Every child loves going to the zoo – it’s a childhood tradition. Parents want to expose their kids to wonderful adventures, to broaden their minds. That’s the reason they go to the zoo. These children get the chance to see animals they would most likely never see in their lifetime, unless the parent was wealthy enough to travel to all corners of the globe in search of That Elusive Species.
But what are parents really exposing their children to? I recently visited the Los Angeles zoo. I did this because I know that celebrity Betty White is on the board of directors and is an animals rights’ activist. I thought I would be visiting more of a sanctuary than a zoo. I was excited to see the new elephant enclosure, as it is one that is supposedly the best in the country. When I arrived I was quickly reminded why I don’t enjoy visiting zoos.
The L.A. Zoo is beautiful, the weather is generally flawless, and the animals are diverse. Most boast of being “the last of their kind,” and they house several “almost extinct” animals. That part of zoos I do enjoy. To me, they are a necessary evil. Yes, despite the fact that these animals are in cages, and out of their natural habitat and climate, they are safe from poachers.
As I walked to the elephant enclosure, the first sound I heard was the snapping of the electric fence. I saw one male elephant standing there. He made his way over to a trainer, who threw him some cucumbers and then he sauntered back to wait by his door. I walked further on and saw that two female elephants were kept on the other side of the very large enclosure. One female was constantly bobbing her head, and as I saw this, I remembered that hearing this is a sometimes-present neurological behavior in captive elephants. I was saddened by her behavior and upset that they were being kept apart. I have a deep love and affinity for all animals, but I feel especially connected to elephants.
I walked past the chimpanzee enclosure to see their area to be very crowded, and the inhabitants sat cuddled with each other, not using any of their supplied “enhancement” tools. I remember thinking, “Those straps are so close together, how can they swing at all?”
What got to me the most, and what really prompted me to write this article and do the associated research, was the Sumatran Tiger. I heard her calling from another area in the zoo, which I found to be odd as I’ve never really heard such an active tiger before. I walked to the enclosure where I saw her pacing. She was doing figure eights between her two cubs that were at separate ends of her area. I knew right away, she was looking for another cub. Calling for a lost cub, circling, counting, trying to find her lost baby. I Googled the tigers and found that six months prior to my visit, a Sumatran tiger cub did indeed die. I walked through the zoo hearing that mother calling and my heart wrenched with every call she made. There was no way that it couldn’t have been her.
I was furious, positively fuming. I immediately contacted animal experts and the L.A. Zoo itself. The first person I spoke to was Jason Jacobs of the L.A. Zoo. I jumped at the chance to ask him about the elephant behavior, and he informed me that one of the females was a former circus animal, and that their young male also bobs his head. Jacobs told me that when a trainer comes to the gate the young male elephant will bob his head in an “anticipatory way” the same way a dog would wag its tail. He also informed me that the zoo is working on the human/elephant conflict in several countries. Farmers are being eaten out of crops by elephants and the zoo is helping educate the farmers in ways to protect their crops without violence toward the animals.
Jacobs also told me that the chimpanzees have a lot of enrichment, and that the tiger was pacing and …
… calling because at the time of my visit (around 3pm) that is the time she is normally fed, so she would be anxious to go in and feed.
He also told me of all the good that the zoo has done. The L.A. Zoo was able to breed 300 condors and bring them back from the brink of extinction, and they did the same with the yellow-legged frog. Jacobs told me how the zoo cares deeply for their animals, how they cut their arctic exhibit because it wasn’t adequate for the animals, and even sent their rhino to a sanctuary in Indonesia because it was best for the animal.
After the talk with Mr. Jacobs, I did feel much better. I just didn’t see all the good that the zoo had been doing.
I then had some correspondence with The Jane Goodall Foundation Chimp Eden Sanctuary Manager Phillip Cronje. Mr. Cronje’s background is in primate management. He has worked with primates at the Johannesburg Zoo his entire working life with the exception of one year, when he was managing a private game farm in Paarl. I was interested to hear what Mr. Cronje had to say, as I am a huge fan and admirer of his. Mr. Cronje said in an email to me:
“I personally see that education in a zoo has a huge role to play … In the South African situation, we have many children and adults who will never get to see a lion or a civet, as they cannot afford to travel to areas where these animals occur. At a zoo they are able to view these animals and be told about them and what they do. In many cases there are also education animals where a child is able to touch a tortoise or a non-venomous snake something they will not experience elsewhere.
