When I was a child, I was taken to the petting zoo, a seedy animal park where the beasts looked traumatized and sad— a real horror show. Patrons, though warned not to do so, fed the unfortunate inmates Humpty Dumpty potato chips, Eskimo pies and something called a Charleston Chew, which is the consistency of Silly Putty. These were part of diets not readily available in the wild, or at least not the wild that these unfortunate creatures hailed from. The zookeepers looked like old carnies or recently released jailbirds. They carried clubs. It made for a fun day. My parents probably did not know any better.
Naturally, when my daughter was young, I took her to the zoo. I did not know any better, either. The animals looked traumatized and sad. Sometimes they stared and rocked back and forth. I’m no Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin but they did not look happy. And yet when guests visited us, we took them and their small children to the zoo. Going to the zoo was a regular event.
On a recent Sunday I went up to the Baltimore Zoo (now called The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore) and sure enough there were thousands of people there with small children. One does not go to the zoo without small children; it’s a ritual of parenthood. Let’s take the kiddies up to the zoo and let them see the wild things.
The Baltimore Zoo is not, blessedly, the medieval house of horrors that it once was, and is actually a pleasant stroll on a nice day. The zookeepers are all well-scrubbed, looking like the cast of “Up With People” or Latter-Day Saints. No clubs espied. The zoo now has make-believe African watering holes and faux bits of the Serengeti. Still, a zoo is a zoo and I’m not sure about keeping animals in them. I’m no vegan but somewhere along the line I began to wonder if zoos were a good idea.
Hardly a day passes that there is not a story in which someone gets badly hurt or even killed messing about with God’s wild creatures. The San Francisco Zoo is ripe with tales of misadventures. A recent chuckle involved a gentleman described as a mental patient who decided to get closer to the bears. He’s going to live. Not so lucky was the guy two years ago who decided it might be fun to tease a Siberian tiger. After the tiger killed the fun-seeker (tigers are faster than morons), the cops shot it. Most zoo stories end like that. And then an “expert” sagely notes that they just can’t understand what the heck got into Simba. He always seemed so happy in his spacious railroad-car-sized cage.
I read these stories in lieu of the sports pages, finding them instructive. They convey a kind of karmic revenge. You put wild creatures in captivity and once in a while they show you how they feel about it.
This is how I feel about it: I think we ought to shut all the zoos. They are primitive places that speak to an earlier time. They do not, I believe, advance our knowledge of the wild kingdom one iota. You don’t have to be Desmond Morris to realize that an adult elephant or big cats may go insane when confined, or that when animals pace furiously in their tiny cages, they are frantic. In the wild, animals roam over vast expanses; at the zoo they often squat in a box the size of an executive suite in a Hilton Garden Inn.
Taking children to see the wild things confined in unnaturally small spaces and living desperate lives is a bad idea. Why not take them to a public execution? A hanging? A crucifixion? Plainly the time has come to abolish such divertissements. We don’t burn witches. We don’t stone the woman taken in adultery, except in some of the more enlightened oil-producing kingdoms. We don’t flog.
Today, CNN reported from Moscow that a bear on ice skates— now that sounds like something you’d see in the wild— attacked two people during rehearsals at a circus, killing one of them. Maybe he didn’t want to ice skate? Anyone ever wonder about that? Maybe he didn’t want to go to medical school? Maybe he just wanted to be a bear. I am not sure what that involves, but I know that bears in the wild do not skate. Or ride little bicycles. Or wear funny hats. Or play toy musical instruments. Ditto lions and tigers.
But at the dawn of the 21st century we still allow barbarous practices that should shame a decent person. Just the other day, a 25-year-old polar bear named Mercedes was sprung from the Edinburgh Zoo after having spent most of her life (she’d been born in the wild in Canada) living in grim captivity. Mercedes, the last polar bear living in captivity in the United Kingdom, was taken to a rural game preserve. It is not exactly the arctic wild, but it sure beats life behind bars.