The reason North American zoos disrupt their captives’ hormones, impair their reproductive health and deprive them of parenting is simple: They’re afraid we’d get very angry if they didn’t. They would have to dispose of healthy animals, usually at a young age, and it would be Copenhagen all over again. Mr. Tarry says a German survey found that 80 per cent of respondents approved of euthanasia “for conservation reasons. But if you did the same survey in Toronto or Vancouver, I’m sure the results would probably have been different.”
An important lesson here is that zoos often do what they do because they think their public wants it that way. The current public in Canada doesn’t want to know about zoo deaths that aren’t “natural,” or at least merciful to an ailing individual.
It wasn’t always like that. During the great menagerie boom of the nineteenth century, it was well known that hunting animals for trophy and capturing them for zoos were almost the same activity. Several animals usually had to be slaughtered to retrieve one live specimen from a herd, and many of those specimens died during sea voyages to zoos in Europe.
Those that survived were put in barred pens that dramatized the “wild beast” on display, bringing it close while keeping it at bay. The point was to feel man’s place at the top of the animal kingdom, and to see what one London broker of exotic beasts called “life-sized fragments of the empire.” As authors Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier write in Zoos: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West, “the public’s relationship with the animals was based on attraction and repulsion, curiosity and fear.”
By the beginning of the 20th century, rumblings about animal welfare had begun, along with a desire not just to gawk at the specimen, but to watch it move around and act like a wild thing. Zoos got rid of the bars, expanded the pens, and hired architects to create “natural” environments, instead of the pagodas formerly used for exotic appeal. Still, there was increasing concern about the effects of a constrained, totally managed life. Rilke’s famous 1902 poem about a panther in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes – “It seems to him there are/ a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world/ As he paces in cramped circles, over and over” – was reinterpreted as a near-clinical description of stereotyping, a form of repetitive pointless activity common to zoo animals suffering from mental illness.
Zoos shifted ground again, claiming that education and conservation were core purposes. But “the majority of people do not come to the zoo for an educational experience,” say Bob Mullan and Garry Marvin in their book, Zoo Culture.
“I haven’t seen anything empirical that shows there’s real education going on,” says Rob Laidlaw, executive director of Zoowatch, a Toronto-based advocacy group that successfully campaigned to have three elephants removed from the Toronto Zoo last spring.
In any case, people can learn far more from the vast array of nature programs available on television, many of which show animals in their natural habitat. The Animal Planet series Meerkat Manor, for instance, used infrared cameras and a remote-controlled platform to get an intimate, long-term look at African mammals that many viewers knew little about.
Zoos show no more about the lives of animals than an extraterrestrial could learn about humans by studying them only in prisons.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which represents 222 institutions, mostly in the United States and Canada, says its members spend $160-million on conservation each year – which sounds impressive until you see that zoos and aquariums contribute $16-billion annually to the U.S. economy.
In any case, “conservation” often focuses on animals in zoos, not endangered species in the wild. Last year, the Toronto Zoo, Canada’s largest, spent a mere $136,000 on endangered species, one-fifth of 1 per cent of its $53.5-million budget. (The zoo declined to comment for this article.)