the display of wild animal acts. Toronto does not.

Any wild animal in captivity suffers. Keepers love and name their animals, but wild animals don’t reciprocate this love. We can love a giant tortoise, even rats caged for medical experiments, and shed genuine tears over departures, but those animals will not shed tears over leaving us. Even so devoted an animal lover as Jane Goodall, who practically became a chimpanzee, wrote that she was wrong to call her book My Friends the Wild Chimpanzees. Friendship, she explained, had to be reciprocal.

Our iPads show us a snow leopard, but can’t match seeing it first-hand. Purists may deride the new landscape-immersion zoos that try to recreate the environment of the animals they exhibit (even though they often have to use synthetic materials to do so) but human beings have an almost primal need to actually see megafauna in action—whether elephants, rhinos or giant squid. These huge creatures inspire awe. Progressive zoos are better for animals but they are not really “nature.” Nature’s landscape has dead animals, regurgitated prey and feces. “Nature making,” as professor David Grazian of the University of Pennsylvania calls these zoos, is a compromise between the needs of animals, zoo educators and expectations of zoo visitors—which rarely include feeding live animals to carnivores. Environmental enrichment of odors may mean designer fragrances in enclosures: Chanel No. 5 for African wild dogs at the Philadelphia Zoo; Ralph Lauren Polo for Men for San Diego’s giant pandas, and deer antlers sprayed with Calvin Klein’s Obsession at its safari park.

To prevent extinction of the great apes, elephants, rhinos and tigers, we need not zoos, but the commitment of African governments against poaching and habitat encroachment. Tough sanctions against Asian countries that consume much of the odious trafficking in wild animal parts wouldn’t hurt. Wouldn’t hurt either to show some compassion for the starving people who rely on animal abuse for their income. South Asia’s illiterate Kalandars—nomads—have for generations earned a living training sloth bears to dance, an activity licensed until 20 years ago. I don’t suppose they ever contemplated animal rights. Some organizations are trying to raise money to buy their bears, or retrain Kalandars for other work, but many have simply switched to performing monkeys instead.

There is scant evidence that breeding in captivity helps. Zookeepers have a limited pool and often the mating is unsuccessful or the offspring don’t survive very long. Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo has just adopted an 11-month-old orphaned polar bear for its new International Polar Bear Conservation Centre. That seems humane, but is it? The orphaned polar bear will live in captivity on display all its life, never roaming across great expanses of snow. Would natural death in the wild have been better?

Perhaps the urban zoo should be replaced by species zoos that don’t try to cover every inch of the animal kingdom, but concentrate on animals that can thrive in a given climate. I don’t know the answer, but I know that Canada currently has nothing to be proud of in her zoos. As for me, I grow more eccentric every day. Last night I watched a wood beetle walking across my bathroom floor. Perhaps once I might gave killed it. Now I watch the tremendous effort it takes to cross that expanse, pausing when its antennae tell it that I am close and then bravely marching on. It is a Herculean effort, one that few humans will ever match and, truth to be told, I’m on the wood beetles’ side.

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