The Zoo Controversy

So it’s been a few weeks, some other big events have happened in the news and the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo has blown over. But for a time it resurfaced a discussion which seems to come and go every once in a while. Should we be rid of zoos? Before getting into that though, I would like to quickly share my thoughts on the gorilla shooting.

Two distinct sides have emerged. Most people are outraged that a gorilla was killed, and many people are also blaming the boy’s mother for not watching him. I love animals I always have. I hate the idea of killing an animal needlessly. However, when that zookeeper pulled the trigger I can not conceive that it was done for any reason other that the safety of that boy. These are people who day in and day out work with these animals, watch them grow, bond with them, know them better than anyone else and invest so much time and effort. To think that they would take that action on a whim and not because they felt it was absolutely necessary is heartless. I would have been harder for them than anyone.

As for the parenting, while maybe the mother could have been more attentive, or constantly reminded the boy not to climb, I don’t think that makes her a terrible parent. What parent hasn’t lost sigh of their child for a couple seconds? Instead of crucifying her, shown some sympathy for the fear which must have been ringing through her in that moment. This is not an incident to point blame over, this is an incident to teach us and show us all how to improve on the status quo.

With that out of the way, let me get back to zoos. As I’ve mentioned before, we have memberships to the Toronto Zoo. While my work schedule has been keeping me pretty busy recently, we still take any chance we can to utilize our memberships, and the zoo is probably our favorite. I hope everyone’s had a chance to go to a zoo, but for those who haven’t there is probably the image of a pathway lined with steel barred cages with concrete floors and animals just sitting out on display bouncing around their heads. It doesn’t seem like being an animal in this environment would be anything but boring, scary and generally stressful. And though that may have once been a reality, zoos are drastically different now.

Most of the enclosures are open air and rather large. They’re all designed specifically for that animals and address each species’ needs. Those animals which love to run have huge spacious pens, those who climb have ropes, structures and hammocks. The Toronto Zoo has even built multi-million dollar pavilions to keep warm climate animals comfortable year round. New toys and treats are introduced on a regular basis, small changes are made to the structures to keep things new and interesting but not so much as to make the animals feel uncomfortable and the whole enclosure is decorated to be more like the animal’s natural habitat. In some cases animals are even allowed to roam freely around the pavilions. Every effort is made to make sure that these animals stay happy and entertained.

Probably the biggest benefit to the animals is safety. In a zoo, they don’t have to worry about predators. The only things around which are going to eat them, are safely locked away somewhere else with no possible way of interacting. The animals are safe, and their babies are safe which puts a lot less stress on them all. Not only that, but the predators probably wouldn’t have any interest in hunting these other animals anyways. They are always kept very well fed. Meals specifically adjusted to each animal’s dietary needs are provided on a regular basis. They don’t have to spend energy or risk harm hunting, but toys are often used as enrichment activities to keep the animals in shape and entertained.

On top of that, the animals are cared for by some of the best vets around. With huge funding into the animals health, most zoos are virtually free of disease and even the elderly animals are well cared for. Animals in captivity on average have longer lifespans. And when the time does come they can be, when needed, humanely put to sleep so they do not have to suffer through the final moments. Longer, easier and danger free lives are huge benefits to animals in captivity.

I think though, that the best thing zoos do for the world is the huge role they play in conservation. I see this done regularly at the Toronto Zoo in two ways. First of all, in captivity endangered animals are impossible for poachers to kill. While they sometimes sneak onto reserves, or lure animals off the reserve, no hunting guns are being snuck into a zoo and no animals are be lured out of them. Zoos are perfect places for at risk animals to be bred, helping to build their populations. In some cases the animals can be reintroduced to the wild. This has been done in Toronto a few times, particularly with baby turtles who are native to the area.

However the most important thing I see being bred at the zoo is he next generation of conservationists. Maybe even a generation where everyone does their part to help preserve the natural world. I always liked animals, but being so close to them, watching them move, interact and learning about them made me fall in love with and value them so much. I’m so proud to see the same thing happening when we take our daughter out. She has her favorite animals she wants to see right away, but she loves getting to see as many as she can! She talks about them and asks questions, especially when she knows we’re going to see them. She wants to watch documentaries about them and she gets sad to hear that they’re dying. She feels proud that our memberships and her endless supply of coins she watched spiral into the collection bin help to converse these amazing creatures. Raising awareness, educating and making animals more than just an image on a TV screen are the most important things a zoo does to ensure the future of our environment.

I will not deny that there are some zoos which either don’t have the proper funding to care for the animals in these ways, or are not regulated and simply don’t care enough. In those cases I would agree that the animals should not be in there and something has to be done about it. But as long as the animals are well cared for, I think zoos are a great thing. Everyone should go and see the animals. Feel the connection to our natural world and appreciate the diversity it holds.

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