I used to LOVE going to the Berlin zoo. This is because that is where I met my “secondary boyfriend” Bao Bao. It is also where our romance blossomed and finally came to an end when Bao Bao passed away last August. Snif. I haven’t been back since.
I always visited the zoo with my “primary boyfriend” F, an understanding fella, since he would patiently wait while I fawned at the panda enclosure for what must have felt like an eternity.
F doesn’t like zoos. He thinks the most interesting species at any zoo, in a disturbing and aggravating kind of way, is the homo sapiens. People often tend to get quite rude and aggressive with their cameras and stick them as close as possible to the animals’ faces, ignoring all “no photography” signs as well as fellow humans also trying to get a glimpse of the imprisoned creatures. This is particularly bad in Berlin, where visitors are often permitted VERY close to the animals.
The other reason F doesn’t like zoos is the treatment of animals. He says it is torture to keep for example a polar bear or a cheetah – both species used to travelling large distances in the wild – in a small zoo enclosure. While I don’t disagree with him, it does baffle me how he, and many people who think like him, are nonetheless happy meat-munchers. That, however, might be a post for another day.
I must admit that for a long time I didn’t really think much about the ethics of zoos. I just liked seeing animals. When I did think about it, I thought there were two reasons why zoos were acceptable, both linked to the protection of endangered species:
- Some animals have trouble conceiving in the wild and local populations have shrunk so much that genetic diversity becomes precariously limited. Zoo breeding programs, in which animals are loaned to other zoos so that they can mate with partners with a different genetic makeup, can arguably help make the worldwide population healthier.
- Zoos sensitise and educate people about animals in a way that is hard to achieve in other ways. I must admit that seeing a lion or a gorilla for the first time impressed me, even if I had previously seen them both on TV.
With my recent obsession with pandas I have learnt that the first of these reasons is not as persuasive as I once thought. While breeding giant pandas in captivity, in particular in zoos, has been extremely difficult (including Bao Bao’s failed attempts with an earlier girlfriend Ming Ming on a romantic getaway in London), this does not mean that they don’t procreate in the wild. They’re just shy, and who can blame them. Would you feel particularly aroused with a horde of vets and in the worst case scenario curious visitors peeping at your intimate moments...? In fact it appears that the giant panda population is on the increase, in particular due to the Chinese government’s efforts at enlarging reserves and creating green corridors between them. (Lots more info here.) So perhaps that is the way forward, rather than imprisoning pandas in zoos.
The second reason probably still remains. However, is it – on its own – enough? While zoos give kids in particular an opportunity to see and learn about species they would possibly otherwise not appreciate or understand, this may not be enough to justify the expense and cruelty of the institution.
I wonder, will zoos slowly disappear and be just a relic we think about shaking our heads 50 years from now?