The New York Times Magazine has published a long story by Alex Halberstadt about the people who treat zoo animals for behavioral problems. And although it never comes right out and says it, there’s only one possible takeaway from the story: zoos are an abomination and we should abolish them, immediately.
If my personal enjoyment were the only thing that mattered, I would be completely in favor of zoos. As a child, I loved them. As an adult, I am the kind of person who chooses vacation spots based on what kind of wild animals might inhabit them. The most significant single expenditure of my life to date was a trip to the Galapagos so that I could pretend I lived in a National Geographic documentary. A sea lion sniffed my knee, I was stared at by curious penguins, and a pack of dolphins came swimming by our ship. I loved that trip.
But I loved it in part because the animals seemed relatively free to choose the time and place of our interactions. Sure, we sought them out, but we also did not force the issue by way of plexiglass barrier. The principle was that we’d let these animals come to us if they wanted and not chase them if they didn’t want to. If they were afraid of us they could hide anywhere. If they were bored by us they could leave.
By contrast, here is just one of the tales of woe Halberstadt provides, in which photograph-obsessed tourists have traumatized a giraffe:
I saw the fallout of such photographic harassment when I visited Sukari, a 21-year-old Masai giraffe at Roger Williams who had developed a fear of men with large cameras. Weeks before she was bolting at the sight of a zoom, Sukari began refusing meals. “Some days she would eat, others she wouldn’t, and she got picky about her food,” said Rachel McClung, one of Sukari’s keepers. “And then there was the licking.” Sukari stood licking at her lips, oblivious to the other giraffes, who began to shy away from her. For hours at a time, she licked steel cables. She licked unremarkable white walls. She licked gates. Sukari, a Southerner might say, had an old-fashioned going-to-pieces. Over the course of a few months, her weight dropped from 1,850 pounds to about 1,600. To make matters worse, she also began to avoid men in hats and trench coats, and after a while, she wanted no part of the public side of the yard.
Licking in giraffes, Virga explained, is often a sign of what behaviorists call a stereotypy: a repetitive or ritualized activity brought on by frustration or confinement, similar to when an impatient person jiggles his or her leg. But Sukari’s licking was too sudden, too unremitting, and Virga suspected an underlying medical cause. Zoo vets examined her mouth, suspecting an abscess or an oral lesion, but nothing appeared to be amiss. One vet suggested colic, so Sukari was given antacids and painkillers, until colic was ruled out. Neither Virga nor the zoo’s two staff vets could find anything medically the matter with Sukari.
I choose that story because it is relatively mild, considering some of the other disturbances Halberstadt describes.
There is, yes, an entire philosophical debate about whether animals are emotionally and psychologically sentient, one which Halberstadt canvasses in passing. It is no doubt very interesting and a rich intellectual experience, that debate. It is totally irrelevant to the question of whether zoos ought to be able to maintain animals in conditions which produce these results. They ought not to, regardless of whether animals are capable of moral reasoning. There are times when the infliction of suffering is wrong, and this is one of them.
If there is some kind of preservation function served by zoos, if the animals they contain are say injured and require the care, or if studying them in close contact is vital to the preservation of an entire species, there might be some justification for keeping them open. But as it stands zoos do not generally limit their animal holdings to endangered species. They tend to have all sorts of animals there who are acquired for the more or less direct purpose of being stared at by screaming schoolchildren. It’s an awful, depressing practice we ought not to have. Let’s abandon it.