The End of Zoos as We Knew (and Loved) Them

This is a longer version of a piece I posted on Dot Earth exploring questions about the utility and ethics of zoos raised by the tragic encounter between an adventurous boy and a captive gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. I thought it worth publishing after seeing a powerful new contribution to the discussion from Peter Singer and Karen Dawn, animal advocates, in the Los Angeles Times.


On May 9, 2004, when he was six, my younger son took his first photographs. I know the date because digital photography is relentlessly precise. We were at the Bronx Zoo. While wandering the glass-lined corridors in the extraordinary Congo Gorilla Forest exhibition, Jack snapped this portrait of one of the western lowland gorillas.

Bronx Zoo, 2004 (by Jack Revkin)

The exhibit was powerful and memorable, with my wife and I still haunted by close eye contact with such a close hominid relation.

That exhibit, like many others — at zoos from Nagoya, Japan, to Calgary, Canada, to the now-infamous one in Cincinnati — provides a mix of education, entertainment, scientific information and conservation insurance, in essence, sustaining a pool of genetic diversity for this species, which is under increasing threats from deforestation, disease and poaching in its wild domain.

I’ve been thinking back to that visit a lot over the last few days. It has been hard not to, given the potency of what transpired at the Cincinnati Zoo. The wayward boy staring up in shock at Harambe, the mountainous silverback who gently held the boy’s hand, but also suddenly dragged him through a moat as surrounding activity intensified.

The screams and yells.

The kill.

On Facebook and Twitter, I tracked the outbursts of mostly overwrought and under-informed flame throwing.

My instinctive reaction, knowing how deeply the zoo employees I’ve known care for animals, was one of sympathy for those who had to make the awful, and inevitable, decision to shoot. And I had some sympathy for the boy’s mother, having raised two young men who were once clever, curious boys and — long ago — having been such a boy myself. [Happily, she wasn’t charged.]

I never squirmed my way into a carefully secured gorilla enclosure. But I did get in big trouble in public places more than once — as when the gauntlet I tugged on a suit of armor in a museum in Canada crashed to the stone floor.

On Facebook, I enthusiastically reposted a link to a Vox article on “internet mob justice” that had been shared by M. Sanjayan, the chief scientist at Conservation International, along with his comment:

“It’s amazing how many people get involved in second guessing. Second guessing the mother, the zoo, the gorilla, and even the four-year-old kid.

“People, this was tragedy. Two big questions — how do zoos keep visitors truly safe and did a protocol exist for such eventualities and was it followed.

“Everything else is moot. If you want something to freak out about, please freak out about the rapid decline of Great Ape populations the world over. Do something about it. It is highly unlikely this will happen again, certainly not at the Cincinnati Zoo, but every single day Great Apes are killed needlessly and senselessly. That is where the anger, angst, should be placed. Where it actually matters to the future and not to the past.”

Having written about the many threats to gorillas and the other apes, I heartily endorse Sanjayan’s point.

But I’ve also seen substantial merit in the emerging concept of nonhuman personhood, worked with Pace University students and faculty trying to pass legislation banning circuses using elephants.

A video by Pace University students pressing for a New York ban on circuses using elephants

I’ve also absorbed much about animals’ feelings and rights from writers like Carl Safina.

I’ve become convinced it’s time for a fresh look at zoos, way beyond the issues of insulating their occupants from us.

An overarching factor behind the interspecies tragedy at Gorilla World is the facet of human nature that has allowed me and most of us — so far, at least — to uncritically value raising and displaying gorillas, among our closest kin, behind glass or moats or fences in the first place. Captive apes don’t all die from a gunshot; but they all die never having really experienced what it is to be a gorilla. Harambe was born in a zoo in Brownsville, Tex.

There are signs that times are changing. Prominent circuses are, in fact, retiring their elephants. The “Blackfish” film helped shift norms for orcas, or killer whales.

But there’s more to be done. This issue was compellingly explored in Scientific American by Marc Bekoff, who studies animals’ minds and feelings and is a proponent of what he calls “compassionate conservation”:

“While some might say Harambe had a “good life” in the zoo, it doesn’t come close to the life he would have had as a wild gorilla, with all its attendant risks. Indeed, one might argue that the animal people were seeing was not really a true western lowland gorilla, surely not an ambassador for his species.”

He calls for an end to captive breeding and an eventual shift from zoos to sanctuaries, with money saved going to conservation of species in the wild.

The counterargument from many zoos is that such exhibits already raise millions of dollars for field conservation and science while raising public awareness of the plight of our ape kin and other wildlife.

In the short run, it’s clear to me that zoos around the world should not only be reexamining their gorilla enclosures, but also examining how well they apportion income from such exhibits to programs that can protect this remarkable species in the wild.

In the long run, this is a good time for humans to begin reassessing our relationship with captive animals on many levels, and reassess how we experience “wild” life.

I don’t agree with every position of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, but the organization compellingly summarized a prime lesson from Cincinnati on its website the day after the boy and gorilla had their momentous encounter:

“Zoos cannot even begin to meet these magnificent animals’ complex needs. Choose cruelty-free entertainment. Take a hike in the woods and watch wildlife in their natural habitat.”

Of course, as humans become an ever more urbanized species, and with poor communities often particularly insulated from unbuilt environments, taking a hike in a green place isn’t as easy as it should be.

And zoos — including the Cincinnati Zoo and, particularly, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo — do valuable conservation work.

A broader shift from entertainment to conservation and care is more likely to occur if zoo goers press for it.

Bekoff touched on this:

“These sorts of changes will take time and we need to be very patient, but we need to move in this direction. As we move on, the choices we make should emphasize preservation of wild animals and critical habitats, and we need to move away from captive breeding and the zoo mentality of keeping animals locked in cages for our entertainment — and supposedly for their own and their species’ good.”

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