Jul 11, 2009

Zoo Stories: Animals and Emotions and Confinement

Forty and more years ago, I visited the animal torture prison that was then the Baltimore Zoo. I recall seeing a lone gorilla in a dark, windowless, cement floored cage, constantly regurgitating his food and eating it up. School children would make fun of him and pull faces at him, but he seemingly paid us no heed, fixated as he was on his body's effluence. Poor, unfortunate beast. I don't know if this was the same gorilla as Hercules, who was given to the Dallas zoo in 1993. When I viewed the video below, I was forcibly reminded that we humans know so little about these magnificent animals. Can you imagine how insanely mad that lone gorilla must have become, with no companions to relieve the tedium, no visual stimuli, and visited daily by creatures that, counter to polite gorilla etiquette, bared their teeth and stared directly at him?

In 1826, Chunee the Elephant went mad from his confinement in a small zoo in London. Lord Byron had described him as a well behaved elephant, but he became enraged and dangerous. The thing was: Chunee did not die easily or well. 152 musket balls did not do the job, and his keeper had to finish him off with a sword. It was said that the sounds of his agonizing death haunted those who heard his screams. More recently three men taunted a tiger at the San Francisco zoo. The tiger, escaping his confinement, killed one of the men and mauled the other two. Zoo officials killed the tiger, who had been minding its own business. Where was the justice in that?

While today's zoos have become more humane and are the last refuge for many endangered species, road side zoos still despicably confine their exotic charges in cramped cages. These small private zoos are not the only culprits. Expensive aquariums like Sea World are hideously confining as well. One cannot convince me that the tanks in which dolphins and whales are forced to swim around in endless circles are big enough for these enormous, free ranging creatures. I don't care how much attention and care they receive, and how much money is spent on those tanks - when I see a magnificent killer whale swim around in tight circles my heart goes out to it. And don't get me started on the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where no natural light is permitted inside the very dark interior of the main building. When this aquarium first opened, a group of puffins began to noticeably suffer almost immediately. I recall being surprised that in 1981, a supposedly enlightened era of zoo design, an exhibit was created that harmed the physical and mental well-being of the creatures that were forced to live inside it.

There are no easy solutions. Seeing those gorillas and chimps smile and giggle in the above YouTube clip made me infinitely sad. There is no future in the wild for these beautiful creatures, and the only way many of us will ever get to see them is behind the bars of a cage. Lions are being poisoned to such an extent in Kenya, that it is estimated they will be eradicated in 50 years. Pretty soon the only place we will see these magnificent beasts is in a zoo. What a terrible and terrifying future we have wrought for them. This article by Christopher Corbett represents my feelings on the topic, only Christopher is angrier.

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