I often find myself asking these questions: Are zoos ‘sanctuaries’ for animals, or are zoos merely cross-species prisons? Of course, sometimes animal sanctuaries are necessary, and even a zoo can serve more than one purpose and be an artificial habitat for scientific study, and protective area for breeding species whose natural territory has been harmfully encroached upon in some way, usually by human expansion or other anthropogenic effects.
Are animal sanctuaries that are primarily structured for the needs of humans warranted? Is human curiosity so strong that it demands that locally non-essential species be included into the lifestyles of the species most removed from them, or are zoos merely an accident of history, a cruel accident, perhaps, but one that can be rectified nevertheless?
Obviously human curiosity is very strong and often demands from us sums of money and ‘memberships’ to pay for our urge to partake in the viewing of species offered from a diverse network of continents. For the price of traveling inside my own continent, I can pay for my entire family to view animals from many other continents. What a bargain! This becomes almost a kind of primordial religion, in which one will bear up under substandard concession food offerings and other sufferings, and offer hope that ones favorite animal species has not been removed from display for some reason. Somehow it all seems worth it, though, when the Sun Bear, or Octopus finally makes his appearance.
For most of the existence of modern humans, which science tells us should go back thousands and possibly millions of years, we have lived in a hunter-gatherer relationship with the other species of the biomes we roamed or inhabited, and shifted our locations with the seasons and flow of our needs and that of our prey. In this environment, we hunted another species, used it, or competed with it, or else we would only care about it as an object of curiosity or study. Once agriculture was born, there became less need for people to be nomadic, and the growth of fixed anthromes, areas of human species dominance began to emerge. Human dominance had both beneficial and destructive effects on the existence of other species in their range. Once humans became entrenched in great cities, the die was cast. Large numbers of people would live most of their lives without access to the live animals that were once features of their ancestors’ daily existence.
A funny thing happened to me while I was compiling the material for this essay: I found out that there is no single word for care of animals. This flabbergasted me. There are two words, ‘animal husbandry’, but there is not one word that suffices to describe the care and preparation of animals for market in the way that agronomy describes the care of plants and the soil, and that agriculture describes all of it. I’m not a linguist, and don’t know much of the classics, but this fact makes me suspicious. Does the absence of specific terminology for the preparation for consumption of animals and their products suggest an ancient desire to hide this provision from speech? Was ‘animal husbandry’, meaning the preparation of animal products, including slaughter, considered a vulgar term in the way that ‘butchery’ is? Then the absence of terminology is completely explained. We can keep these animals, harvest their offspring, kill them, and eat them, but those of us who receive those products, the educated populations of the cities, must not talk about it.
Thus the curiosity: Is curiosity towards exotic animals intensified by our new lifestyle of living in a city? Obviously, for city dwellers, our former capacity and will to acculturate or hunt animals was not simply a matter of curiosity, it was a matter of what constituted our proper survival. Nor is it only a matter of ‘simple curiosity’, if we yearn to ‘reinvoke’ that experience by hunting, or otherwise traveling to wilder areas to have new experiences in the vicinity of animals. But to what extent do zoos ‘reinvoke’ the experience of being hunter-gatherers, or even those whom manage animals, whatever we are to call them, by viewing live animals brought into our focus from the wild by an intercontinental network of animal gatherers? I think the answer is that zoos do it minimally, or highly artificially, if at all. Only our curiosity is satisfied in the shallowest way possible. Our viewing and pleasure experience is only a ‘reinvoking’ of these primordial experiences to the extent that the illusion of a natural setting, elected by ourselves voluntarily can be promoted. The rest of it is mere ‘curiosity’, not at all the domain of the noble and knowing homo sapiens, in the way we prefer to portray ourselves, as a species with its own purpose, and a mandate to dominate, in the manner in which we do.
If zoos cannot serve the noble purpose they pretended to, we are still left with many questions. Shouldn’t animals be allowed to compete for existence, as long as they are not endangered? Many biomes are affected by man. Could we at least pass laws that prohibit animals whose biomes are not threatened and whom can be viewed locally and naturally to not be kept in zoos? What about home aquariums? Are these the next to go, or do aquariums constitute a significant aesthetic advance over zoos, warranting their survival on our ethical must-have list?
If home aquariums and pets are to be phased out, shouldn’t this be a choice of individuals, not that of a government, a choice of personal conscience, in other words? The same applies to zoos. If a zoo provides an adequate service of demonstrating an animal’s existence to humans, isn’t that a ‘humane’ application of captivity?
In much of the world, an opportunity exists for animals to be viewed and/or experienced in the wild. Most of these animals are not dangerous to humans. Wouldn’t it be best if these animals were always experienced in a natural habitat, or on film, and not as a captive subpopulation?
What about certain aspects of the ecology of humans? Humans exist in areas of nature where humans have sustained themselves, which we may call anthromes. It appears that the total of these anthromes are immense and cover a large percentage of the entire land mass of the planet, but this has not always been the case. “Anthropogenic biomes provide a framework for integrating human systems with the biosphere in the Anthropocene.” Anthromes explain the connections and separations that man has with nature better than other distinctions, and they do so historically. Anthromes also show that man has only separated himself from nature by virtue of where and how well he has established himself in his habitat. According to Earl Ellis, one of the founders of the new science, “If we want to live in an environment that is desirable for all of us, it’s up to all of us to make that happen. It’s not going to happen ‘out there’, somewhere, it’s the nature ‘around us’ that matters now.”
Humans are truly interested in the ecology of other animals, and many care for all of them, at least some of the time, as evidenced by the alarm expressed in media regarding extinctions. If harm comes to a species or individual, we might reflect, sympathetically, that we wouldn’t want that harm to fall on us. This is not a weakness, or anything like it, but rather a manifestation of our caring nature as a species, a nature which distinguishes us boldly as a species from most others. Our caring nature is what allows us to sympathize with species and animal individuals under attack, whether by predators, or our own carelessness as the dominant species on the planet.
If humans are on an aesthetic quest, as many of us believe, aren’t we on a mission to turn a mere representation into an entire experience? Perhaps it is not so difficult to understand how the experience of observing animals became an issue of their artificial capture and housing, and how curiosity, and potentially greed, but rarely aesthetics, motivates it? What is there in our ecological conscience, then, that enables us to continue the static exhibit of ‘other’, ‘lesser’, and ‘exotic’ species, if not a passive acceptance and projection of the same exact static and stationary animal stereotypes, and our habit of always automatically forgiving our ‘human’ curiosity, no matter what the cost?