Imagine waking up one morning in a glass room that’s sitting in the middle of a park. You reach for the door, only to find that it’s locked. This 20-by-20-foot room will be your world forever.
This is how it feels to be caged: stifling, disheartening and depressing. It’s how zoo animals feel being held captive inside a large display case, like a store mannequin. They’re on the inside looking out at a world that they are no longer free to roam.
PETA, the largest animal rights organization in the world, contends that holding wild animals captive in zoos produces physical and mental stress, which leads to many health problems, such as regurgitation and neurosis. Animals feel pain just as much as humans do, so being yanked right out of their natural habitats away from their families and flung into unknown territory, is equivalent to how you would feel if you were kidnapped from your house, under the darkness of night and exiled to some distant land.
Many zoo directors believe that creating an environment that mimics animals’ wild habitats will ease the mental and physical strain of relocating to a zoo. But even at the most state-of-the-art facilities, animals can only run and fly as far as their cage. Plus, there are factors that cannot be controlled without making the animals’ quarters more of a prison than they already are.
For example, you can’t control the loud noises from the crowd, unless you force everyone to whisper. You can’t control the unpredictable weather, unless you’re hiding the world’s first weather machine in the janitor’s close. And unfamiliar odors … well, unless zoo directors plan to house them in soundproof glass cages and install air conditioning to make up for the lack of fresh air, there is no way around that either.
All of these variables are a part of ordinary life for humans, but to wild animals, they are stress factors the animals must endure for the rest of their lives.
Studies indicate that captive animals, in zoos around the world, suffer from stress due to their restricted living space, which leads to a lack of activity and excessive boredom. According to The Guardian, a study conducted by the Royal Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, based in the United Kingdom, reports that keeping elephants captive poses “serious health problems” and that those born and raised in captivity live “less than half as long as those who live in their native Africa and Asia.”
The situation is no better in Denmark, where the Copenhagen Zoo came under fire last month for killing an 18-month-old giraffe because the zoo was afraid of inbreeding. A few weeks later, they killed four lions to prepare for the arrival of a new, young male lion. If these animals don’t belong at zoos in the first place, what right do people have to come along, condemn them to a cage, then dictate their lifespan?
There’s really only one reason wild animals are captured and flung into captivity: human greed. Think about it. Would zoo directors agree to waste away a significant portion of their lives in a caged environment? But when it comes to animals, they don’t think, they take. They take what rightfully does not belong to them and they don’t see the pain in the animals’ eyes; they see the zeroes and commas on the ATM screen.
But in Costa Rica, they have a different view. Last fall, the government announced plans to close both of the country’s public zoos, so they could release the wild animals from this caged lifestyle. The 97-year-old Simon Bolivar Zoo in San Jose will be transformed into a botanical garden. Both zoos amount to the release of 400 animals. If this same action were taken in the United States, it would free hundreds of thousands of captive animals.
So, what’s the final solution? Well, as the National Humane Education Society points out, polar bears do not belong in Arkansas, tropical birds in Minnesota, or elephants in Maine; so maybe it would be better for zoos to only house endangered species instead.
Endangered animals are rescued from the woes of the wild. They’re playing a game that they can no longer win without help, so it’s fair when they are taken out of the wild and nurtured in special facilities or zoos to expand their population. In this case, visitors should be allowed to view these species because the animals are there for a purpose.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about treating wholesome, wild animals this way. Much research indicates that captive animals die sooner than their wild counterparts, so housing them in zoos only exacerbates the situation.
Besides, if you want to see how an animal behaves naturally, you’re probably not likely to see much at the zoo, where they stroll back and forth or snooze on a couple of leaves and twigs. Unless you go on a safari trip, you will never see how lions interact with water buffalos or elephants with monkeys, or how they live on a daily basis. And if you’re going to the zoo, just to see a zebra, then save yourself the $16 and turn the television station over to the Discovery Channel.
It may be time to say goodbye to zoos and relinquish the opportunity to see these unique creatures behind cages, so they can have the liberty to enjoy the freedom that so many of us take for granted. They belong in their natural habitats, which may be in the vast African deserts or the large Asian jungles but certainly not the tidy suburbs of Miami or the bustling city of Chicago.