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NEW YORK, N.Y. /Troy Media/ – Are zoos reaching their expiration date?
Humans and animals have coexisted as long as there has been life on Earth.
We have used animals as sources of food, labour, companionship and entertainment since the dawn of time. As our knowledge grew, they were – and continue to be – used in scientific research.
While some animals are adopted into our homes as pets, others are left undisturbed in the wild. Countless others are confined and placed under our supervision and stewardship.
Clearly, the relationship between humans and animals is complex. When animals are held in captivity by humans, that relationship takes on a different character.
Increasingly, there’s a belief that confining living creatures that were meant to be in the wild harms them in ways we are only beginning to understand.
They can’t flourish – no matter how well-meaning those responsible for their care.
Zoos are an artificial way for humans and animals to come in contact with one another. For well over 100 years, their right to exist was not seriously challenged because few considered zoos to be negative. For many families, a zoo visit was a regular part of life – a chance to introduce wide-eyed children to the wonders of the natural world.
But it’s not natural for the animals – at all – and therein lies the problem. More and more, the unnatural confinement is being viewed as an unjustifiable violation. It’s seen by a growing number of animal welfare advocates as a denial of the animal’s right to an existence that’s fulfilling to it by virtue of its status as a living creature and sentient being.
One need only think of the evolution in zoos and the quality of animal confinement many of us have witnessed in our lifetimes to realize that indifference or ignorance to the needs of animals was often present – even if unintended.
Great and magnificent animals were often left to languish in concrete pits with no vegetation. Steel bars more fitting to prisons were the order of the day. There was scant thought spared for providing stimuli to encourage and safeguard psychological health.
Thankfully, that’s no longer the case – at least not in the majority of instances. For decades, ongoing and laudable efforts have sought to recreate facsimiles of natural habitat in zoos.
Certainly, those charged with the care of animals in zoos are dedicated professionals who likely hold a deep and abiding love for the animals in their facilities.
But it’s not enough. Good will and best efforts are not sufficient to compensate for what the animal has lost – for what we’re taking from it.
It may not be realistic or even desirable to empty our zoos. What we can do is adopt policies that prevent us from replenishing them.
It would be a disservice to zoos to not acknowledge their contributions to education and to fostering enlightenment about the animals with whom we share this planet. They manage breeding programs, promote conservation, and care for sick and injured animals that might otherwise suffer and die.
Perhaps zoos’ focus going forward should be as a haven for those animals unable to live or roam free due to physical injury or trauma.
No one doubts that our connection to animals is profound. We want to be closer to them, we want to observe them and we even wish to love them – and believe love is returned. Generations of Disney films have conditioned us to believe that animals are our friends.
That being the case, there is no greater way to show our love than to begin the process of phasing out zoos.
Those people whose life’s work has been dedicated to the growth of zoos can instead channel that devotion into sanctuaries. And those sanctuaries, instead of inviting in the public, should focus solely on the animal as an independent creature that has the right to be left alone.
Troy Media columnist Gavin MacFadyen is a Canada-raised, U.S.-based writer and occasional lawyer. Blending insight and wit, he brings a unique perspective to the issues of the day. Gavin is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.
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