A Day at the Zoo

Did any of the animals on Noah’s ark ever wonder “why me?” God chose Noah and gave him a command, but Noah chose the animals. Even supposing that (as Genesis 7 states) Noah chose seven pairs of the clean animals and one pair of unclean animals, there would have been significant culling of the herds. The Bible does not give any particular qualifications by which Noah made his selections and given that he had a week, the choice could reasonably have fallen to the animals most readily available. Moreover, animals can feel sadness, so did any of the animals look out upon the drowning world, perhaps at others of their species, and wonder?

I pose this rhetorical question because I had the same thought at the St Louis Zoo on Friday. I like animals and so I enjoyed the zoo in as much as I got to see more animals, but I have mixed feelings about zoos in general (in much the same way that I have qualms with museums).

First, the good. The people who work for the zoo legitimately care about the animals and the environment, and zoos do an excellent job of protecting endangered species, of attempting to rehabilitate animals into the wild, and of attempting to promote wildlife education. I do not necessarily agree with everything that they do, but I will never question the dedication and intent of upstanding and well-run zoos. If a zoo is poorly run and not up to safety codes, then that is a different matter entirely. Though I did not like many of the habitats in the St Louis Zoo, finding out about their attempts to keep the animals active an engaged through multi-species habitats and aromatic herbs was fascinating and hopeful.1

I am also generally in favor of making animals available for people to see who do not generally get into the wild. I would rather people experienced nature that is not kept behind a fence or in a cage, but I understand the problems. That many people in the natural habitats could destroy those habitats, and, more fundamentally, people are living increasingly urban lives and not escaping. I have been very fortunate in my travels and whether by fortune or design many of the people at the zoo are unlikely to ever get to those exotic locales from whence the animals hail. This thought also depresses me, but the causes and solutions have little to do with the zoo, so I will not linger.

Second, the bad. For all of the efforts made at preservation at the zoo, I do not like seeing animals in cages. I am particularly sensitive to large predators, such as tigers, and animals that are noted for their ability to hide in their natural habitats, also such as tigers, put in cages and on display. The sign for one such animal stated, almost as a point of pride, that the animal was unknown to people (well, European people, anyway) until well into the 20th Century because of its ability to hide in the trees. Naturally, the pen had but one tree.

The animals are explicitly put on display and so people come in and gawk. What is more, the zoo has to employ gimmicks to get people to see them, including giving every primate a name and role (e.g. The Professor) and then hanging banners with this information around their cages. Whether or not people actually read these is another matter entirely, as were the number of people (of multiple ages) making gorilla sounds at the gorillas, trying to wake one gorilla up, and the one young woman who informed her mother that “gorillas aren’t cool.” People were complaining that the lions were sleeping, the tiger just lay there, and the grizzly bear mostly just paced back and forth. The only really impressive display I witnessed was a remarkable feat of climbing and swinging by an Orangutang, but I was hardly surprised. The Sea-lion show aside, the animals are put on display but are not explicitly there to entertain us, a fact that many people seemed to miss.

Then there was the concrete. Some of the pens were plastic, but most did a serviceable job of providing an actual environment, having tress, etc. Visitors, on the other hand, walked through gardens, but always on concrete walkways, which left me ill at ease. Perhaps it was my recent hikes or my upbringing, but concrete growing in (city) parks2 is indicative of a world that has only minimal interest in living with nature, so the only possible solution–and it may well be–is to cordon off nature lest it be utterly done away with.

The St Louis Zoo got its start at the Louisian Purchase Exposition World’s Fair in 1904, and it was proud enough of that origin to repeatedly point it out. The zoo should be proud, and I am glad that it is there, but looking at the tiger and the lions and the bears, I could not help but be reminded that at that same World’s Fair there were people considered “primitive,” including Native Americans, who were put on display. This is not to say that the 1904 World’s Fair was innovative or remarkable for this display, which was really a continuation of a practice in the 19th century that declined shortly thereafter, but has not entirely disappeared. The animals are not people, but many did not look any less broken for the display.

In sum, I fully support any and all preservation efforts by zoos. I just don’t like cages and fear that the day is approaching when these small, artificial oases of wildlife are all that we have left.

1That said, some of the habitats were downright depressing, and I’m not sure how I feel about multi-species habitats with species that would never come into contact in the wild.
2To quote “My Next Thirty Years,” by Tim McGraw.

Assorted Links

  1. Jim Delany Wants the Power to Fire Coaches– A story in the Chronicle about how Jim Delany, the commissioner of the Big 10 wants the league to give him the power to fire coaches as a fallout from the Penn State debacle. Two comments: 1. There is nothing like a crisis to grant a single executive with undue power; 2. Most likely it is a relatively useless clause since any offense that would warrant Delany firing a coach would result in the university firing the coach (assuming, of course, that the matter became public enough), unless the Commissioner has much more information about the various violations at his universities than is being let on–which would make him somehow culpable in past violations anyway.
  2. Vicar condemns hotel after it replaces Gideon Bible with 50 Shades of Grey-The Damson Dene Hotel in Crosthwaite replaced the Gideon bibles in its rooms with 50 Shades of Grey. The manager of the hotel suggests that “the Bible is also full of references to sex and violence and the best seller is a much easier read.” He also suggests that most people are too ashamed to buy 50 Shades but are curious, and that the Gideon Bible will still be available at the desk. The local Vicar suggested that this is nothing more than a gimmick to cash in on the transient success of 50 Shades of Grey.
  3. Why NHL teams cry poor despite the league’s record growth-An article about the NHL and its current collective bargaining issues. The league is going really well in sum, yet in the current negotiation, the Owners would like to make massive cuts to the percentage of the revenue that the players can bring home. The reason for this discrepancy is that the big revenue teams (Chicago, Detroit, New York, Boston, Toronto, Montreal, etc) are making hand over fist, while the small revenue teams are losing money. This is an attempt by the league to cut money from the players in order to fill the gap and make the low revenue teams profitable because (in this argument) they think it will be easier to take the money from the players than it will be to force the high revenue teams to share more of their money. The real problem here is that there are too many low revenue teams in the NHL and more than any other sport, there is a massive revenue gap between teams in the NHL.
  4. Loch Ness Monster Real in Biology Textbook-this news is a few weeks old, but it is the first I’ve heard of it. Basically, a small christian academy in Louisiana is trying to use vouchers to bring in 135 new students for whom it has no space or resources. In the curriculum at the school is a biology textbook (in use at many christian academies) that teaches that the Loch Ness Monster is a dinosaur, thereby proving evolution false.Despite the peculiarities associated with teaching “Nessie” as a biological fact, the real story here is that a new school voucher system was passed in Louisiana and lawmakers there have determined to oppose any Islamic schools receiving vouchers. One such school that had applied for funding withdrew its request as a result.
  5. How Long Will China Back Assad-A note about why China has vetoed the latest UN resolution about Syria.

As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?