Tell Me Again, Why Do We Have Zoos?

Humans seem to have an obsession with boxing up nature for leisurely spectacle.  From ant farms to aquariums to animal death camps popularly called zoos, we seem to delight in watching nature squirm in our grasp.  For animals, a zoo just might be the most blighted place on Earth, where they don’t go merely to die — but to dance, sing and cry for their supper.

Everyone Loves Marineland.
Everyone Loves Marineland.

And what sort of supper is that?  Well, it’s the kind millions of people bring every day when they pay to see such painful pageantry. Because, for some reason, zoos still draw crowds — in some cases, of record-breaking magnitude.   Yes, zoos are still bringing home the bacon.

Even if they don’t paint a pretty picture of animals. Or us.

Let’s start our tour in southern Ontario, where the Bowmanville Zoo has been churning out dubious thrills since 1914. Along the way, it has racked up an impressive rap sheet of offenses against its inmates.

“We are inspected twice a year by the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,” zoo director Michael Hackenberger told local reporters recently. “We are an accredited zoo under the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums.”  Hackenberger was responding to a recent spate of protest after getting caught on live TV abusing a baboon.

Let’s face it. You know there’s a problem behind the scenes when a zoo director calls a baboon a ‘cocksucker” on live TV. All because, apparently, the simple simian fell off a miniature pony.
Just a couple of years earlier, the zoo was declared the second worst in North America for elephants, thanks to its dismal efforts to keep its lone pachyderm reasonably alive.  In bestowing the distinction, In Defense of Animals (IDA) claimed the private zoo imposed a “cruel sentence” on 50-year-old ‘Limba’.

​“Limba is living a life of solitary confinement,” the California-based organization’s Nicole Meyer told the Toronto Star. “That’s very harsh for an animal like an elephant, who is extremely social and intelligent.”

Most recently, seemingly unable to stay out of the news, Hackenberger was filmed whipping a tiger, and swearing up a storm.  When the same “zoo” keeps showing up for cruelty, time and time again, with different animals, you have to start asking questions; not that asking questions will lead to consequences, it seems.

And the worst zoo in North America for elephants?

Well, that brings us, pun intended, to Number Two on our tour: Edmonton’s River Valley Zoo.  Another Canadian facility, the zoo has staunchly rejected calls to make life a little better for its feature attraction — an elephant named Lucy.

“Lucy is a shell of an elephant and the zoo continues to condone her suffering,” Toni Frohoff, a scientist with IDA, told the Edmonton Journal.Indeed, Lucy has even inspired a grassroots movement to ease her burden. Last winter, ‘Friends of Lucy’ raised funds to buy Lucy a winter blanket — a gesture that was rejected by the zoo.

“Lucy’s barn is spacious and warm with a heated padded floor. This is not an item required for Lucy’s well-being or care,”Zoo spokeswoman Debi Winwood explained to the CBC.

bob barker
Bob Barker meets Lucy the elephant at Edmonton’s River Valley Zoo on September 17, 2009. Animal welfare groups fighting to see a lone elephant at Edmonton’s zoo moved to a sanctuary in the United States have been dealt a blow by Alberta’s top court, Thursday Aug., 4, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ian Jackson

And yes, that’s Bob Barker visiting the zoo, coming on down to the zoo in 2009 to essentially ask, what the fuck is going on here?

Well, that’s enough for the so-called civilization of Canada. Let’s take this tour to Afghanistan next, where the mighty KabulZoo looks to someday, somehow thrill the entire family like it once did.

A story, recounted in Vice, sings a sad song about a lion named Marjan — once the pride of the entire zoo. When a celebrated mujahedeen fighter stepped ito the great beast’s den, he was eaten with very little ceremony.

“The next day,” zookeeper Sheraq Omar told Vice, “The man’s angry brother threw a hand grenade into the cage. When Marjan pounced on it, thinking it was food, he lost one eye and 95 percent of his sight in the other.”

The tale of Marjan the lion became an entry point for many Americans in understanding the larger story of Afghanistan. It was a narrative of war, hardship, and survival presented through a battle-scarred symbol of the Afghan people, their outlast-them-all, last-cat-standing, grenade munching, mujahideen-eating Marjan. – Kevin Sites, Vice

As war chugged on — whether it was with the Soviets or the Taliban — more and more of the zoo’s attractions ended up as someone’s dinner. Many more simply starved to death. Today, the zoo is looking to make a rebound, welcoming donations from around the world. But it remains a bleak dismal place, hope having long sprung from this concrete coffin.

People who like animals tend to strongly dislike the San Antonio Zoo — where some 3,500 animals lay their heads. And we hang ours even lower. In shame. The animal-lovers at One Green Planet hail the venerable zoo as one of the worst in North America.

Some of the low-lights, according to the website, include 9,000 animals crammed into a measly 56 acres and tiny enclosures allowing little interaction with other animals. Ostensibly this allows for visitors to get a unique, up-close-and-personal vantage of an exotic beast slowly going completely mad.

And many humans seem to love it. Just pop into TripAdvisor where it’s always sunny in the San Antonio Zoo.“So many animals to see,” writes Rafael T. “I can stay several hours and I always leave wanting more. I never get tired of visiting the San Antonio Zoo.”  Karl R. raves thusly: “Plenty of animals, free parking, overpriced drinks and eats. you can spend several hours here.”

Visitors bray on and on about the delights of the San Antonio Zoo, making one wonder if we will ever evolve beyond the thrill of imprisonment.

Well, maybe it’s our nature to control things. Maybe we like to keep things, because we, in turn, are kept. Someday, perhaps, we might discover that existence is an infinite series of Russian dolls. You know, those wooden Babushkas that nest inside one another, becoming ever tinier along the way?

Imagine existence at a subatomic level as a zoo. Now imagine that humans and their zoos are nesting inside someone else’s zoo. A zoo within a zoo within a zoo within yet another zoo — ad infinitum.

And, to paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsch, the zookeeper is dead.

Christian Cotroneo (@Groane)

Former Toronto star reporter, former Huffington Post editor.  Now, working for animals at The Dodo.  In between, I traveled the world, lost my way, met some nice people and even nicer dogs.

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