Tuesday, 11 March 2014

What would you zoo?

The last time I went to a zoo was almost 10 years ago, back when I first moved to Spain.  I'd purposely avoided them for a long time, unable to reconcile the proud dignity of some of Nature's finest creations with the bored-looking specimens imprisoned behind glass or wire.  However, I'd just started a new job in a foreign country and the company I'd joined was unsympathetic to my ethical dilemma.  I had to attend a trip to Fuengirola Zoo so that I could then sell it to guests, and that was that.

As a kid, I loved the zoo.  We used to go on days out to Chester Zoo, which I remember as being a huge space with a river and parkland stretching as far as the eye could see.  I'm sure memory deceives me a little and my excited child's eyes weren't the best judge of scale, but I'm also sure that the tiny dimensions of the zoo in Fuengirola would have looked even smaller and meaner next to Chester's 45 hectares of greenery.  A measly 2 hectares in area, the overriding memory I have of Fuengirola Zoo is of a tiger pacing up and down, up and down, up and down in front of gaggles of excited tourists.  I know that pacing is a sign of depression in animals and it weighed on my heart to know that there in front of me was an amazing creature, brought so low by the hands of humans who couldn't even approach it without weapons and sedatives at the ready.  That, for me, was the end of my association with zoos.  I couldn't do it and luckily, I never had to again.

The zoo question hadn't really come up again until recently.  Occasionally visitors would ask what Barcelona's zoo was like and I'd simply tell them I'd never been.  If it seemed relevant or appropriate, I'd explain why and tell them a little about how I felt about the subject, but, to be honest, it wasn't really an issue.  My aim has never been to stop other people enjoying zoos, just as my aim during the 13 years I was vegetarian wasn't to stop other people enjoying meat.  It just wasn't for me.  Speaking to other adults made it clear that the zoo holds a special place in many hearts and that it's the home of as many beloved childhood memories as it is animals.  I'm not out to destroy that for anybody - this is just a personal standpoint. 

I'm not completely disregarding the good that zoos do.  Conservation and breeding programmes have ensured the survival of many species that would otherwise have been lost to us forever, and valuable research is undertaken by scientists affiliated with zoos the world over.
 But is it too little, too late, and for the wrong reasons? Humankind has destroyed the habitats of many creatures, eliminated their natural prey, systematically decimated their numbers for their teeth or fur or for the ivory tusks that we're so unworthy of, we need three of us to lift them.  We are an infestation on the face of the planet, a scabies-like scourge that no amount of insecticide will cure.  Mother Nature throws natural disasters at us like athlete's foot powder and we ignore her and get worse.  Making a few more animals miserable for "survival of the species" smacks of an exercise in guilt management.   Many of them wouldn't be struggling without the actions of humans, and I can't help but feel that we may be preventing others from following their natural evolutionary path by our insistence on prolonging their life spans.  

Recent events in Denmark have also shadowed my perspective of the conservation aspect.  While I'm sure there's a lot that hasn't been reported and a lot that I wouldn't understand if it were, I can't for any reason justify the killing of a healthy animal when there are viable alternatives.  The fact that the animal was bred in captivity and his genetic make-up was deemed unfit for the purposes of the scientists in charge (who created him) leaves a bad taste in the mouth.  With this in mind, I can't help but liken the "zoos as conservation" argument to a cheating lover confessing their actions to the betrayed partner in order to feel better about their actions.  The conscience of the transgressor is eased at the expense of the person they've hurt and they get to remove "lying" from their sin sheet.  We "conserve" creatures in order to make ourselves feel better, firstly about the necessity of protecting the few remaining examples of the species' we've come so close to destroying, and secondly to salve our consciences at exploiting them.

However, I'm now very aware that my stance on this may prevent my son from ever creating those memories that so many hold dear, and I've had to think hard about how important my feelings on the subject are. Suddenly my principles would have a direct effect on somebody else - on the person most dear to me in the world.  

I talked it out with his dad and I don't think this is something I'm willing to budge on.   I'm not going to put my foot down and refuse to allow him to attend zoos with other family members or his school, if the opportunity arises.  I'm going to have to accept that my personal ethics mean I'll miss out on the gleeful smiles of a child seeing his story books come to life, because he's too young to be forced to miss out on my behalf.  I just can't see myself walking around pointing at unhappy animals with a giant smile on my face, explaining to Dom how they usually live in the jungle with miles of space to roam but have been cooped up here, mired in a mere existence, for his viewing pleasure.  I may be incorrect here, but I don't think it's his God-given right to see a lion or a gorilla.  It would be nice, sure, but it's not something he needs and it's not something he deserves just because he was born on this planet.  Hopefully, by the time he's old enough to question it, he'll want to care for that same planet and the other inhabitants of it enough that he'll share my views.  If not, we'll agree to disagree.

This depresses the shit out of me.  

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