On Why Zoos Matter

I think there needs to either be a new category of zoos – with a new definition – or some of them need to have a new name created for them all together. There is a negative connotation attached to the term “zoo” that manifested a long time ago, but no longer applies to the accredited and regulated zoos of today. And that irritates the hell out of me, because once again, people base their opinions on things that aren’t true, and then apply them across the board, instead of taking each situation or establishment into account. It’s an ignorant way to go through life, regardless, but even more so when those uneducated opinions actually affect the things they think they are against in an adverse way.

Did that sentence even make sense? I am extra fatigued today.

People are against zoos for archaic reasons that are no longer reality, and espose these untrue “facts” to anyone who will listen, thereby affecting the good work that is being done, rather than support it and encourage it to grow and continue. You see, zoos are one of the only “businesses” on the planet that actually work toward their own extinction. They are a necessary facility trying to combat the damage humanity has inflicted on the planet and its non-human residents, while also having the end-goal of a day when they are no longer required. It’s actually one of the most un-selfish acts anyone could perform, and they do it every day, as best they can, by growing, sharing and learning as they go.  Most zoos have grown and changed over the decades – but for some reason, the public perception of them has not.

Contrary to some beliefs, they are not actually here for our entertainment, nor are the animals in their care. Their function and purpose is far, far more important and essential than that.

I’m sure one could argue that, if they aren’t here to put animals on display for the masses to gawk at, then why not close their doors and not let the public in? Why involve the public at all? Well, for starters, some places actually are like that. Not zoos, but most sanctuaries, farms, and even some wildlife reserves either allow limited or sometimes no public interaction with the animals in their care. Those are all different types of facility, however, with different mandates and goals.

I’m going to use the Toronto Zoo as my example for this whole post, as it’s the such one place I know best. One of the Toronto Zoo’s goals is to educate the public – about what they’re doing, and trying to do, about the animals in their care, about those species’ counterparts in the wild, about their efforts to keep various species from going extinct, about the ways in which they are able to re-introduce some species (like the black-footed ferret, for example) back into the wild! What?! Whoever heard of a zoo putting animals BACK into the wild?!

It happens all the time, guys. They are just careful about doing it, and try to do so in a way that will give the indivdual animals the best chance of survival once they get out there on their own. Because that’s what it’s all about. Survival. And not just of the fittest. In an ideal situation, the zoo wants not only for the vast majority of those released individuals to survive, but also for them to thrive. To reproduce. To build communities (if that’s what they’re into) and continue to grow into the important and in fact essential part of an ecosystem they were once a part of – before humans ruined everything.

Because we did this. Our species. We have made an enormous mess over the centuries, and facilities like the Toronto Zoo are working very hard every day to try and clean up our mess, and ensure we don’t make such a one again. Education is a huge part of that process, and it is the most direct route to something humans in general seem to lack – empathy.

Sure, there are pictures and videos and webcams and all kinds of neat technology these days. Why don’t they just use those to educate the public?

I’ll tell you: because it is not even remotely the same experience. I’d seen photos and video clips of Hudson the polar bear cub before I met him in person at the zoo. They were super cute and I was really excited to see him, but they had nowhere near the same effect on me as the moment I saw him with my own eyes. My heart skipped a beat, and from then on, I was completely in love with the little guy. Every time my big blue eyes met his so-dark-brown-they’re-practically-black, diamond-shaped eyes, I think I stopped breathing. We connected on a level photos and videos can’t touch. We knew one another. I never would have gotten him tattooed on my arm were it not for the experience of being allowed the chance to know him, either. That’s how much he affected me. He became a part of who I am, part of my core.

If you’re not yet convinced, because maybe I am just a crazy polar bear lady, go have a look at a photo of a human child. Then watch a video clip or two of the kid. Now go hold that child in your arms, look into its eyes, and tell me the experience is the same as when you were looking at the pictures and watching the videos. Tell me that connection you felt didn’t suddenly get a lot more personal and almost overwhelmingly real.

Not that I got to touch Hudson (I WISH!), but I am certain that would have made me even more of a crazy polar bear lady than I already am. 100%.

