“Prison,” “jail,” “holding cell,” “cage,” – these are terms for holding someone or something in a small area against his or her will. Most of the time when these terms are used, they are referring to literal confinements for criminal humans or, they are sometimes used in a joking way to express one’s dislike of a place or situation. But what if these terms should be taken more seriously when people go to places intended to bring joy? Places meant for educational purposes for younger generations but that actually bring great sadness to older ones. The places that can bring sadness are zoos. Zoos are generally thought of as the best place to take young kids for them to see wild or foreign animals up close and learn something about them. But what if the behavior displayed by a captive animal is not how the animal really acts? What if the animal is suffering? What if the “habitat” at the zoo looks a lot more like a prison to the animal? Most zoo settings are unfit for the animals kept there, and people are beginning to look for alternatives to the traditional zoo setting that would still allow people to be entertained and educated about animals in a way that is more human and less intrusive to the animals themselves. Zoos are unfit for animals, people need to learn about animals, but with alternatives so animals are comfortable.
One aspect of zoos that is unacceptable is the size of the enclosures in relationship to the size of the animal kept inside it. During a recent visit to the San Diego Zoo, I saw firsthand that the elephant exhibit is the size of two-and-a-half basketball courts. This would be all right for one medium-sized elephant – but there were three of them in the exhibit. Half of the enclosure’s space was taken up by a pool for bathing, and the other half was for sleeping. A prison cell has just enough room for two inmates with half the cell used for sleeping and the other half for using the bathroom – see a resemblance? It is not just the elephants that have a small enclosure: monkeys are kept in small cages the size of a medium tank at the aquarium; tigers live in areas the size of a restaurant kitchen. One of the worst exhibits at the San Diego Zoo was the polar bear exhibit. A polar bear. Native to Antarctica – the coldest place on earth in sunny, coastal San Diego. The size of the enclosures in combination with the local climate of the zoo takes a toll on the animals.
Not only are the enclosures and climate an issue, but zoos can be negligent in their care of the animals. The Toledo, oh, bear incident is one example of this. In 2015, Toldeo Zoo employees allowed Medusa, an eighteen year-old sloth bear, to starve to death in her enclosure over the course of a month. She was thought to be pregnant. The curator of large mammals at the Toledo Zoo, Tim French, mistakenly thought that the sloth bear species was one of the bear species that entered a near-hibernation state when pregnant. The fact is that sloth bears, even when pregnant, require weekly rations of food and water to survive. Medusa was given a short-term supply of food and water and then locked in her enclosure and left unchecked from 17 November to 4 December when she was discovered dead (“Rare Bear”). The zoo could have run a simple test to confirm if the bear was indeed pregnant; and even if it was, it was not their place to force the bear into hibernation. How do the zoo officials think bears do it in the wild? Do they think pregnant bears wander into town and wait for someone to lock it up in their garage? No. Bears instinctively know what to do, and the officials did not take the time or pay enough attention to make sure the bear was pregnant or for her to naturally hibernate. Instead, the innocent, helpless bear slowly starved to death with no water or light. This is why many people have a hard time believing zoos are capable of taking care of wild and rare animals.
Though zoos can be negligent and have small enclosures, some still argue that they can be educational. Some people say that zoos can be very good destinations for educational fieldtrips because
a zoo’s paramount purpose is to promote wildlife conservation. A zoo exists to
educate. Research happens, recreation happens, but above all is the intent to
educate. The educational potential is at its greatest with a professional educator
designing a learning activity to use at the zoo. The zoo is a great tool and it’s at its
best when a real artisan is using it, a classroom teacher who has designed focused
activities connected to a long-term curriculum. (Ettlin)
There is an opportunity for teachers to utilize the zoo as an educational outing, but the trade-off is not in the animals’ favor. Zoos can be educational to the extent that people may be able to see and hear the animal – but they are not really seeing the true behavior of the animal. People may see and hear the elephant, but they will never see it swim, walk with its herd, or be happy. But what if there was an alternative? But there is an alternative.
There is a compromising solution that would allow people to see animals up close, and still let the animals roam free. Instead of “zoos,” “animal conservations” within driving distance of populated areas could offer a realistic answer. There could be a tram for people to ride through the conservation to witness the animals and they see how act when they have the ability to move about. This would allow animals to hibernate naturally, get proper exercise, and be allowed to hide away if they wanted to. The San Diego Safari Park (formally the San Diego Wild Animal Park) is a model for this type of venue.
Zoos can be educational when utilized by an active teacher, but they can cause damage, trauma, and even death to the animals. Animal conservations similar to the San Diego Safari Park are alternatives to these current animal prisons. In the movie Planet of Apes, the human protagonist is held captive in a cage by an advanced ape with human-like intelligence. The man shouts at the chimp that it is cruel and barbaric to keep him captive and that if the chimp was so intelligent it would not have to keep the man in a cage. Though people should not view animals as their equals, people should not mistreat them either. As author George Eliot says, “Animals are such agreeable friends―they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms” (Massey). People have a responsibility to utilize all resources to learn about the world they live in without harming the world at the same time.