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Zoos: There is a better way

What a sad world we live in, where parental negligence and human error and misjudgment can result in the killing of an innocent.

I’m talking about Harambe, the majestic 17-year-old western lowland gorilla shot to death at the Cincinnati Zoo over the weekend after a child slipped into his enclosure. Many in the public are outraged, questioning whether his death was even warranted. But there’s actually a larger issue here, one that most people aren’t talking about, as so eloquently stated by Steven M. Wise of the New York Daily News:

“The major problem is that the Cincinnati Zoo is legally permitted to treat such extraordinarily cognitively complex and gentle animals as slaves in order to sell tickets to gawkers, and that Harambe, like every other nonhuman animal, was a legal ‘thing’ that lacked the capacity for any legal rights, even the fundamental rights to his life and liberty.”

It’s a painful reality if there ever was one. But if anything positive can rise from this tragedy, perhaps it’s that we can finally engage in a national conversation about the ethicality of zoos. And if zoos are morally reprehensible, what is the future of zoos? Perhaps the future of zoos is that, someday, they won’t have a future at all.

Zoos represent an outdated and unenlightened view that we as humans are the superior species, and animals exist merely for our amusement—true “speciesism.” Maybe this shouldn’t surprise us: If we look at the history of zoos, we find that zoos were used as racist institutions (even the exact zoo where Harambe was killed!). Shockingly, in 1896, the Cincinnati Zoo showcased 100 Sioux in an on-site village at the zoo for 90 days to entertain visitors.

Clearly, Harambe’s death raises some uncomfortable—and terrible—truths about zoos:

In zoos, the animals exist for our entertainment. But is it ethical to imprison animals for human curiosity? Or do animals deserve more than just food and safety—do they deserve to live as freely as possible, and do we as a society want to make it happen? I’ve written before that animals are sentient beings that deserve rights, such as life and happiness. An organization called the Nonhuman Rights Project and the recent Unlocking the Cage documentary are working hard to upend animals’ lives, but in a good way—by offering them legal protections and rights as persons.

Details on sad incident at Cincinnati Zoo today: — Cincinnati Zoo (@CincinnatiZoo) May 28, 2016

Zoos teach our children that gawking at wild animals in cages is the best way to learn about them. But is this educational aspect really true, or just a fabrication spun decades ago to justify immoral business practices? I think we all know that confining animals to cages isn’t necessary for people to learn to care about them. I love this quote in an article from the Christian Science Monitor:

“A young child can tell you more about a dinosaur than he can about an elephant. … You don’t need an elephant in a cage to learn about elephants.”

Even though children have fallen into enclosures before, zoos are still not prepared to deal with these emergency situations. The enclosures are still not childproof, and animals still sometimes escape. Are the benefits of goggling and entertainment really worth it? Are we OK knowing that if a negligent parent doesn’t watch her kid, the result will be the death of an animal—and an endangered one at that?

Zoos represent a deep philosophical and spiritual belief that humans are superior to animals. Unfortunately, until that belief changes—or until society forces the change—zoos will not be changing, either. Perhaps there is a shred of hope: The fact that Ringling Brothers has been forced (by unhappy customers) to retire elephants by 2018 shows that the public does yield some power. (Of course, I’m waiting for them to remove all animals from their acts.)

Zoos may be nonprofit institutions, but they are very expensive to run. Although they may see themselves as research and educational centers that protect endangered species, how can zoos stay true to this mission when in reality their existence relies upon tickets sold to a very demanding public? If conservation is the true purpose, then we need a new model for protecting animal species, one where funding is stable and sure and animals are honored for being the amazing and wise beings they are.

I dream of a day when compassion and respect for all beings rule the day; where zoos are replaced by extensive, protected habitats and natural preserves where rescued and endangered animals are not stared at by a ticket-buying public, and where human negligence doesn’t result in the killing of a beautiful animal. Perhaps technology can lead the way, protecting the privacy and dignity of animals, while still allowing families to admire, learn and be inspired. The truth is, real knowledge about wild animals can never be found in a zoo, “for we are never truly ourselves, unless we feel at home.”

A new way forward

What we need are visionaries to see beyond the current limits of zoo care. We need people who can forge a brighter future for wild and exotic rescues—people like Carol Buckley of Elephant Aid International. Back in 1995, Carol co-founded The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee—the first free-range sanctuary for elephants in the United States. Never one to take no for an answer, Carol was brave enough to think outside the box of what was traditional for elephant captivity, and to let compassion and reverence for elephants guide her thinking. Having to fight hard against many naysayers who claimed elephants had to be confined, chained and managed by hooks, Carol restored 24 rescued elephants to family life and a natural habitat right here in the United States! Carol now travels the world to teach people a better way with elephants.

Although Harambe couldn’t change his own fate, maybe—just maybe—his legacy can be that he helped to inspire us to change the paradigm and create more compassionate and humane solutions to the problem of extinction. Let’s get to the bottom of the problem by teaching our children a compassionate way of sharing the planet, honoring all other beings. Let’s not rest until less suitable environments for animals, such as zoos, are a thing of the past. Let’s protect the wild forests of our planet so animals can live naturally, without human intervention. When needed, let’s create sanctuaries for rescued wild animals that are vast in size, as close to a natural life as possible and that exist for the benefit and care of the animals—not for our entertainment.

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