The ongoing debate continues - should animals be kept in zoos for their own protection, to preserve species that might otherwise face extinction, or to educate and entertain humans? For me, it depends on how the zoo is designed. When I first visited the San Diego Zoo as a teenager, I felt better about the environments in which the tigers and elephants were able to freely roam, separated by large moats instead of in sad little cages with concrete floors.
I loved whales and dolphins, believed that Sea World was providing a great educational experience, and didn't really think about the psychological well-being of these highly intelligent beings. Keiki's story, about the whale who starred in the Free Willy movies, then shunted off to a horrible life in a small filthy aquarium pool, opened my eyes, and created a worldwide scandal.
Despite the efforts of caring people with good intentions (ignoring the profit motive for a moment) to provide education and promote conservation, the animals are still ripped away from their communities, families, or pods, and kept in environments that at best only simulate the ones into which they were naturally born. What horrifies us in Alex Haley's Roots, as Kunta Kinte is sold into slavery in a foreign land away from his family, happens to animals every day.
Think about living in a space station or a prison, and you begin to understand the psychological impact of confinement. All living organisms thrive in the environments for which they are designed. The moment those conditionss are altered - by natural disasters such as storms, weather patterns such as droughts, or human interference such as hunting, introduction of new species, or pollution from urban development - they must adapt physically and mentally to new challenges in order to survive. And surviving is not the same experience as thriving.
Interestingly, animal communicators have found that there are "volunteers" who live in captivity in order to teach lessons to the people who encounter them. We may enjoy their tricks, learn about the needs of their species, or protest their treatment. All of these are purposeful outcomes for the "volunteer" animals. Others have not deliberately agreed to be captured and contained, and their suffering can be excruciating.
For the human species, our responsibility is always one of stewardship, not dominion. We must protect without interfering with natural patterns of adaptation and extinction. We must respect environments and food sources. We must control the impulse to use for profit, and ethically debate our right to use other species for medical research, amusement, convenience such as transportation and other work, and food.
While we continue these debates, we should also point out the efforts of caring people with good intentions to create opportunities for animals to teach us. This Shizuoka zoo, at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan, has constructed a 65 meter swimming pool for its elephants. Maybe it's the sacred energy of the mountain, or simply an example of people with good intentions investing in creating a natural experience for the elephants that also shows us how they live and play. I have no issue with the zoo making a little money from the effort.
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