Many people say, yes but we have the Kruger National park and other Nature reserves but again the economic climate does not allow many folk to get to these parks. How many children growing up in Johannesburg know that milk comes from a cow and not a factory? Again, in a zoo setting they can actually watch a cow being milked or chickens hatching from eggs.”
These are irreplaceable and invaluable experiences for these children. Again, my faith in the zoo system was restored. A word that kept reoccurring in my correspondence was “enrichment.” Mr. Cronje mentioned it, as well as Mr. Jacobs. But what no one was willing to do was spell out for me what these animals needed. Maybe, I thought, they didn’t really know?
I next spoke with Delcianna Winders, Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement for PETA. She gave me a plethora of studies regarding the domestication and emotional trauma of captive animals. I asked Ms. Winders what she thought of captive elephants and the head bobbing behavior, and she said that a lot of people will say this is an “anticipatory” behavior, though there is no evidence to back that claim. There is, however, evidence that an elephant will do that when they see an abuser or when their needs are not being met. When Ms. Winders used the phrase “anticipatory behavior” without a prompting from me, and my stomach sank. Was this just a PR spin on a very sad behavior?
So I kept digging. Next, I got in touch with Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick DBE, a Kenyan author, conservationist and expert in animal husbandry. Dr. Sheldrick said in our correspondence:
“Elephants are, in fact, emotionally identical to humans, and if humans do not like solitary confinement and life imprisonment, then nor do captive elephants! I have been working intimately with elephants for over 50 years, and have hand-reared from early infancy (two from the day of birth) over 140 orphans, none of whom would otherwise be living today. All our orphans end up leading a perfectly normal wild life whenever they are ready to make the transition from human dependency.”
She directed to me to Dr. Gay Bradshaw, who is the Executive Director of The Kerulos Center, and the author of Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity, an in-depth psychological portrait of elephants in captivity and in the wild, and another go-to person on everything elephant. I was told that these elephants were exhibiting “stereotypy – a symptom of severe trauma and Complex PTSD,” the same way a human would. I was also given several articles written by Dr. Bradshaw.
I walked away from all this research and information with the solid opinion that elephants are not meant to be captive. It’s the same as putting an innocent man on death row.
The elephants, however, weren’t my only concern. When Ms. Winders and I spoke, I mentioned the behaviors of the Sumatran tiger. She cited another study done in which a tiger was fed only once a day, and she paced 75% of her waking hours.
It’s really not rocket science – these animals are used to wide open spaces. They travel all of the time, sometimes hundreds of miles a day. They’re used to different weather climates, they hunt and forage for their food and survival, and they live in packs and have complex relationships with each other. How can stripping them of all of that be a good thing? How can taking something away from everything they know, everything they are, and everything they’re supposed to be, while placing them in a strange place and allowing people to point, stare, and snap pictures of them. How is that an OK thing to do?
The similarities to a person in prison and an animal in captivity are staggering. The complete breakdown of spirit and emotions are inevitable. So, should we parade children with cameras through Pelican Bay?
I was pretty sold on my “zoos are evil” stance until I saw a picture of a poached elephant. There it was: a majestic, intelligent, masterpiece of an animal, laying in the dirt, with its face completely removed. The body remained, but poachers had dug out its face in order to get ivory from the tusks. This is happening at an alarming rate. In 2010 it was reported that 40,000 African elephants were being killed each year, and at this rate, within 30 years they will be extinct. That means in my lifetime I will see elephants wiped off the face of the earth. My children and grandchildren will never see one.
Also in 2010 it was reported that at the beginning of this century there were about 100,000 wild tigers. Today there are less than 2,500. Originally, there were nine subspecies of tiger – 3 of which are now extinct. It’s a real problem we’re having here, with the loss of their natural habitat due to climate, industrial advances, and poachers, and these animals will disappear. Where else will we see them but in a zoo?
I came to the conclusion that, as it stands, zoos are necessary evils, but maybe we should be working to take the evil out of them. I don’t need flamingos in a zoo, you know – take out certain enclosures and expand others. Make it a sanctuary; make it a safe place for the animals, a happy place for the animals. Let people take their kids to a place to see animals flourishing and growing. Have children learn what it’s like to see an animal in a natural habitat, and not be distracted by the snapping of an electric fence.
In order to make this happen, people need to get involved. People need to talk about this issue. The saddest part about this is that the animals can’t tell you where it hurts. They can’t crawl on a therapist’s couch to talk about how they feel abandoned or how they miss their mother. They can’t scream that they’re scared, or cry so you know they’re sad. But they are talking to us, they are trying to get our attention, and they are dying to be heard. Sometimes quite literally.