The temptation is to find someone to blame when an endangered animal is shot dead at the place that is supposed to be his refuge. But the killing of Harambe the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, after a child somehow got into his enclosure, should not be reduced to simplistic diatribes against careless parents or trigger-happy wardens.
The expressions of unhappiness and anger surrounding Harambe's death are misdirected if the focus is solely on the way his life ended. What should be more distressing is how his life was lived, in the zoo that held him captive.
Zoos are troubling places. When a beautiful primate can be extinguished simply because the entertainment value of its outsized life-force has been accidentally realized in real life, the contradictions of the institution are on full display. Yet zoos linger on in a world that is now much better positioned to see the harms and question the benefits that anachronistic animal theme-parks provide.
There is an undeniable wonder in seeing wild things up close, free of the fears and dangers that would normally accompany such encounters in the natural world. But whatever joy these momentary points of artificial contact bring to the human spectator is nothing compared with the deprivations that the captive objects of our contemplation have to endure – particularly the large, noisy, crowd-pleasing creatures known in the zoo business as "charismatic megafauna."
A trip to most zoos should be a place for introspective humans to feel sadness at the pain they're willing to inflict on others for their own brief delight, a meditative setting where enlightenment is made available for those who want to explore their pangs of guilt when looking into an imprisoned gorilla's sad, dead eyes.
For anyone who appreciates an animal's intelligence, comprehends the physical and mental pain it feels in a cramped, boring enclosure, and senses the gulf between the life it was made for and the tiny world it is forced to inhabit, zoos are morally questionable, or worse.
They were created solely for uncritical, wide-eyed human observers, and the concept of amusement depends on some level of the willful obliviousness once applied to circus freak shows, or asylums where the mentally ill were once put on display. Few animals want to be on stage, non-stop, for our entertainment. Yet at a zoo, that is their reason for being. It's their job. A zoo where animals were left alone to be themselves, with enough space to remain far out of human sight, would go broke very quickly.
The moral claims of the rights revolution that put an end to contempt for other humans was bound to be extended in part to animals, but feelings of guilt and sadness at the zoo are based on much more than legalistic arguments about personhood or the astonishing amount of DNA we share with a chimp.
How can you feel a sense of attachment to a pet and then deny the possibility of shared feelings to an animal that is obviously a part of the same realm? How can you encourage children to feel compassion for endangered animals on far-off continents, or feel wonder at creatures in the wild, and then bring them face-to-face with a captive lion or bear and pretend that this is the same expression of nature?
Of course, zoos have no choice but to pretend that their animal employees are getting something out of the deal. They shift the conversation and talk about breeding programs for threatened populations, rescuing endangered species, naturalization of expanded zoo enclosures to simulate life in the wild and research and conservation programs. But while there can sometimes be value in these efforts, there's also a considerable amount of window-dressing, designed to salve the human conscience.
The vast majority of animals in the zoo aren't endangered, restocking the wild hasn't gone all that well in a time of disappearing habitat, and anyone rescuing animals by confining them in a shrunken exhibit space should acknowledge that the trade-off is imperfect. The primary purpose of a zoo is still to show animals to people.
Under pressure from activists, elephants that need room to roam are being liberated from their zoo-prisons, and orcas that need more space and sensory stimulation than can be offered by a glassed-in fish tank are being deemed unfit for public aquariums. It's a start.
But if it is to satisfy the needs of animals, and the demands of the better angels of human nature, the zoo of the future will have to become an anti-zoo. Many big animals simply can't function in a zoo's confined bit of real estate – some zoo polar bears are stuck in an estimated one-one millionth of their range in the wild. If zoos are to continue in their present form, they should concentrate on smaller animals, along with domesticated and farm animals that live well in human company. Yet zoos have always believed they need spectacular, inappropriate creatures, such as lions and tigers and gorillas, to sell tickets and jump-start a sense of awe with a single surprising roar. It's a lazy justification for perpetuating wrong.
Some innovative institutions in Europe have found ways to carry out their mission with exhibits of microscopic creatures, or large, highly naturalized surroundings where human visitors have no direct contact with the wild animals they're observing. And many altruistic wildlife rescue centres have developed as refugees for animals liberated from the worst zoos, and ever worse circuses. You make a donation from afar and have the comfort of knowing that you helped a wounded creature return to something closer to its proper life. A photo or an online video may be your only point of contact, but the level of engagement is much deeper than a typical zoo experience.
Zoos are fighting a losing battle against evolving humanity. If you can watch a vulture family over weeks on a nest-cam, or savour the brilliance of a newly built beaver lodge on YouTube, or tag along on a migration across the savannah with a smart TV documentary, you're getting a much more genuine experience than most zoos have on offer. More genuine, and more humane.