Independence Day at the Zoo -- Oh, the Irony

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Independence Day at the Zoo -- Oh, the Irony

By Stephanie Ernst, on

Zoos across the nation are encouraging people to come visit this holiday weekend, to celebrate Independence Day by gawking at imprisoned stressed-out animals in unnatural climates and inadequate enclosures. That zoo officials and the media can promote zoos as the place to be this weekend and even promote specific Independence Day-themed events at some zoos is a prime example of the way our society can disconnect from what it is we're doing to animals. Celebrating "independence" by supporting and funding other beings' miserable, bored, anything-but-free existence as sources of our entertainment? The irony is obvious. And how many 4th of July fairs and celebrations this weekend will include petting zoos too? How many parents will, in one moment, try to explain to their children what this holiday represents and what freedom means and then, in the next moment, pull out their wallet to pay for that child to ride on the back of a sad, chained pony?

Please, if your weekend plans are going to include animals, make it a visit to a sanctuary or an hour volunteering at a shelter or time spent with (and, during loud fireworks, spent protecting / comforting) your animal companions.

Editorial Note:

In preparation for the comments that I worry may come streaming in now that this post has been featured in the weekly newsletter, including remarks about how necessary zoos are for "education," I add this:

Two common reasons given to justify the existence of zoos include education and conservation. Some people believe that zoos are good because they educate people about animals in general and also about animal species they would otherwise never get to see. However, Michael Kreger, at the Animal Welfare Information Center, found that the average visitor spends only about thirty seconds to two minutes at a typical exhibit and only reads some of the informational signs about the animals. A number of surveys have shown that the predominant reason people go to the zoo is to be entertained. In one study at Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, only 4% of zoo visitors went there to be educated, and no one specifically stated they went to support conservation. There is very little evidence that much educational information is learned and retained that will help animals in the future. . . .

Zoos, wildlife parks, and aquariums, even the best of them, are mostly examples of human exploitation and domination of animals, just as are circuses, rodeos, and most recreational hunting and fishing. If the gates of zoos were left open, there would be no animals in them after a very short while. . . .

As Vicki Croke concluded: "While the zoo can be an intriguing place to visit, it can be an awfully boring place to live."
-Marc Bekoff, Animals Matter (2007), pp. 96-97, 101

Bekoff, in this thoughtful, easy-to-read book that covers many animal issues, goes into much more depth in preceding and succeeding pages about various zoo issues (including the conservation argument and the horrible conditions in which many animals live). It's a book I recommend, along with his other books (including The Emotional Lives of Animals). Also, I share this note from commenter Olivia:

NYU philosophy professor Dale Jamieson has written two well-thought-through essays on zoos, one or both of which appear in his compendium, Morality's Progress: Essays on Humans, Other Animals, and the Rest of Nature. It's an expensive book, and very academic, but it can be borrowed from a library. He makes many of the points [fellow commenter] Jen raises and concludes that there is no legitimate place for zoos in a truly humane world.

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