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July 2000
Editorial: The World’s Most Dangerous Species
By Catherine Clyne


The American Zoo and Aquarium Association, the professional organization of zoos, claims that in 1998 "over 134 million people visited member institutions; more than attend all professional football, baseball, and basketball games combined." Whether you believe the numbers or not, one must concede that millions of people visit zoos—they bring their families, visit favorite animals, go on dates, or whatever. Some learn about the animals, others may go for amusement, some a combination of both, still others go to "commune" with fellow creatures. Regardless of what they get out of it, people visit zoos because they’re interested in the animals. If asked, most people will likely say that they genuinely love the animals. Many will also say that they believe they are helping wild animals in some way by visiting the zoo.

Opponents of zoos argue that no matter which way you look at it, the fact remains that zoo animals are incarcerated—against their will—and such an existence is not justifiable. By virtue of being captive, zoo animals, they point out, do no resemble their relatives in the wild. Moreover, they warn that by taking our families to zoos we are telling our children that it’s natural to incarcerate creatures for our pleasure, and by doing so, we are sending the message to zoos that we support the status quo.

Supporters of zoos say that they love the animals too, and that’s why they visit or work there. In AZA accredited zoos, they point out, the animals are well taken care. Everyone admits to the entertainment factor of zoos, but they argue that zoos have changed dramatically. Today’s zoos, they say, educate the public about animals and their natural habitat. More and more, zoos support the conservation of wild habitat by sponsoring projects—training of zoo and park personnel, educational programs for locals, surveys of animal populations and offering professional consultation. In turn, visitors are informed of these projects, making a tangible connection to the endangered areas in the world where zoo animals originally come from.

When I was a kid, my parents took the family on trips and the itinerary invariably included a visit to the zoo. Mostly, I loved seeing all of the animals. The Tokyo Zoo at Ueno Park was the last one that I visited. Tokyo has an extremely concentrated human population and, in the early 1980s, the Ueno Zoo reflected this scarcity of space (and probably still does). The big cats were the most disturbing: crammed into tiny metal cages, most paced back and forth in their limited space, looking quite psychotic.

Mohandas Gandhi observed that our treatment of animals is a reflection of our society. Zoos are not a new phenomenon. Ancient Egyptians kept menageries with exotic creatures from foreign lands. As a symbol of power and virility, male royal figures were depicted in decorative art hunting exotic or even captive animals (early canned hunts one might say). The modern zoo is a continuation of this legacy of imperialism, established by the British empire to amuse the public and to symbolize world domination. Modern zoos now occupy a strange place.

My recent visit to the Bronx Zoo was the first time that I had set foot in a zoo in years. I went with as open a mind as anyone could have. Indeed, zoos have changed a great deal—there is a huge effort to educate and there is more of a connection between the animals and where they live in the wild. But it was still disturbing. I make an effort not to be biased toward a particular species because I feel that all creatures are worthy and in need of concern, but because we are primates and they are so like us, it was the gorillas who had the most profound impact. Yes, in the Congo Gorilla Forest exhibit, there is open space with grass and some trees, and a few areas where they can get some privacy. But in the wild, gorillas range over vast amounts of territory, spending most of their time foraging for food.

Before entering the area where the gorillas are, there is an auditorium where a short film is shown. The perilous existence of wild gorillas is well portrayed, sending a message of conservation and environmentalism. At the film’s end, the screen went up and...there were two gorillas sitting beyond, staring back at us through glass. It was quite unsettling because they obviously knew the routine—they were waiting to check out the next batch of visitors.

In the Congo Forest, the gorillas generally looked bored; their main stimulation seemed to be the parade of people gawking at them. Nearly all of the gorillas faced the glass. Some displayed what I would guess is not typical gorilla behavior. One sat with her fingers in her ears—a gesture that I sympathized with, myself being bombarded by the cacophony from some of the educational gizmos that kids were interacting with. I wondered if they heard that noise all day and whether it was annoying and if they tuned it out. Another lay up against the glass. She knew just how to manipulate people to pay attention to her, occasionally blowing a kiss to the delight of spectators.

What constantly went through my mind was: what does a zoo need 22 captive gorillas for? They are the "charismatic megafauna", the animals that draw the crowds in. Most displays have just a few samples of a species, usually two of each. If zoo animals serve as "ambassadors" of their species, as some zoos say, what justifies incarcerating nearly two dozen gorillas? Are they the gorilla diplomatic mission to the U.N.?

In the old ape house at the Bronx Zoo, there used to be a caption that read something like "The world’s most dangerous species" and by it was a mirror. Not what you’d expect from a display created in the 1950s. At the end of today’s Gorilla Forest, there is a panel depicting the primate family tree. In the African Ape branch, there are pictures of each species including a space for Homo Sapiens, above which is a small mirror indicating our evolutionary kinship. A poignant but very different message.

When asked if zoos made efforts to educate the public about how our consumption patterns directly affect the wild habitats of the megafauna we admire, the response was basically, that zoos convey as much information as possible, but they don’t want to overwhelm; after all, visitors come to be entertained. It is ridiculous to think that the public can’t handle being educated about the responsibility that is ours.

Though it may be only natural for people to shy away when bombarded with "bad" news, the important message is getting lost in the fetal haze of trivia and minutia. If people in affluent nations can’t pay attention to what our over-consumptive habits are doing to the rest of the world and take responsibility, it’s only a matter of time before disaster forces us to finally pay attention. With approximately 50,000 species disappearing each year, we can’t afford to be indifferent much longer.

Animals rights advocates know this and zoo supporters know this. Environmentalists and most vegetarians all know this. Here is our common ground. We can all work together to bring a message straight to the millions of adults, teens and children who visit zoos every year. Zoos aren’t going anywhere soon, but our animals, environment and fellow people are, and we can choose to use the means that are available to work to change the situation for the better. After all, we’re all in this because we care about the animals.

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