I LOVE ZOOS. I’ve been going to them since I was a child. They were exotic little pockets of life in the middle of suburbia — I could drive half an hour and suddenly hear monkeys laughing, watch vampire bats swoop down to sip out of a bowl of blood, or smell the dusty, earthy musk from the elephant enclosure.
I wouldn’t have thought to question whether zoos were good or bad. I loved animals. The place to see animals was the zoo. Therefore I loved the zoo. How the animals felt about living in captivity never entered the equation. Nothing ever made me question my love for zoos — the people who hated zoos always struck me as either animal haters or part of the PETA fringe. Zoos were educational, they promoted conservation, and they got kids like me excited about what was living out in the wider world. So I never thought particularly hard about whether zoos were good or bad.
That ended early last year when a child fell into the gorilla enclosure at my local zoo. I’d grown up in Cincinnati, and had been to that enclosure a dozen times. When my family got close, I would worm away from my mom, who had at least two other kids to keep track of and I’d do whatever I could to get a good view of the animals. Just like the kid last year. But he fell in, and then zoo officials shot the gorilla when he became aggressive.
What followed was a viral trainwreck. Ricky Gervais gave his opinion. Then Piers Morgan gave his. Then Donald Trump gave his. Within days, it had become a meme. In an August poll for the Presidential race, Harambe was tied with Jill Stein. Everyone — myself included — wrote a think-piece about it. The zoo was so constantly harassed online that, for a while, they deleted their Twitter account.
Shortly after Harambe was shot, the debate about whether zoos had a place in the 21st century began to flare up. But it got drowned out by the jokes and the memes. The thing is, the Cincinnati Zoo is a really good zoo. It’s one of the oldest in the country, and it was voted the third best in a recent USA Today poll.
If Harambe could happen in a place like Cincinnati, what could be happening in lesser zoos around the world?
Do we need zoos in the 21st century?
Last month, Responsible Travel, a UK-based tour operator, became the first travel company to announce that it would no longer promote trips that would include a visit to any zoos. I’m familiar with Responsible Travel, and they aren’t an up-against-the-wall extremist group, so I hopped on the phone with their marketing manager Sarah Faith to ask her why they’d made the decision.
She tole me that it came on the heels of advocating against dolphin and whale shows at places like SeaWorld. “We’ve always thought that if you’re going to keep animals in captivity, there should be very good reason for it, We were looking at the reasons that zoos commonly use to justify why they put animals in captivity. And where some of them might have been relevant 50 years ago, 90 years ago, 100 years ago, we just don’t think that they’re necessarily justifiable now.”
One of those reasons has traditionally been education. But now with the internet, cable, and truly spectacular nature shows like Planet Earth, zoos are less of a necessity — we can get all of the information much easier, without having to move the animals halfway around the world to strange environments that they are held captive in.
I admitted to Faith that I felt that this argument didn’t hold as strongly with me as it should have. I had heard a lion roar, for instance, thousands of times before the start of an MGM movie, but it was nothing like hearing a lion roar at the Cincinnati Zoo a few years back. The sound was chilling — I could feel a cold weight drop into my stomach, and I suddenly had the urge to crouch down and hide. It was a primal feeling that could never be totally be replicated with a camera and a microphone.
“Yes,” she said, “hearing a lion roar itself, you’re never going to be able to replace that with a TV program. But ultimately, do we have a right, just because we’re people, to hear a lion roar if we’re not somewhere where lions are? Do we have a right to keep that lion in captivity? Or is it better to foster a love of wildlife and nature from a young age by focusing on our own wildlife and nature, you know getting kids out into natural spaces, getting them to love the nature that’s around them?”
It was a fair point. Just because I had a cherished experience does not mean I was owed that experience. And while my initial instinct was to say, “Yeah, well, there’s not much wildlife around Cincinnati, it’s all just deer,” on second consideration, I realized that was wrong. I’d seen vultures and bald eagles while kayaking on a nearby river. Coyotes weren’t unheard of in our area. And there have been many nights that I’ve sat around a fire with my dad in our backyard, listening to owls.
It’s impossible to argue that it’s better to see an animal in captivity rather in its natural habitat. And this sort of trip is beginning to catch on — Faith mentioned to me specifically a program called Watchable Wildlife, which is trying to both bring communities closer in touch with their local wildlife, and is trying to turn local wildlife watching into a viable tourist activity.
Not everyone lives in places with lions and tigers and bears. But that’s not the point, Faith says. “It’s a matter of perspective, really. You can get kids excited about wildlife from a really young age — any kind of wildlife.”
“But don’t zoos do a lot of conservation work?”
The final arguments that Responsible Travel has against zoos is that they aren’t really the bastions of conservation and environmental protection that they make themselves out to be. While zoos often do give money to conservation causes, Responsible Travel CEO Justin Francis writes in a blog post, “this is overstated as a justification. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums encourage their members to commit just 3% of their expenditure to conservation. While a few Zoos fund some good conservation work it’s hard to understand how they can justify claims to be conservation organizations when such minimal funds are committed. In our opinion most are simply commercial organizations which display animals for profit and donate a tiny proportion of expenditure to conservation.”
A similar problem arises for the “zoos breed endangered species” argument — that’s great for the animals that are endangered, but in reality, around 90% of zoo animals are not endangered. So this argument only holds for a small proportion of the animals in zoos.
I am still not totally sold on the anti-zoo argument — my own experience is anecdotal, but it is largely positive, and many of the most passionate advocates for animals that I have known have worked for zoos. And all zoos are not created equal: at their best, they are centers for learning and education. At their worst, they are abusive, cruel and pointless.
But even in the aftermath of the Harambe shooting, I don’t feel totally ready to abandon the Cincinnati Zoo. Faith said that’s fine. “Ultimately, we just want to create debate, a bit like Blackfish did for marine parks. Like zoos, marine parks existed for a long time as institutions that no one really questioned.”
Indeed, there are alternatives out there (many of which are cheaper than zoo visits) which tourists should start to consider as alternatives. And the zoos of the future may have to work a little harder to justify their existence to the world.