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Behind Bars, Behind The Times? Reconsidering The Zoo

In the wake of a captive gorilla's death at a zoo in Cincinnati, one’s mind pivots to the only place wild animals should be: the wild. (Chaz McGregor/Unsplash)MoreCloseclosemore
In the wake of a captive gorilla's death at a zoo in Cincinnati, one’s mind pivots to the only place wild animals should be: the wild. (Chaz McGregor/Unsplash)

Not long before I graduated from college, my grandfather, a retired pharmaceuticals scientist and executive, allowed me to sit in on a board meeting at the Indianapolis Zoo, where men and women in crisp-looking shirts and suits discussed an upcoming apes exhibit.

Zoos in which animals are confined behind Plexiglass walls are outdated, the board members said. My grandfather looked at me and nodded as the zoo’s director described how the apes in the exhibit would access to cables suspended high over the heads of zoo-goers, so they could experience “urban vines,” moving as they would in a natural jungle canopy, while giving spectators a wowing, 360-degree show.

<em>Michael Schrimper: "...zoos of all kinds are outdated, if not barbaric. Animals are not specimens to be gawked at, kept like stuffed dolls on display."</em> (Elmira G/Unsplash)
<em>Michael Schrimper: "...zoos of all kinds are outdated, if not barbaric. Animals are not specimens to be gawked at, kept like stuffed dolls on display."</em> (Elmira G/Unsplash)

When I learned of the glorious silverback gorilla shot and killed in the Cincinnati Zoo late last month, I realized that I never made it to see the Indianapolis Zoo’s ever-popular apes. I have no desire to go see the primates, no matter how many “urban vines” decorate their exhibit. Even that word — exhibit — reminds me that zoos of all kinds are outdated, if not barbaric. Animals are not specimens to be gawked at, kept like stuffed dolls on display.

Proponents of zoos and animal-oriented entertainment companies like Sea World argue that these facilities foster interest in animals and the natural world, particularly among young people. Having up-close and personal access to, say, giraffes, inspires reverence for the creatures, the thinking goes. But think about dinosaurs. No child has ever seen a dinosaur in the flesh, yet children the world over are enchanted by the creatures: their club-like tails, the spikes starring their spine.

It’s not proximity that inspires reverence or interest, but distance. Knowing that animals exist not in our immediate realm but, rather, deep in their own habitat allows them mystique. Most important, the distance that creates this mystique allows animals the lives they are meant to have.

Specialists working at zoos cite how the dangers of the wild are often so great that animals are safer in captivity. Sea World pushed back hard against claims about its treatment of killer whales in the documentary "Blackfish." A spokesperson refuted primatologist Jane Goodall's assertion that Sea World's orcas live in an "acoustical hell," claiming that the tanks in which the company’s orcas are kept are quieter than the “ambient ocean.”

It’s naïve to think that the dangers and unpleasantness of the wild are less detrimental to animals than the pseudo-lives we force upon them in zoos and similar facilities. 

But it’s naïve to think that the dangers and unpleasantness of the wild are less detrimental to animals than the pseudo-lives we force upon them in zoos and similar facilities. Biologically, a gorilla has evolved to crack open a green coconut and to protect her young from a leopard. A gorilla has not evolved to understand that a 3-year old human in his enclosure is to be protected, or that the child's accidental presence there presents a mortal threat to his own.

My grandfather served on the board of the Indianapolis Zoo for a decade. For decades more, he helped develop the zoo into one of the city’s central destinations. My day behind the scenes with him there was magical for me, one of many marvelous experiences he bestowed upon me. I stood watching as a young elephant "painted" my portrait with the yellow, teal and purple paint I had selected for the extra-long brushes the majestic beast had been trained to grasp with her trunk. I inhaled deeply inside a small, refrigerated room green with eucalyptus that would be hand-fed to the koalas like leafy Popsicles. Yet I have not been to a zoo since.

<em>Michael Schrimper: "Who has not had the experience of seeing a yellowing polar bear listless on his rock?"</em> (Ross Sokolovski/Unsplash)
<em>Michael Schrimper: "Who has not had the experience of seeing a yellowing polar bear listless on his rock?"</em> (Ross Sokolovski/Unsplash)

Who has not had the experience of seeing a yellowing polar bear listless on his rock? Who has not noticed the unnaturally slow drift of an orca through her green water as spied from the other side of a wall of child-smudged glass?

Zoos are soul-destroying places, no matter how much the likeness of a natural habitat is achieved for each animal. In the wake of the news from Cincinnati, one’s mind pivots to the only place wild animals should be: the wild.

Editor's note: None of the photo illustrations in this op-ed were taken at the Indianapolis Zoo.

Michael Schrimper Cognoscenti contributor
Michael Schrimper teaches in the Writing, Literature & Publishing department at Emerson College.

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