Domestic pets are frequently spoiled by their owners. Schedules are set to include walks and play time for dogs. Cats often have climbing trees and other toys to play with. We interact daily to enrich their lives and to keep them happy. It’s an instinct on our part to care for our pets’ emotional and behavioral needs just as much as their physical needs. Most pet owners are so well-suited to this relationship that doing the right thing comes naturally.
Our relationship with non-domestic animals isn’t always so easy. Wild things are far enough away from our suburban lives that we don’t think often think about them. It isn’t easy to look at the links we have to the natural world and understand that we are responsible for its preservation. While I believe that “pet people” are more likely to understand conservation efforts, it’s still not an immediate connection the way our pets are.
Zoos occupy a spot between our yards and the greater wilderness. There are very few people that haven’t been to a zoo. The chance to be close to exotic wild animals captures our attention easily. We’re very aware, somehow, that looking eye to eye with a lion or tiger in safety is a rare event. Whatever part of our own survival instinct that survives tells us that is a wild animal and it will eat you if it can! That moment of connection between human and wild may well be enough to encourage a person to support conservation efforts. Zoos, aquariums, and preserves serve as an inspiration.
Captive animals also ignite very, very strong opinions about animal welfare. The stark truth is that we have confined an animal to a given setting for the remainder of its life. Very few zoos are able to release animals into the wild, so the survival of certain species is unfortunately limited to a captive population. We do need to acknowledge that maintaining a captive population in a zoo can provide breeding stock for programs that may in fact be able to release animals back to the wild. I believe that’s a minority of cases, though.
This leaves us in a quandary. If we accept that zoos serve an important function, then we accept that there will be animals in captivity. If we accept that this “ownership” brings the same responsibilities that owning our own pets does, then we have a very clear directive. We must care for the emotional, physical, and mental well-being of zoo animals.
Caring for those needs is easier said than done. I’m honestly not sure if a tiger would chase a laser pointer, but I’m certain that stalking and chasing are natural activities for a big cat. We’re obligated to find a way to provide an opportunity for that behavior. Thankfully, zoos have come up with a lot of great strategies for the well being of the animals. If we accept that zoos are providing for the animals appropriately, then we can accept that a zoo is a “necessary evil.”
I want to briefly raise the topic of non-human primate captivity. The great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans) are creatures with intelligence we still don’t fully understand. Some of them exhibit the very foundations of our own humanity. They serve as outreach for conservation in a way that none of the other animals can, thanks to their immediately recognizable human-ness.
The apes’ habitats are shrinking, they’re hunted for non-food reasons, and they’ve been exploited miserably. We must confine them to highly secure exhibits in zoos to prevent their escape. Their intelligence makes care for their emotional and mental welfare a massive challenge. Thankfully, here too, zoos are working on clever solutions. (Remember the iPads for orangutans news post a while back?)
Certainly with all captive animals, but especially with the great apes, we have a massive responsibility to ensure that they are as well cared for as possible. I think we can improve what we’re already doing. As with most issues such as this, publicity and marketing will have to play a role. Without public support (including financial support), zoos and similar facilities will not be able to meet the needs of the animals.
Although we can’t pet the tigers at the zoo, their needs are no different than those of the ten pound cousin using your couch as a scratching post. It’s an easy thing to realize that, and to take steps to help spoil the 400 pound tiger just as thoroughly. It’s the least we can do.