Close the Zoos (East Bay Times Guest Commentary)

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(The East Bay Times — formerly The Oakland Tribune)

I wonder sometimes if things wouldn’t be better for animals if we were less captivated by them. In a strange, contradictory way, our fascination with them — even our appreciation for them — is what causes us to harm them the most.

Understand animals desire freedom, close the zoos (East Bay Times guest commentary)

We’re so attracted to their beauty that we adorn ourselves with their skin, feathers and fur. We’re so moved by their intelligence that we force them to perform for us. We’re so covetous of their strength that we seek to assimilate it by consuming and ingesting their bits and parts.

We’re so intrigued by their very presence that we confine and display them just so we can gawk, observing with amazement how much like us they actually are.

Exhibiting animals — particularly large, wild, “exotic” animals — goes back as far as ancient times. These menageries, precursors of modern zoos, tended to be owned by the wealthy, whose human supremacy and power could be displayed along with their animal collections.

Not much has changed — except perhaps in the modern way we shroud the ugliness of animal captivity in the guise of science and conservation.

Zoos celebrate their breeding programs as a means to propagate endangered species, but to what end? Not a single lowland gorilla or mountain gorilla — or for that matter, black rhino, elephant or orangutan — all of whom are classified as critically endangered — has ever gone from a U.S. zoo back into the wild.

Zoos populate zoos. Breeding programs replenish cages. For captive breeding programs to be successful, wild habitats must be preserved. The dollars spent (by the public and by zoos) on animal exhibits would be better spent on protecting already-wild individuals and rapidly disappearing habitats.

More than that, thousands of animals in zoos are betrayed by their alleged champions every year. To curb overpopulation, animals are killed on a regular basis in zoos around the world, either to be fed to other captive animals or to zoo patrons.

If they’re not killed, “surplus animals” — those individuals zoos no longer considered profitable because they’re neither young enough nor cute enough to attract crowds — wind up in circuses, private residences and even in the hands of taxidermists.

A two-year investigation by the Mercury News found that 38 percent of the mammals bred in accredited zoos were sold to dealers, auctions, hunting ranches and roadside zoos.

Zoos emphasize their role in educating the public about wildlife, instilling a love of animals and fostering appreciation for the natural world, though evidence suggests that zoos do not in fact increase our knowledge or understanding of either animals or nature.

One of the reasons is that zoo animals don’t exhibit natural behaviors in captivity. What they exhibit instead are neurotic behaviors and repetitive rituals, such as pacing, bar-biting, swaying and circling — no matter how much zoos design their enclosures to mimic their respective natural habitats.

Not only is captivity not beneficial for the prisoners, it instills nothing in us but human arrogance, supremacy and apathy, perpetuating the idea that nonhuman animals are here for us to use, abuse and exploit for our own pleasures and purposes.

Not so when we admire birds in our backyards; watch bees pollinate flowers; or spot wild turkeys, deer, and lizards from a hiking trail. We can be captivated by animals without holding them captive.

It’s not that we should find animals less fascinating or beautiful or impressive. It’s not that we should appreciate animals less.

What we need to do is appreciate more that animals’ inherent desire for freedom, life, autonomy and self-determination is as strong as our own. That in these ways, they are indeed just like us.

We don’t need to change our admiration for nonhuman animals as much as we need to change our understanding of how nonhuman animals see themselves.

If that were the lens through which we looked, we would be as outraged at the mere existence of zoos as we are by those who suggest they be obsolete.

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