Zoos the History of Zoos Is Entwined Essay

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Zoos

The history of zoos is entwined with the history of human civilizations. Zoos represent the relationship between human beings and their natural environment, and especially between human beings and other animals. The very existence of zoos, and their predecessors such as menageries and personal collections of wild animals, suggests that human beings have attempted control wild animals in some form. Zoos enable human beings to watch, domesticate, and use wild animals for any number of purposes including entertainment. Wild animal collections have been overt status symbols throughout human history and in many different cultures (Kisling). Core purposes for zoos and related institutions such as aquariums include "recreation, education, research, and conservation," (Kisling). However, the philosophy and ethics of zoos are questionable. Before the existence of high-speed and high-tech communications, the only encounters most people could have with wild animals could take place in the protected, artificial environment of a zoo. Yet modern communications and transportation technologies make the entertainment value of zoos less meaningful. To remain relevant, zoos should change their mission to be devoted more towards research and conservation and less towards entertainment.

Zoos have evolved from what Baratay and Hardouin-Fugier call "the passion for collecting" to a viable mode of protecting endangered species. The spirit of zoos has evolved, creating "lingering anachronisms involving purpose and ethics," (Robinson viii). Social values have changed, the ecosystems in which animals once thrived have changed, and thus the role of zoos has changed throughout the world. Likewise, access to animals in their natural habitat plus widespread information dissemination via new and traditional media makes zoos much less about entertainment than about research and preservation of endangered species.

As Smith points out, "If the majority of the people visiting the zoo are only looking at caged animals and making their own conclusions about what the animals are thinking…then it seems to me they are internalizing the concept of power and control over nature and other animals, as well as teaching it to their children." One of the central ethical concerns of zoos is that they fail to actually teach anything except the ability of human beings to control, manipulate, and subvert nature: especially with regards to creatures that could possibly kill a human being in the wild.

Lions, polar bears, and other carnivores at the top of the food chain cannot often be appreciated in a first-hand encounter. However, these are the very animals that seem thwarted in the confining environment of a zoo. No visitor to a zoo would question the ethics of keeping a cat or a dog at home, because those creatures have been bred and domesticated specifically for the purpose of being pets. Lions, tigers, bears, and gorillas have not been bred as such and are woefully deprived of space, the ability to hunt, and in most cases the climate, flora, and fauna to which they are naturally adapted. The issue of the dignity of the animals is a separate issue but a compelling one too. Wild animals do appear undignified when kept in cages and not allowed to do the things that their instincts tell them to: such as hunt.

Even when wild animals are offered approximate reconstructions of a natural habitat the results are less than satisfying both for visitor and for the animal. A lion is offered an artificially constructed terrain and some raw meat. Or, the lion may be in a "wild animal park" in which visitors drive by and gawk at the lions from cars. In the latter case, the lion is still prohibited from hunting, which is arguably the species' modus operandi. Hunting is likely also to offer lions the closest approximation of what human beings call satisfaction. Even without projecting any human qualities onto wild animals, it is possible to understand what removing a predator from its natural environment might be like for that creature.

For gentle foraging animals such as giraffes or tree monkeys, hunting is not the issue. Animals at zoos are often given large spaces in which to frolic and play and visitors are frequently treated to displays such as monkeys grooming each other. In the increasing geography of the zoo enclosure, do captive animals feel safe, comfortable -- and natural? Much depends on whether or not the animal was born in captivity or not, but the zoo environment is unlike wilderness no matter how pleasant the zookeepers make it. At some point, the animal must be fed, must be moved around, must be poked, prodded, and bred. And throughout zoo operating hours, dozens and dozens of human beings gawk at the animal: something that would never happen in the wild. Moreover, the animals have no predators to contend with, and perhaps feel too safe for their own good. One of the reasons why animals in captivity are sometimes doomed to spend their whole lives in a cage is due to their loss of natural instinct. Animals born in captivity are likely to have fewer fight-or-flight instincts than those born in the wild.

Therefore, the animals that human visitors see at the zoo are not wild. They offer glimpses into the basic nature of a species: its physiology, the way it moves, its general appearance. In the wild, though, that animal would need to contend with any number of variables that are not present in a zoo environment. Predators are one of the variables as is the continual threat of death from other natural causes. Foraging or hunting for food is another variable. Although some zoos do provide as many of the flora and fauna that may be required for an animal to still feed itself, invariably zoo animals must be fed by human beings. The animals are totally dependent on their human captors, which is a situation that does not occur in the true wilderness.

In spite of the drawbacks of the zoo, the institutions do serve distinct purposes that are irreplaceable. Zoos are places of research, in which biologists from all over the world can convene towards a better understanding of a species and its relationship to a whole ecosystem. Zoos are also educational for those who visit them, but in a much less meaningful way given that the visitors to zoos can learn about the animals just as well online, in video documentaries, or in books. Seeing an animal face-to-face in a zoo is incomparable to seeing an animal in its natural setting: the spontaneity of the wild encounter is unparalleled.

Zoos are environments in which conservation efforts can be carried out seamlessly and in tandem with the ethics of the society. A zoo can be a wildlife rehabilitation center for endangered species, of which each individual animal becomes a meaningful individual worthy of keeping alive. In this sense, zoos serve their most important function. The consequences of banning zoos would be horrendous for species with dwindling numbers, species that are integral to their ecosystems.

Even as entertainment, zoos still serve a purpose in bringing to the people animal encounters they would never have otherwise. Few consumers are wealthy enough to travel to Namibia for a safari. If animals are treated well within captivity then no harm would seem to come from the institution of zoos. Wildlife researchers scrutinize most zoos, especially in industrialized nations. Animal rights groups can likewise ensure a safe and healthy environment for captive creatures. The visitors to zoos may be viewing animals that could become extinct in their lifetime, which is a worthwhile opportunity that cannot be substituted by any picture in a book. Still, there does remain an anachronistic core to the zoo. Some zoos exist seemingly only for entertainment and profiteering. Animals who are treated poorly or who are forced to do tricks are being "used for entertainment and profit" in ways that can easily be decried as… [END OF PREVIEW]

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