Until last weekend, the last time I’d stepped foot in a zoo was roughly 25 years ago, and my absence has been intentional. Zoos are a bit of a tricky topic for me. I, like many people, am opposed to the idea of animals living in cages or enclosures when they were born to live free in the big, wide open world – just like us. The thought of baby animals being stripped away from their families and shipped to far-off places to live on display for humans seems cruel, heartless, profoundly selfish. So why did I go with a friend to buy a $30 ticket, including train ride and cups of nuggets to feed the animals, and spend a couple of hours walking around oohing and aahing?
Well, because I was hopeful. I was hopeful that what I’d see would reassure me that my ideas were wrong, that these days animals are not taken from the wild but rather are bred in captivity or taken in as needy orphans. Does an animal born into captivity, never seeing the outside world, have some instinctual knowledge that it doesn’t belong in a cage, an endless longing to swing/run/fly/swim free? I don’t know.
I was also hopeful that the animals I saw would appear to be happy, healthy, and active; social and at home with their zoo families. Hopeful that the spaces would be wide and open and natural, comfortable.
I went because I wanted to see and touch a velvety giraffe nose, look into its eyes and be close to it. I wanted to hear the barnyard animals baa-aah-ing and grunting and clucking. To feel the glee from a swooping, swinging monkey. Selfish? Maybe. Or maybe not…
Zoos, however they come by their precious commodities, are the only means for the average person to come into contact with wild animals. When you can see and smell and touch and hear a creature up-close and personal, it does something – it makes that creature, and its predicament, real to you in a sense – makes it personal. You find compassion, curiosity, interest, empathy, attachment, concern… something. When we as adults or children can relate to another being, I think it’s a good thing. It allows us to care. Caring leads to conservation efforts and protection laws and environmental sustainment measures and breeding programs to help increase endangered populations… After all, if we’re not deeply concerned about or interested in the fate and wellbeing of wild creatures and the planet we share with them, how are we to ever make a difference in the outcome of any of it?
So here’s what I found at the zoo I visited. A flock of flamingos meandered in a large, tree-shaded portion of park, sunny rays shooting down into the green. Their fluffy, shrimp-colored feathers gave a clue to their diet (flamingos get their peachy color from eating shrimp). At the entrance to the barnyard, we were greeted by goats of all sizes and colors and varieties. Tiny pygmy goats mingled with large google-eyed goats, horns long and short bumped up against each other as they play-battled. All of them eagerly and gently took the food we offered. The ground was dusty dirt beneath them (no grass).
Pigs lived either in with the goats, or in a separate pig-pen. One pig definitely appeared to be in need of a tusk-trimming – he had long curly teeth sticking out on either side of his mouth. When I held out my cup for him to feed from, he took the whole cup in his mouth and pulled it through the fence to chomp on the nuggets. I didn’t argue. Chickens roamed free-range here and there.
The giraffes were a sight to behold, with their smooth marked fur, long lashes, and cute little knobbed heads. A baby walked in through the doorway of a tall metal shed, while two adults hung their heads over the fence and gently took lettuce leaves from us with their long black tongues. I did not see any trees in the enclosure (giraffes mainly live in forested areas in the wild).
The budgie aviary was spacious and filled with various perch options for the birds. We held out our seed-coated popsicle sticks and stood still as the birds nibbled away, then left after checking each other for hitchhikers. The small herd of friendly alpacas was shorn for the summer, and stood in a shady spot gazing innocently at us from wide, dark-fringed eyes.
We found tiny squirrel monkeys chasing each other in circles, stopping to tumble and play on soft green grass. Orangutans peered at us from branches inside their enclosure, and two howler monkeys napped in the foliage, cuddled against each other. A smallish pond held a bevy of alligators who clustered at the edge to catch the nuggets we tossed in their direction. From the train, we passed a gorilla sleeping on his side on its own island area.
Various hoofed animals such as deer and gazelle roamed freely on either side of a green, loosely-fenced pasture. The hippos lurked invisible in their green-coated pond, apparently “under the water”, which I guess they do a lot in the daytime. The campus was clean and pleasantly shaded with vegetation, and we saw options for animals to move out of the public eye into behind-the-scenes areas.
After our visit, I did a little research on the zoo’s webpage and a few other places to find out how zoos operate today. I learned that this zoo does not take in injured animals, and does have captive breeding programs for some of its animals. Many of the babies we saw had been born recently to zoo parents.
The zoo does not appear on the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ list of currently accredited zoos, which puts it into the category of a “roadside zoo”. Roadside zoos may obtain some of their animals from either wild habitats, or one of three exotic animal auctions that exist in the US… which may get their animals from the wild. Since apparently not all of this zoo’s animals are born in the zoo, one can deduce that a number of them came from these sources.
And yet, the zoo takes part in conservation efforts with a variety of organizations around the globe. According to its website, it “collaborates with other zoos and field experts to support wildlife conservation through public education, captive breeding programs, habitat preservation, and providing financial aid and assistance to projects in the wild.” Aid such as this is only possible when zoos have paying visitors. Current collaborations include orangutan, giraffe, rhino, and cheetah conservation, along with several others. We live in a world where hippos and giraffes are threatened. Elephants are killed for their ivory. Lions hunted for sport. It takes money and people to work against this, and some zoos do contribute both.
My field trip leaves me with mixed feelings and a newfound sense of respect. When you visit the zoo this summer, as you browse the gift shop and ride the train and eat ice cream, consider the lives of the creatures you see. Learn. Appreciate the sacrifice these animals live with every day, and stop to think about what you can do to contribute to the future of our environment and theirs.
*Views expressed throughout are my own.
**It matters less which zoo I’m describing, and more that it could be any zoo out there. You can check to see if your zoo or aquarium is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums by visiting https://www.aza.org/current-cert
***Information about roadside zoos comes from The Dodo, a site that shares animal stories, mostly of the feel-good variety – which is why I follow them https://www.thedodo.com/disturbing-truth-zoo-animal-1513305581.html