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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

From 14 August 2007 Issue

Tiger, Tiger, Why it’s time to reconsider the whole notion of putting wild animals in zoos

By Marc Gellma

Aug. 1, 2007 - On July 14, Jeff Tierney, a zookeeper at the San Antonio, Texas, zoo was attacked and mauled by a five-year-old male Sumatran tiger named Berani who had been at the zoo for three years. In the slow summer news cycle, this story was briefly reported and then the focus of the media returned to important stories like what is Paris Hilton up to. But I am still thinking about Jeff and Berani.

My grandpa, Leo Gellman, was a zookeeper at the Milwaukee zoo. My childhood was filled with happy days feeding giraffes and monkeys. I wanted to feed Sampson the gorilla and Tony and Cleo the hippopotamuses, but Grandpa Lepa never let me get close to them. He loved animals, but he also understood what it means to be wild. He would patiently explain to me that they did not want to be in their cages but that we put them there so that little boys like me could see up close what they look like, how they move and what sounds they make. Grandpa explained to me that this was a deal we humans made with the wild animals of the world. We capture and display some of them so that people would feel something for them and protect the wild animals that were not in cages. I asked grandpa if he thought the deal was fair. He thought and said, “It's a good deal for us, and not such a good deal for them.” I still think grandpa was right.

The zoo deal needs to be reconsidered. I just finished watching the Discovery Channel’s “Planet Earth” in all its high-definition spectacularness. It does more to show animals in their natural environment, behaving as they really behave in the wild than any zoo ever could. True, you cannot smell them, and true, there is an unforgettable size and savor to elephant dung, but in these new breathtaking images, we humans can see animals without imprisoning them. Now I can already hear the pro-zoo defenders objecting that if we can eat animals, we can certainly trap and display them. But animals do not have the rights of people. The philosopher Peter Singer would call this pro-human arrogance “species-ism”—just another form of bigotry.

The tigers I saw spent all day pacing in their cages, and it was clear that they were not happy cats. The attack on Jeff Tierney ought to remind us that these are wild animals that we foolishly expect to behave like house pets so that we can ogle them. They were not built to be displayed. They were built, I would say created, to run free and be wild in the few wild parts that remain here on planet earth. We changed that for the tiger we named Berani, and his attack was not just an attack on the man bringing horsemeat for lunch. This was an attack on everything we do to wild animals for our convenience, for our expansion and for our enjoyment. The deal my Grandpa Lepa explained to me is a hard deal for the animals, and I am not sure how much longer we ought to defend it.

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