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.

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