The importation to Auckland Zoo at ratepayers’ expense of new elephants to keep lonely solo elephant Burma company has generated discussion for many reasons. Should we be encouraging trade in wildlife by buying elephants? Is it the right use of public funds? Wouldn’t Burma be better off being shipped to some more suitable new home with elephants in a setting more like her natural habitat, instead of expanding the zoo at Western Springs?
Buying and selling elephants for our zoo brings other questions into view, too. Are zoos even appropriate? Even the best zoo could never be a shadow of the natural habitat of an otter let alone an elephant. Images from the worst zoos are haunting – animals pacing small spaces, confined, clearly bored, listless, frustrated, and sometimes even drugged or starving. Dolphins, including orca, in captivity are manipulated by having their food withheld in order to get them to jump through hoops or rings of fire.
Many proponents of zoos and animals in captivity laud the research and conservation work done by some modern zoos. But arguably, zoos aren’t necessary for this work to occur. And in response to claims about the important educational role of zoos, what does seeing animals in captivity really teach us? The belief that using other beings for entertainment is ok? That polar bears usually pace backwards and forwards? That tigers are apathetic? That orang utans are like little humans, so probably worth saving? In fact, zoos convey a false, unnatural idea of animals and their behaviour, and normalise captivity. It’s egotistical to assume these animals should suffer with their lives in captivity just so we can benefit from education in seeing them.
Zoos are also defended because they are the one way most people will ever see a lion, a tiger, a polar bear, or a hippo. That’s no wonder given the historic and current trade in wildlife, including for zoo ‘collections’. If more efforts were made to protect these animals in situ, the chances of people seeing them there would markedly improve. Elephants, for example, will be extinct in the wild by 2050. Paradoxically, soon the only ‘wild animals’ left will be in zoos! That the wild, magnificent species that once roamed whole continents are now reduced to scruffy and diminished remnants in zoo exhibits is a damning reflection on the forces of capitalism and colonialism, in particular.
Zoos can only be measured by degrees of inhumanity. They are prisons of the innocent after all. They say a lot about our attitudes to other animals and the planet. But are we humans also just stuck in another type of zoo? Trapped in unnatural conditions, which are hostile to a free and flourishing life. Like caged animals, many of us show repetitive and stereotypical behaviour. We are listless and apathetic. None of us animals are what we might have been in a more free and natural setting.