Tomorrow my family is planning to make a trip to the zoo. I like zoos, but there are some things about them that always get my mind racing through ethical questions about animals and the nature of people.
I find that zoos tend to reliably provoke more thoughts in my mind than other places that can also stimulate me to think, like aquariums, museums, shopping malls, movie theaters, and parks. Before I started writing this article, in my nerdy social scientist way I dug through numerous scientific papers about topics such as whether or not people learn anything when they visit zoos, what attitudes people tend to have about zoos in general, and studies about how animals living in zoos might be negatively affected by us going to see them (especially those of us with more interest in animals). After reading and seeking more knowledge, I was only left with more questions.
So what is it that is so thought-provoking about zoos?
Obviously, I don’t have all of the answers. Maybe I speak only for myself, but here’s what I have come up with:
- Zoos tell us how little we know about the natural world. Have you ever visited a zoo of larger size and been aware of the existence of every animal you saw? I haven’t. I always feel smaller after visiting a zoo.
- I’m always plagued by figuring out whether or not the cruelty of caging an animal is outweighed by the potential educational and conservation benefits of displaying that animal. After looking through studies about whether or not people learn anything when they visit zoos, I’m still hopeful that zoos do achieve some good, but I’m still not sure they’re entirely worth it or effective. Scientists likewise are still conflicted about the situation, and thus there is a need for more research.
- Seeing anything in a cage is thought-provoking. What does it say about power when an animal or person is contained? And what are our human (or inhumane) motivations for doing it? Is it always for educational reasons in zoos? Or do zoos subconsciously help us feel safer by showing us that we can “control” something wild?
- It’s interesting to observe and ponder why some kinds of animals are more popular than others. Surprisingly, one study I read from a zoo in Brazil indicates that for this particular zoo, people are no more interested in larger mammals than in smaller mammals. The researchers also discovered that in this zoo, people were equally interested in those animals found locally (in Brazil) as they were in other animals from other parts of the world. The implications were that zoos need not necessarily have animals from exotic locales to generate interest (and lower maintenance costs might save the zoos some cash). Of course, this was just one study, and might not be generalizable to other places.
- After viewing primates, I find it hard to understand how anyone could question evolution: primates behave so much like humans. Evolution just makes sense. And as my wife said to me, “people are always looking to find ways that animals behave like people in zoos and vice-versa.” But does evolution explain everything I wonder? The animals I see in zoos are so complex and diverse that I have a hard time believing they just resulted from evolution– was there also a higher power at work?
- I want to learn why people are so fascinated by animals. Why are other people visiting the zoo? Do they share common reasons with me? Why is it that kids like animals so much? Is it because we are exposed to animal imagery in clothing, toys, and other items with so much saturation from as early as the time that we are born? (Everything we buy my baby daughter seems to include some kind of animal image it seems.) Or is it because we as people have an innate primeval connection to animals and nature? Is that why we are so interested in animals and would that explain why illegal animal trafficking is the third largest criminal industry worldwide?
- Why do zookeepers decide to give some animals premium spaces that reflect their natural habitats while others are given concrete blocks? What decides the pecking order? Is it some calculation based on visitor interest or based on animal size? If the animal is larger does that make it crueler to have it in a smaller space?
Wow. My mind’s prepped for some kind of zoo visit tomorrow. What do you think? Is there anything I’ve missed or misunderstood? Do zoos get your minds racing like they do mine?