While the Orlando killing of 49 plus people at a gay night club haunts our daily life, I am dedicating this entry to the sting of the death of Harambe, the silverback gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. Sad and tragic as the death of the gorilla is, it is quickly lost in the Orlando Florida mass killings. Violence is everywhere. Heartfelt condolences and sadness to the families, Orlando our country for this tragedy.
Back to animal welfare; it is sad to learn of the death of Harambe. The mixed feeling shared by many and considerations for ways to avoid something like this happing again, its on the minds of conservationists.
What is the role of zoos and why do we keep animals captive the way that we do? The Denver Zoo hosts millions of people each year. Zoos are extremely popular. Indeed, my wife and I took our children to the Denver Zoo many time in the 1980’s. As our children have children, they too take their kids, our grand children to the zoo, or at least they did until a few years ago. Their annual membership has lapsed, in part, out of a growing concern regarding the ethics of caging animals. Younger people are changing their view about zoos.
Is there a better way for inspiring a sense of wonderment about the animal kingdom and commitment towards habitat and animal conservation? Many believe there is and a growing movement argue it doesn’t include caging animals in zoos.
There was a time when I personally didn’t think it mattered. I chalked it up to collateral damage. So much good came out of seeing elephants in a 10 acre enclosure it didn’t matter that they experienced severe food and leg disorders due to waking on hard pack. So the monkeys were in a cage bored with existence, so the tigers sprayed the viewing glass behind where I gazed in to their exhibit. Tigers seemed agitated. So what? I was of the opinion that the harm done to caged animals was far outweighed by the experience of seeing live exotic animals in zoos. Seeing those animals triggered a humane response in young and old, a concern for conservation that seemed to be a fair exchange for the pain of life suffered in zoos. No more. Like my past apologies for the use of a billhook as the legitimate tool for managing elephants, I have changed my opinion. I’ve changed my mind after observing and participating in animal care for eighteen years.
I have learned from conservation biologists, human/animal connection professionals, shelter administrators, people growing up in the generation and with Louis Leakey, as well as the current team of people I work with in Africa, I’ve learned why many individuals are changing the way we view animals.
Animals are legal things. They are not “persons” nor do they have rights but they should be recognized as living, thinking, tool using beings, with language, self-recognition and advanced cognition capabilities. Just because we humans don’t speak their language, live in their living room, eat their preferred foods, like what they like, etc., doesn’t mean they should be treated as less than living thinking beings.
Animals don’t have rights, but should they have something? Do they deserve more status than a cracker box zoo existence? A new movie Unlocking the Cage takes a provocative look at our ethic for caging animals. I personally hope it has the same effect on the public as the film Blackfish had on attendance at Sea World.
So, why have animals in captivity: 1) to rehabilitate them for release back into the wild, 2) because they are so injured they cannot survive in the wild, 3) for reintroduction programs for endangered species, 4) confiscated animals that no longer have the skills (and will not acquire them) for release back into the wild. The idea, however, that zoos will maintain populations of animals in captivity in case they are some day needed for reintroduction is fast coming to a close. The captive programs are failing, which is why the zoos are trying to revamp their Species Survival Programs into a new iteration called SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction.
Animals are sentient beings. They have emotions, they feel pain, they seek to live in they way they are created. If we honor what is on this frail blue dot, we should recognize we need to be better caretakers.
I am dismayed by comments in the press that we take care of animals the way we do because we are on top of the evolutionary heap. Another reasoning cited in the opinion pages and comments by readers is that God created the animals for human use. The justification that humans can exploit the planet without boundaries of consideration of consequence hold sway and is the dominate attitude. Scary really.
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