Are Zoos Inhumane?

Opinion: No amount of gussying-up at the Philadelphia Zoo can disguise the truth: It's animals behind bars.

Last month the Philadelphia Zoo announced plans to build a “Gorilla Treeway” for its primates, to allow them to swing from branch to branch to branch inside caged walkways outside their “enclosure,” a.k.a. cage. The Gorilla Treeway joins the Big Cat Crossing as the zoo’s latest attempts to stave off general public recognition that zoos, well, suck.

Big Cat Crossing is a 350-foot-long passage along which the zoo’s lions, tigers, pumas and other large felines can walk, instead of just pacing in circles around their enclosures. In the wild, lions live in “prides” of about 15 members, with the senior male defending a territory as large as 100 square miles. The zoo’s so-called “Great Ape Trail,” to which the Treeway is being added, is 200 feet in length.

I know, I know; these and other animals are becoming more and more scarce in the wild. Zoos are ways to preserve them. I would be sad if my (someday) grandkids never got to see a lion or a gorilla. And yet …

Zoos are sad. Caged animals are sad. Maybe it was reporting a piece for the March issue on the Chester County SPCA that made me so impatient with these well-meaning but so, so limited attempts by the zoo to, well, ape the way apes live in the wild, swinging from tree to tree. I told the SPCA’s new executive director, Adam Lamb, that like most people, I find animal shelters to be upsetting and depressing; I long to uncage those cats and dogs, send them all home with loving families so they can shred the furniture and shed on people’s clothes and do all the other endearing things pets do.

Lamb was emphatic that he doesn’t want people to think of his or any other SPCA that way. “These animals have been saved!” he told me. “They’ve been rescued from bad living conditions, and now they’re in the hands of staff who love them like they’re their own, and are looking out for their best interests and finding them forever homes.” And it’s true, these days his SPCA is a place that brims over with hope.

The Zoo, though, is the forever home for its lions and tigers and bears. And as much as we try to gussy it up with walkways and passages and more room to roam, it’s not where any lion or baboon was ever meant to live out its life.

Sometimes it seems like the animals themselves know this. An endangered-species gazelle at a zoo in Topeka killed itself last year by repeatedly throwing itself into a metal gate until it broke its own neck. England’s Bristol Garden Zoo has seen a series of animal tragedies recently, from a tamarin that fell into a pond and was eaten by otters, to exotic tropical birds that flew the coop, to a whole brood of endangered-species Visayan warty pigs that were eaten by a male who’d been brought to the zoo to mate with their mum. As chronicled in the 2013 movie Blackfish, some researchers believe the stresses of being held captive caused a killer whale to kill three people.

Of course animals die and kill and get eaten in the wild, too. And for some critters, a zoo is their last chance; that gazelle in Topeka was part of a program to breed enough of the species to return them to the wild. I’m no vegan; I wear leather (when I can afford to) and eat cheesesteaks. I’m no PETA fan.

But our concepts of what is humane and what is inhumane continue to evolve. We no longer hold public hangings in America; we no longer hide the mentally challenged away. As the centuries roll on, we humans are moving farther and farther away from the human-centered hubris of Genesis. (“And God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”) In December, the CEO of SeaWorld stepped down from his post following a sharp drop in attendance and stock price because of the controversy over its killer whales. And in 2007, the Philadelphia Zoo shipped its elephants to other zoos (they finally reached a refuge) when it couldn’t afford to properly upgrade their enclosure. This alarming overview of the life of one of the zoo’s elephants, Petal, shows how our sensitivity to the treatment of animals has evolved through the years. It could be that someday the notion of sequestering wild animals behind bars at zoos for our gawking amusement will seem as outdated and morally backward as abandoning sickly babies on mountaintops — or not allowing women to vote.

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