Although attendance is reportedly down a little, about 175 million people visit zoos annually. I have mixed feelings about these places, being both attracted and repelled by them.
They are undoubtedly fascinating, and perhaps even educational, but they also possess an uncomfortable resemblance to prisons, concentration camps and junior high schools. Sociologist Erving Goffman called such settings — “total institutions” — “places where all aspects of life are subordinated to the authorities of the organization.”
Most zoos define their mission as promoting education, research and conservation. And in these times of shrinking natural habitats, no one can dispute the worthiness of preserving biodiversity. Many zoos have marketed themselves as the equivalent to Noah’s ark, although some animal rights groups maintain that DNA banks may be a more realistic, cost effective and humane solution.
While I’m no animal rights fanatic — I eat meat, wear fur-lined gloves and have actually yelled at a dog or two in my life — I can understand advocates’ concerns about the exploitation of animals and their quality of life. And there remains the question about the necessity of exhibiting captive animals at all.
I was taken to the famous St. Louis Zoo often as a child and every spring my elementary school was transported there for the day. The big draw was the animal show, which rivaled any circus. The star attraction was a chimpanzee, Mr. Moke, who was billed as the world’s only talking chimpanzee.
Mr. Moke was the stage name for a East African chimp named Moko. I heard him actually say “no” and “momma,” although not very clearly. He was more adept at jumping through hoops and riding small bicycles to the delight of us third-graders. A curious thing happened to Mr. Moke in 1959. His former owner wanted him back and when the zoo refused to sell him, he abducted the chimp.
“Talking Chimpanzee Kidnapped!” read the enviable St. Louis headline and the story made the pages of Life Magazine. When the chimp was returned two years later, it was learned that during his absence, he had co-starred, incognito, in the Jerry Lewis movie, “The Bellboy.”
My wife, Diane, says that when she was a little girl, her mother would meow to the lions and tigers at the zoo and the big cats would answer her back. I remember my own father teasing the chimps and once they answered him back, by flinging excrement at him. It wasn’t quite the same.
Since that time, zoos have improved at lot, with their larger, natural-looking environments for animals. Early this summer, we visited the New Zoo outside of Green Bay, Wis., and I was impressed by how spacious it was. However, the small underfunded parks bother me.
We visited one of these facilities recently while on vacation. The small, shoddy cages and tiny exercise areas were sad. There was a lot of boredom-induced rocking and pacing, but I couldn’t help it, I was just anxious to return to our hotel room, which wasn’t much larger than the animal cages.
In this zoo, you could feed all of the animals, which didn’t seem right. Ponies would come right up to you and kick the fence repeatedly, demanding to be fed — like prisoners banging tin cups on the bars of their cells. There is something demeaning about a noble black bear being reduced to panhandling for peanuts.
Some animal rights group had unsuccessfully tried to get the chimpanzee in this park sent to a chimpanzee sanctuary in Florida. According to the park’s literature, the chimp was raised as a pet and thought of himself as a human. He might miss his favorite TV shows and human friends if placed in a sanctuary. We caught a glimpse of him — rocking back and forth.
There is always a temptation to anthropomorphize animals — imposing human motives and feelings to them. For example, the owner fed this chimp hamburgers and french fries, which I suspect is not part of its natural diet.
Time Magazine just reported that the Jane Goodall Institute is pressing for legislation to prohibit people from owning primates as pets.
Goodall says, “Very rarely can they [private individuals] give them a good life.”
Jeffrey Masson’s book, “When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals,” clearly demonstrates what anyone who has ever had a pet already knows, that animals are more than nonfeeling automations. But to consciously try to humanize them seems more for our amusement than for their benefit.
The Louisville Zoo is accredited, but fewer than 10 percent of the 2,400 animal exhibitors licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been surveyed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or AZA. According to the AZA, accreditation increases public confidence that an institution meets standards; signifies excellence in animal care, conservation and education; and distinguishes accredited facilities from ‘roadside zoos.’”
I have always thought that the best of part of visiting the zoo was hauling around a toddler and pointing out the animals. Aside from this, however, how are zoos doing in their public education mission?
Dale Marcellini, a curator at the National Zoo, found that visitors’ conversations rarely dealt with the animals and when they did, the majority of comments were derogatory. The exhibits were simply background.
Most of the time in the zoo was taken up by walking — 60 percent — and eating — 10 percent — leaving less than a third of the total time for resting, using the bathroom, shopping and actually viewing animals.
Visitors averaged only eight seconds per snake and one minute looking at the lions.
In the London Times last year, primatologist Goodall described the Edinburgh Zoo’s new primate enclosure as a “wonderful facility,” saying that the animals are probably better off than those in the Congo, where they are commercially harvested for food.
However, in her more recent interview, she criticizes facilities where animals lack a proper social group. She believes such animals don’t have things to do and can’t educate anyone, because they don’t behave normally. You might as well look at a photo or a stuffed example … because you won’t see any natural behavior.”
I remain conflicted, but I think I’ll at least stop visiting nonaccredited zoos, such as the one Diane and I saw upstate a few years ago. The lions and tigers were covered in sores and displayed those depressing stereotyped self-stimulating movements. Too bad we can’t teach those animals to say “no,” like Mr. Moke.
Based on a column originally appearing in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune.