Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Thoughts on Public Zoos

The lion is called the king
Of beasts. Nowadays there are
Almost as many lions
In cages as out of them.
If offered a crown, refuse.
Lion, by Kenneth Roxroth

I had reason to muse this morning on the fact of my never having visited a zoo.
When I was younger my mother promised to bring me to a zoo some fine day. It never came to pass; time rolled along the way that it does and ideas melted into oblivion the way that they do, and we forgot all about it.
On reflection I think that I am glad to never have attended a zoo.
Once, in California, Spouse and I went along to a store that sold fish- a unique opportunity to sample genuinely fresh food. It was convenient to go there because one could buy large amounts of meat or fish for far better prices than those found in an ordinary supermarket.
As we waited in line to order what we had chosen, I raised my eyes to an aquarium inches from my face. It was filled with frogs and, I stress, crowded to maximum capacity. One would have had difficulty inserting so much as a straw into the tank. The frogs were crushing one another; there were flies hovering sleepily over the creatures and worst, some of the amphibians were yet moving.
I wished each one of them to be dead but a number were staring glassy-eyed, trying to breathe and unable to do so pressed up against the wet glass.
There were streaks on the tank that brought shame to my eyes and heart. It was one of the most dreadful sights that I have ever witnessed. No, it was not a zoo but it was further proof that what we humans do to animals is at times unforgivable. Whether a zoo or a filthy, heaving aquarium, it is nevertheless contemptible.
I treasure some words from one of my favourite books, 'West With The Night' by pioneer aviator Beryl Markham. To this day I remember those frogs with revulsion and I firmly believe this sentiment:

"To an eagle or to an owl or to a rabbit, man must seem a masterful and yet forlorn animal; he has but two friends.
In his almost universal unpopularity he
points out, with pride, that these two are the dog and the horse. He believes, with an innocence peculiar to himself, that they are equally proud of this alleged confraternity.
He says, 'Look at my two noble friends- they are dumb,
but they are loyal.'
I have for years suspected that they are only tolerant. "

Animals born into captivity are not necessarily suffering: zoos have standards and regulations and are bound by laws to treat the creatures with affection and care; and my example of the aquarium is an extreme one.
Justification might, I expect, arise from the necessity to share exhibited exotic animals with city dwellers, to experience the diversity of nature.
Still, to witness such creatures in their natural habitat and there only is the most educational endeavour a person can undertake: to watch the wildlife in the very wild they belong in and not in a man made enclosure that in all likelihood tampers with the course of things and influences animals beyond their natural inclination.
I have seen what sickening things careless, greedy business owners can do. As a result I cannot help but think that the very act of caging animals for entertainment and putting them on display is far from honourable and humane, and a long stretch from being natural.
I am thankful now, with hindsight, that my mother never brought me to a zoo. If I desire to see animals I will instead watch the trees outside my window or take a long drive with Spouse and a camera. Photographs and memory are the only kind way to capture an animal.


Pappy said...

The, I have seen both good and bad in zoos. Some are very nice and have life like settings for the animals housed there, while others, mostly older versions, are cramped and dingy. I suppose like us, the animals would prefer to be free, but sometimes the vagaries of nature can be much more cruel than anything man could inflict. It is an enigma which begs for balance and thoughtfulness.

Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

But then, we concern ourselves with letting nature take its course, and say that no matter how cruel the wild, that's nature doing what it has to do in order for a cycle to complete itself. And we'd be right. And you're also right about needing balance and thoughtfulness.

julochka said...

i agree very much on zoos, tho' i can't say that i haven't ever visited any. the worst was in skopje, macedonia, where the country was in such a state that they weren't really concerning themselves with the care of animals in the zoo...what's strange is that it was the first place that husband and i went together when we met. it made us very sad. i will never forget that skinny lion, looking forlornly and listlessly at us. a sad sight indeed. even worse that perhaps in the not-so-distant future, zoos will be the only places we can see certain animals--like tigers and polar bears. alas, these are heavy thoughts to ponder on a lovely spring evening...

tangobaby said...

I agree with you entirely about zoos. When I was small, my parents took me a lot to the zoo. As I grew older, I found the zoo to be so depressing that it would make me sad for days on end afterwards. It's not that the animals were maltreated or suffering but just that they were in such unnatural surroundings.

I just recently wrote a post about a childhood "friend" named Koko, the gorilla who can sign. It still just breaks my heart to see the plight animals are put in today, either by the callous disregard of a shop owner to poachers and hunters.

Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

Julie, it's true my post was a bit doom and gloom and there isn't really an easy solution. We just have to do our best and be kind to the animals that we've encapsulated in zoos and hope we've done the right thing for the future.
Tangobaby, I read that post. I know what you mean about the animals- not mistreated but it might have felt as though somewhere inside them they knew they ought to be somewhere else. Natural instinct can't be suppressed.

Jaime said...

I can relate to your frog story.
I have a hard time looking at the tank of live crabs and lobsters at the grocery store. I think of their horribly painful fate and it makes me want to buy them all and set them free in the ocean!

Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

Jaime, so do I want to set all the lobsters free. Especially when their claws are bound together and they're moving inside the tank.
Regardless of how one feels about zoos, that sort of a scene is always sickening.

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