Time to shut down the zoos

Last Updated: Wed, Jun 01, 2016 11:15 hrs

Image: The Cincinnati Zoo

This month, the idiocy of human visitors to animal prisons has caused the death of three majestic, beloved, and innocent animals.

In the first week of May, two lions were shot dead in a Chilean zoo after they began to attack a man who reportedly jumped on to the roof of their enclosure, ripped through the fencing, jumped inside, and began to antagonise them while screaming proverbs in what is seen as a suicide attempt. 

The man was rushed to hospital in order for his miserable life to be saved, while the animals were killed because the zoo – like all zoos across the world – has protocols in place to protect the lives of awful human beings even at the cost of those of endangered animals.

This week, 17-year-old Western lowland gorilla Harambe was killed in Cincinnati Zoo after a four-year-old climbed under a rail, through a barrier, and jumped over a low wall into a deep moat in order to reach the gorillas.

Witnesses said the boy had been talking about how he wanted to get into the water and his mother was heard telling him, “No, you’re not!” After this, one assumes she was busy taking selfies, or checking her messages, or whatever parents who take their children to zoos do, while her son – who, at four, is certainly old enough to know not to jump into a gorilla enclosure – did what children with such parents presumably want to do.

In video footage that emerged later, the woman can be heard screaming, “Mommy’s right here!” after not being “right there” for the several minutes it must have taken the boy to get from a safe place to where he ended up causing the death of the gorilla.

Zoo officials followed “protocol” and killed the gorilla, the only innocent in this entire episode. 

The boy was taken to hospital with “non-life threatening injuries”, before going home with the same parents who have raised him to, you know, jump into gorilla enclosures.

In both cases, officials decided not to use tranquilisers, as they would take “too long” to take effect, and could not guarantee that the animals would not react aggressively and kill the humans who had embarked on suicidal missions.

As it happens, Harambe was a member of a species on the brink of extinction, with less than  175,000 individuals in the wild. These numbers have dwindled thanks to humans – habitat destruction for “development”-slash-avarice, imprisonment for entertainment where the odd human might have them killed because, hey, he was bored.

The zoo shut its gates for a single day. Now, patrons of these prisons are back, their spawn in tow.

What is the case for allowing zoos to stay open? How different are they from circuses? 

Clearly, everyone is more important than animals in a zoo – children who are even more idiotic than their distracted parents, lunatics who want to play with lions, and Facebookers who want to take ill-advised selfies.

In India, after a tiger killed a 20-year-old man who either jumped or fell into the enclosure, there were angry calls for the animal to be put down as punishment – you know, for being a tiger with natural instincts.

Animals in zoos often attack from the depression of being imprisoned. Tigers, lions, and apes were not meant to perform tricks for human visitors in enclosed spaces.

Because we live in such an anthropocentric world, there are fools taking offence to the ‘Justice for Harambe’ hashtag. Is a gorilla more important than a child, they ask. Perhaps not. But a gorilla should not be less important than a child either. Especially when it wasn’t the gorilla’s fault that the child landed up where he was.

The excuse used to keep zoos open is that many of the animals there are rescues, who would not be able to survive in the wild.

If this is the case, why is captive breeding of animals allowed? The argument that we need to preserve particular species does not cut ice with me. Since the beginning of time, millions of species have evolved and gone extinct, and millions more will before the end of time. 

Science does not suggest that we ought to breed animals in an artificial setting and force them to lead miserable lives simply because we’re killing them in the wild. 

There have been several documented cases of elephants trying to kill their newborns in zoos, either because they were driven mad by depression or because they wanted to spare their offspring the horror of a life in a zoo.

And if zoos claim to be rescue and rehabilitation centres, why are they open to the public? Why are animals subjected to rides and taunts? Why are children allowed into zoos? 

Surely, an animal rehabilitation centre can run on donations, as so many do?

Even sanctuaries are barely sanctuaries, with hordes of tourists driving in to sightsee, and some paying good money to “hunt”.

From when we are children, we are taught to think of animals as a lesser species, “exhibits” for our education and entertainment.

We need to stop schools from taking children to zoos. We are subjecting animals to cruelty to acquire what might more easily and to better effect be acquired from watching wildlife channels on television.

We need to ensure that sanctuaries are sanctuaries, sheltered from tourists and monitored by accredited animal rights activists, so that the human proclivity for corruption doesn’t lead to a clandestine trade in animal parts.

Surely, there can be no excuse for zoos to stay open when they treat animals as dispensable objects?

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. 

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