On the fence about zoos

I am rather opinionated (those that know me can attest to that fact) but there are some things that are just not black-and-white. There are blurry lines and various shades of grey everywhere when it comes to our interaction with animals.

The latest social media furor is about Harambe the gorilla that was shot dead after a child landed in his enclosure. Animal lovers and activists have been very quick to shout “murder” and show stills of a video where he was apparently holding hands and protecting said child. While I would love to give Harambe the benefit of the doubt, if it had been my child in that enclosure (irrespective of how he got there – that is an entirely different debate) let me tell you, I would have shot (and killed) that gorilla myself.

Unlike the idiot in Chile who wanted to be eaten, in which case I thought the tranquilizers and live ammunition may have been used the wrong way around. Or recently, when Sylvester the lion escaped, I was one of the first people to sign the petition to stop SANPARKS from shooting and killing him. But he wasn’t an immediate threat to anyone and that turned out great. I think in this case the zoo made the correct decision. I am glad I didn’t have to make that decision or take that shot, but I am of the opinion that they did the right thing.

People are getting hung up on a single point in the entire debate while there are many factors to be considered. That does bring us to the next question: should the gorilla have been in the zoo in the first place? Here is where it goes into the grey again.

(As an aside: I am not that old and I can still remember (however vaguely) when “nature conservation” consisted of killing off all predators to save the “poor buck” that were being eaten. That was way before we understood about the balance of nature and how ecosystems function. My point is this: we do the best with whatever knowledge we have at our disposal. And that changes as time goes by.)

Back to the point: I have always loved zoos. I still do. I love taking my children to zoos and giving them the chance to see live animals instead of stuffed museum exhibits. And while I agree that there are certain zoos that should be shut down – I myself have sent around the facebook picture of the depressed bear staring at the wall in his concrete jail – I don’t believe it is true in every case.

When I was a child we used to go and visit Pretoria Zoo and back then the lions would pace up and down in their small wire cages. Nowadays, they live in a massive natural enclosure and one is not even guaranteed of seeing them on a visit. In fact, I have also visited a “game reserve” where the lions are kept in much worse conditions than those in Pretoria zoo. But that is my point: it is comparing ONE zoo with ONE game reserve.  The argument doesn’t hold true for all zoos and all game reserves. The lions in Pretoria Zoo’s lives have improved as our knowledge of keeping them in captivity have increased, which would not be possible had none been kept in captivity.

I have written before about my ghastly experience with a petting zoo, where no-one seemed to care about the welfare of the animals. At the other end of the spectrum we have also visited a place where one can interact with live spider monkeys – the old man in charge is very strict (borderline rude) with visitors to ensure the welfare of his monkeys. My children loved the outing and in this case also learnt about respect for animals. They learnt something. And this is the point of zoos, is it not? To teach people who would not otherwise have the opportunity to learn about animals.

So my opinion on zoos is: “It very much depends” on the zoo, on the individual animals, and on the specific situation.11392951_10152822422861536_4685407676295253453_n

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