By Annie Cebulski
Christmas had arrived at Lincoln Park Zoo in twinkling lights and bauble ornaments. Families flocked through the gate in colorful clouds of winter wear, and despite the lack of snow, winter’s presence could not be denied as coats were pulled closer and little hands struggled to fit into mittens. I looked on at this place that I had called sacred for eighteen years–the joy and laughter–children jumping off of ledges growling with their hands curled in faux claws. The zoo is a place for kids to wonder, grow, learn, and fall in love with a concept much greater than their limited toddler life experiences.
Where else could one behold such pure, unadulterated joy? I remembered that feeling, and even then, as a “grown-up”, I felt excitement and anticipation when I entered through the gate framed with beautiful wrought-iron animals. But this excitement was coupled with something I only later identified as guilt. With this older status, I lost the shield that childhood ignorance had given me, and the zoo looked different, even if it was just the tiniest bit. As I approached one of the first exhibits, the lion enclosure, I met the amber eyes of the male lion, Sahar. And as I walked away free, I knew he would stay standing there for a majority of his life.
There are 230 zoos and aquariums accredited by the Aquarium and Zoo Association, meaning that they meet or surpass the basic requirements set by the experts for the standard of animal living. But according to the Humane Society, that is out of more than 2000 zoos and aquariums across the nation. That means countless animals are living outside of the boundaries of already fairly low standards: animals kept in menageries and dinky little roadside zoos that use metal cages filled with only cement. To me, there is no question about the morality of the attractions that fall outside AZA standards: they are prisons that deprive the animals of their most basic needs.
But what about the other 230 zoos that fall under the AZA’s jurisdiction? If a creature is given food, water, shelter, and more, can it really complain? The answer is no–an animal cannot complain because it cannot communicate with us in a way that cannot be refuted: even when tigers start pacing out of anxiety or when elephants die from broken hearts, zoos and aquariums take the animal’s silence as consent. We trade their freedom for security and stability and call it a day, saying if any human were given everything he needed, he would be content. But he wouldn’t be, and neither would many animals. Despite what people thought when zoos were first being created in America, research has proven that many animals have cognitive functions beyond what we expected: elephants mourn the loss of their young, great apes have best friends, and orcas suffer from extreme boredom, leading to trainer fatalities due to aggressive tendencies not seen in the wild. Even fish go mad, swimming in very structured circles or scraping themselves on the bottom of their tank, much like the way some people react to stress and suffering.
These are emotions and thought processes that any person could relate to, which should give people pause before locking wildlife up. And they have convinced some, with many animal organizations such as PETA and the Humane Society speaking out against zoos. But there is a deeper question of humanity at play even in this defense for the case of animal freedom: why must a creature think like us, act like us, love like us, before humans can consider giving it its basic right to freedom? It seems that if something is not a human, that becomes valid reason to bottle and sell its essence to the masses. Look, it’s a lion! Ignore the fake foliage, the fact that we’re in Chicago, and the sad, sad look in his eyes. Trust me, it’s a lion.
But I neglect the truth of what we really provide for the animals: most animals’ natural habitats far outstrip the area provided to them in zoos. Instead of a savannah or entire forest, instead of an ocean, they get comparatively tiny boxes full of maybe grass and rocks or faux ocean space with blue painted walls. Bigger animals, such as dolphins, whales, bears, and elephants particularly suffer this small home size. According to researchers for Oxford University, polar bear enclosures are one-millionth of the size of their natural habitat. But I’ll also never forget witnessing even a Springhaas–a medium sized rodent reminiscent of a kangaroo–hopping in endless, frantic circles.
And yet we deceive ourselves. I deceive myself so well that although I know the mental and physical suffering that even the most well looked-after animals endure, I still love the zoo. I love what it supposedly stands for: conservation, education, the love of animals. But research by the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., shows that people generally spend only minutes, if not seconds, looking at each exhibit, and even fewer seconds are spent reading the information about each animal that some zoos provide. So maybe I’m choosing to neglect the real truth of what zoos and aquariums are: novelties to satisfy human boredom.
But one truth I know remains: children love zoos. So even if education and conservation are stripped away, is it worth it if even just one child leaves with a love for a lion? That’s the catch 22: for someone to love animals so much as to be enraged by their captivity, it seems almost necessary that the child be exposed to a zoo where he can make that personal connection. It is true that with technology, animal documentaries are more realistic, and apps can help foster that love with interactive games, but there is something about hearing a lion roar in person that can make a child fall in love a million times faster and harder than looking at its picture in a book or on a screen. Seeing the animal in the flesh is the seed needed for the love to grow. It is easy to say that zoos should be closed down when presented with facts and logic. But it becomes so much harder when I imagine my child growing up without ever experiencing animals at the intimate level a zoo provides. I desperately want my children to love animals the same way I did, to feel the excitement when they see the zoo arch. I’m selfish–a caveat of being human.
And so at the end of that winter day, walking away from the lion cage, I still didn’t know with whom I stood: the child or Sahar.