A few years ago I went to the Los Angeles Zoo for the last time. As I stood amidst a rowdy crowd of laughing frat boys, parents with cameras, and children tapping at the pane of glass that separated us from a troop of chimpanzees, I felt a profound shame. I was fixated on the graying shoulders of one elderly chimp who sat alone in a corner near to us, his massive hands laying still on the concrete. He had the muscly forearm of a strong old man, so eerily familiar, it was dizzying. I was staring at life-sentenced prisoner who had lived, aged, and would die in this enclosure...for what?
The zoo and marine life park industries know the discomfort their visitors are apt to feel. In the face of growing eco-consciousness, their public relations committees have responded with concerted efforts to market themselves in the same unified way across the board—as centers of civic pride and educational enrichment. At every turn, they assure us of their benevolent mission of conservation, sensitizing children to animals, and protecting endangered species so that we ignore what’s obvious before our very eyes.
The reality is that zoos and marine life parks are the opposite of what they purport themselves to be—and industry insiders all know it. They are not in the business of education or conservation, but rather entertainment, and they only further desensitize us to the use and abuse of animals.
Even the best zoos and marine life parks have track records of abuse, unnecessary death, and the illegal trafficking of animals. The majority fail to engage in effective programs for conservation or the protection of endangered species. With limited access to a broad gene pool, the infrequent success of breeding endangered animals tends only to produce weak specimens. In the rare case when an animal is successfully bred, their survival in the wild is unlikely—especially because animals born in captivity are hardly ever released into natural habitats, but more often used to propagate the industry.
A vast number of zoo and marine life park animals suffer stress-related diseases, abnormal maternity, self-mutilation, and aggression. Tilikum, the infamous orca who landed at Sea World San Diego after being stolen out of the waters of Iceland in the 1980s, has been responsible for the deaths of three people, yet Sea World continues to "rehabilitate" and keep him at work for profit. A vast number of zoo elephants are fed a daily diet of painkillers and anti-inflammatory medications to hide ailments caused by inactivity and confinement in artificial enclosures. The list goes on.
Animals in entertainment also exhibit stereotypies—repetitive movements associated with schizophrenia, trauma, and autism. If you've been to the zoo, you may have noticed it. Swaying, rocking, tics, and marching in place—common to captive animals—are signs of suffering, trauma, and poor conditions. In many cases, stereotypies are caused by the abnormal growth of brain cells called dendrites in the seeking systems of the animals' brains, a consequence of solitary confinement and lack of stimulation. These signs signify that these captive animals live in consistently frustrated states. The worst rescue cases don't exhibit stereotypies whatsoever, but stand still and unresponsive, having biologically "given up" on exerting their instincts. Because dendrite growth is like a scar on the brain, recovery is rare.
What do we really learn from the captive animals we observe on display at zoos and marine life parks? They are but representations of the idea of their wild counterparts, whose movements, eating and hunting habits, and familial behaviors remain unseen. The placards we read tell us about the lives of those free and wild animals, not those before our eyes, whose individual stories the park directors hide.
Zoos and marine life parks may elicit a feeling of wonder from our children, but they do not encourage an authentic or lasting reverence for the lives of animals. If they were effective, people would run straight from the zoo to join animal protections organizations. Instead, most families head to the park's café for hot dogs. In fact, under the San Francisco Bay Aquarium website's "Conservation" tab you'll find a seafood restaurant advertisement masked as a call to sustainable action. Why not list the bay area's many veg restaurants instead? That would truly be "voting with your fork!" At San Francisco's Steinhart Aquarium, you can admire the octopi downstairs and then dine finely on them upstairs at the Moss Room.
Nearly every option on Sea World's dining menus is animal-based.
Don't we have "bigger fish to fry than zoos and sea life parks?" some people will ask.
I say turning our attention to the use and abuse of animals reveals a great number of issues we need to face—and they are all connected. To patronize live animal displays reinforces the anthropocentrism our society tends toward. This self-involved outlook is the root cause of the environmental, ecological, economical, and health crises we find ourselves in. It teaches us that our technology, education, material objects, and daily desires are more important than the very ground we walk upon, more important than the wellbeing of all living things across the world. The same mindset that allows us to abuse animals and irreversibly violate nature drives our desire to eat what we please without consequence, buy homes we can't afford, and dangerously fracture the earth for temporary supplies of petroleum. These are distractions from true solutions and change. It may seem invisible at first, but this kind of corruptive education begins in youth—at the zoo, at the marine life park.
We don't have to miss out on anything. We can explore new ways of instilling a reverence in children for nature and the true lives of animals, ways that have an authentic impact on our hearts and minds. This kind of education lasts a lifetime.