I have friends who hate zoos. Who think all the creatures should be freed from these vile prisons, and passionately believe keeping anything behind bars is immoral.
I don’t agree.
I pay a subscription membership, and walk around Wellington Zoo at least once most weeks. I usually take a camera. While I’m too timid to ask permission from strangers in the street to take their photographs, the animals at the zoo are always happy to pose, or alternatively quite busy living their animal lives and indifferent to my presence.
I’ve been visiting ‘my’ zoo for over 50 years now, albeit with occasional decade long gaps. When I was a child chimp tea parties were still a thing, there was an elephant you could have rides on, and lions and tigers and a polar bear paced endlessly in tiny cages. Zoos are different now. Public zoos are devoted to the welfare and optimal care of their creatures. They use the entertainment value of the animals, including star attraction animals, to fund education and conservation, including of less glamorous creatures that are still worthy of study and respect. The enclosures are larger and leafier, and animal psychology has been used to create enrichment programmes.
I am a little uneasy about the “encounter” sessions, the opportunity to pay a hefty extra charge over zoo admission and go in an enclosure. Wild creatures are not pets, and it feels wrong to see them being petted. But, the encounter animals are chosen carefully for placid and predictable temperament. They’re conditioned to tolerate handling from an early age so that they’ll let themselves be caught and handled for veterinary procedures. The high-fee paying humans are carefully controlled and managed by the zoo staff, and those funds help keep the zoo afloat financially. That cheetah certainly could bite the gently patting hands, if it wanted to. She just doesn’t want to. For now.
Modern zoos acquire new inhabitants from responsible sources. Most are acquired via breeding exchange with other zoos. There are also some wild-born animals that are injured and not able to be fully rehabilitated to live in the wild again, and others that have been rescued from illegal pet situations, and lack the hunting or social skills that would let them ever live as wild animals – Wellington’s Sun Bears have that history. For some, zoos are a genetic backup for an endangered species at risk in the wild due to disease, for example the Tasmanian Devil and those face tumors.
There are good reasons that Wellington zoo doesn’t have a lot of very large animals, especially large animals that like to live in groups: there isn’t the room. There are no wide vistas to roam, and it’s too cold and too hilly for creatures that like a bit of in-lake wallowing. Although I miss the elephant of my childhood, I quite understand that there isn’t room to look after one well, let alone space and money for a socially appropriate herd. Small social carnivores seem to do very nicely in captivity, and otters and meerkats are always enchanting to watch. Although they do somewhat lack the majesty of Kamala, the elephant I met when I was three, and who I still remember decades later.
Baboons are animals I find genuinely horrifying, and would never ever want to encounter on the wrong side of a stout enclosure fence. When I took my young grandson on his first trip to the zoo recently, we stopped by their enclosure. Part of the troupe started banging on the glass, teeth bared, shrieking at him. Baboons and their brightly coloured parts trigger many complicated conversations between parents and children, often starting with “Mummy, what is the big baboon doing to the little baboon?”
Animals in zoos act as representatives for their species, give children reason to care about science and the environment, and spark awareness of the larger world. They may be inspired to find out if their loo-paper comes from a sustainable source, or start to understand why throwing plastic rubbish in the sea is a bad thing. Watching a chimp family play together, looking at a bear or a lion and having it look back (hungrily!), seeing a penguin in the zoo hospital or an otter using its clever paws to hold a fish, these are starting places for stories and conversations. What emotions do we share with animals? Well, pretty much all of them, and so what does it mean to be human?
A selection of common small farm animals has been recently added to the zoo; sheep, pigs and chickens are as exotic to the average city-bred toddler as meerkats or red pandas. I’m mildly mesmerised by a new bee exhibit, and the deep sound the hive makes, audible only when you hold your ear near the glass. After visiting a zoo, it’s impossible not to look at domestic animals and see the similarities and differences to wild relatives. Cats and tigers, dogs and dingos. Monkeys, chimps and people.
Victorians used to visit madhouses and prisons for personal entertainment, and maybe one day zoo trips will be regarded the same way. But for now, it’s good to be able to go to a modern zoo, and when you look at an exotic animal get that a thinking feeling being is looking back at you. Except for the baboons, whom I suspect to be mainly thinking “garrrgh, kill everything that’s not a baboon”.
(Photos all taken with IR modified camera)