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What Should Animal Rights People Think of Zoos?

By Seth Victor

I am in San Diego, CA, a legendary city named after majestic sea creatures. I’ve enjoyed some of the great sights, but I would have been remiss not to visit the “World Famous” San Diego Zoo. I did so with some hesitation (and with a certain singer in my head). I was previously under the impression that the San Diego Zoo was more like a wildlife safari, where the people are in the cage moving in the environment.

I was disappointed to find out that it is not.

The Wild Animal Park of which I was thinking is a totally different place. The zoo is a rather nice zoo. It emphasises its conservation of endangered and threatened species. Zoos, however, are a contentious issue for many in the animal rights world. The question is whether animal exploitation is acceptable when the purpose is to bring the animals closer to humans.

That’s a simplistic way of phrasing it, since circuses also bring animals closer to people, but are not something to celebrate. Yet many view the boredom and enclosed lives of animals in zoos just as poorly, arguing that media sources such as documentaries bring animals to life in a way that does not cause them suffering. 

I’m very torn on the issue. On the one hand, I see the similarities between zoos and circuses. Animals are captive in both, and the motivation behind the original zoos of the Victorian age was to display the “great beasts” of the “Dark Continent” and beyond for spectacle.

Certainly there are a number of zoos that do not keep their animals in excellent conditions, and most zoos in the United States cannot provide any where near the range that any of the animals enjoy in the wild. Also, modern recording equipment seen in Life and Planet Earth can bring high definition footage into living rooms in dynamic fashion without interfering with an animal’s life.

On the other hand, animals in zoos do not need the same ranges that they do in the wild if survival is not at issue. Food is provided, as is shelter, and all natural predators are removed. Are the animals bored? I believe that despite the toys that are provided them, many are.

But think of it this way. If you were given the option of living in an apartment with one or two weight machines, or maybe a book, and all of your dietary and medical needs were met, or you were out on the plains left to make your own weapons and tools and told to survive a la “The Most Dangerous Game,” which would you choose? Maybe we’d all like to live with adventure, but I don’t know. The narrator in The Life of Pioffers an interesting take on this dilemma, writing “I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.”

I am in favor of zoos, at least if they are done the right way. I think zoos are useful in educating children and adults about exotic animals. I think this because that is how I developed my appreciation for animals that I would never see in the United States. If the rainforests are gone, we are going to be in a lot of trouble, but I care about those forests not because of the effect on people, but because I want the creatures in them to exist.

I don’t know that a wildlife documentary would have fostered that same appreciation in me. Good zoos like the San Diego Zoo also provide plenty of education on the variety of animals they house, and increase awareness about other parts of the world.

Seeing animals in person also reminds me why I fight for them, and why they are so important to me. They don’t need to do anything. They exist, and have as much as a right as I do to be here. I believe that all animals across the globe have this right, and as seeing is believing, zoos help me believe. It is my hope that the boredom and stagnation endured by a few will help kindle the passions in people to preserve the freedom of many. Or is that kind of thinking the sort of “ends justify the means” approach that is behind so much environmental and animal destruction?


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