Another thing I learned from the Toronto Zoo is about the importance of enrichment for the animals, to help prevent boredom and depression. They are not out in the wild struggling every day just to survive, after all, and they have moods and emotions and thoughts, just as we do. It is important to note, however, that they don’t feel things the same way we do. Just because you don’t think you’d like napping all day in the warm sunshine, for example, doesn’t mean that African lions don’t freaking LOVE IT. They’re cats. Not exactly the same as house cats, but they have more in common with them than they do with you. Guaranteed. And not all of them are the same, either. Just because you read something about one lion doesn’t mean that same quality applies to every lion on the planet. They are individuals, just like you and me.

Anyway, I have cats living in captivity in my apartment. I keep them fed and watered, and pet them and cuddle with them and play with them, and they seem pretty happy. What I learned at the zoo is that it’s healthy for them to change things up every now and then; keep them on their adorable bean-shaped toes. It could be the introduction of a new toy or a new box, maybe break out some catnip on occasion, or even just move a piece of furniture over a few feet for awhile. It doesn’t have to be a huge change, just little things can make all the difference. My cats love the scent of mint, so I got them a box of peppermint teabags, and every once in awhile I’ll throw a couple of them on the floor and watch the cats start playing with them instantly. There’s a bit of a mess to clean up after, of course, but totally worth it. Same with bubbles. Sometimes they like those more than chasing the red dot!

For anyone who believes that housepets are not captive animals, you can go ahead and check your specist hypocrisy at the door. They are. The difference is that we believe we’re doing those animals a favour by rescuing them from the wild. We save them from having to hunt to survive and probably either starve to death or get killed by a vehicle or other animal, and instead give them a warm happy home to live out their years with their loving fur-ever family. That’s why no one is staging protests to Free The Housepets.

I, too, believe I’m giving the cats and dog in my care a better life than they’d have out on the cold city streets. It’s a responsibilty that I don’t take lightly. To me, it is my duty to do everything I can to give them the best lives possible while they are in my care. And that is an every day job, one I do gladly, and one upon which I am always looking to improve. For that’s how the keepers at the zoo feel about the individuals in their care. Each baby born is like one of their own, with the difference being that the parents, and families and other members of the species of each baby are also like their own. They care that much. They spend the night during particularly bad storms to make sure that the animals who depend on them for their lives – and for the quality of those lives – are safe and content. They work overtime, they work every day of the year – whether the public is there or not – and they want nothing more than for their jobs to not be necessary anymore.

To the better dead than captive bred camp, I can’t really pretend to understand where you are coming from at all. How is it even remotely humane to let a baby starve to death (one of the slowest and most painful ways to go, I hear) in the wild, versus giving it a home where it can grow up safe and cared for and live out the rest of its natural life in a not-quite-ideal setting, but at least be allowed to have a life? Is it really the better option for your high moral ground? Or maybe it would be better to kill the infant outright, so that it’s at least spared the agony of starvation. Brilliant. Except that should be applied to all non-humans, not just the ones you see on TV or the internet. Show of hands: how many people stop when they’ve hit an animal with their car to a) make sure it’s dead, b) ensure it wasn’t a lactating female with little ones waiting for her to come home, and if it is, then c) go out and find said babies to spare them the agony of a slow death?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and that’s actually my point. You have to take each example on a case by case basis. Stop treating every lion like he or she is the exact same as every other lion. Definitely stop assuming that they are the same as you or I. The animals we eat are more intelligent than the average human toddler, and yet they are living in unimaginably horrid conditions from birth to tortuous death – but that’s a post for another time. #factoryfarmsarethedevil

From what I can tell, the word “zoo” does not do the Toronto Zoo – and most places like it – any justice whatsoever. It’s not an accurate representation of what the zoo actually is. The Toronto Zoo is part Ark for species survival and renewal, part Sanctuary for animals in need, part Retirement Home for aging animals, part Orphanage for youngsters who lose their mothers in the wild, part Education and Research Facility to find new ways to do all of those things better – and all love.

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