By Ashley Roth
Activists cheered when the plight of captive animals was brought into mainstream discourse. 2013’s Blackfish veered these thoughts and questions into the public eye. The documentary shocked audiences, showing them how their beloved Shamu truly lived. After its release SeaWorld’s stock dropped 30%. SeaWorld refuted the film’s claims in their desperate television ads; they promised bigger fish bowls. The public wasn’t buying it. The film’s message speaks beyond SeaWorld and orcas: Animals in captivity experience devastating psychosis. After the film, society began looking at zoos through a new, scrutinizing lens. NPR has aired several segments debating the cruelty of zoos; TIME magazine had an entire issue devoted to animal intelligence; and Huffington Post and the Guardian have numerous articles discussing the subject.
Being that this is a group based on animal advocacy, our stance on the subject is probably quite clear. Blackfish portrayed an orca’s insanity in captivity. Zoos hold their own instances. There was Gus the polar bear. Slate.com documents his repetitive figure-eight swimming, often for over twelve hours straight. Little Joe, a teenage gorilla, escaped from the Franklin Park Zoo in 2003. His frantic run for freedom resulted in injuries before he was shot with a tranquilizer gun. Other escaped prisoners were not merely tranquilized. PETA has a memorable video titled, “9 Animals Driven Insane.” The clip shows animals suffering from zoochosis. Pacing, circling, swaying, and self-injury are portrayed through actual footage of animals in captivity. Bill Travers conceived this term–zoochosis–to explain the compulsive, recurring behaviors of captive animals. If you’ve been to a zoo, you’ve seen these behaviors. You’ve seen a lion pacing, an elephant swaying, or a bear walking in repeated circles.
Zoos beget these behaviors by forcing nature into unnatural conditions. Their enclosures are too small. In the wild, elephants walk thirty miles a day. No fancy zoo enclosure is conducive to this. Their environments can’t duplicate nature. Animals are shoved into smaller spaces when the weather is acrimonious to their biological needs. Other animals–such as polar bears in California–are given artificial climates. Some patrons cause further stress by taunting animals. The lifespan in captivity is disparate from a life in the wild. Wild elephants can live up to seventy years; most captive elephants are dead by forty.
Animals are unhappy in captivity. Captive chimpanzees are ripped from their mothers at an early age; in the wild baby chimps are inseparable from their mothers until about seven years of age. Penguins at Scarborough Sea Life Centre are on antidepressants. Zoos enforce the notion that animals are mere commodities. Remember Marius the giraffe? He was killed because that zoo felt they had too many giraffes. Even his dismembered body was on display, as he was fed to lions in front of small children. Some zoos sell their “surplus” animals to random buyers, traveling circuses, or medical labs. These are business built on atrocities that are not benefitting animals.
Zoos will tell you they are necessary–the key to conservation and education. Efforts for “conservation” would serve the wild better. Zoos “conservation” operates under the concept that if a species goes extinct, the zoo animals can be released back into the wild. This has been proven unsuccessful–the zoo population is limited, often inbred; and these captive animals are not immune to wild diseases and conditions. Why not ensure the wild population is secure, rather than relying on human-controlled “wildlife?” Besides, more often than not, zoos money is spent on technology and showier exhibits–not on conservation. Their concern is how secure their finances are. What about education? Learning from the enslaved is wrong, first off, and few are being educated. Rarely do people read the little plaques containing pithy information. Crowds surrounding the enclosures are often dense, and obstructing of views. And any view is of an animal suffering from artificial conditions, probably from zoochosis. This “learning” experience is problematic. It’s false. Better education would be obtained through books and videos and catching animals in their natural habitat. The bottom line is even IF zoos were supporting conservation and children were learning something, it is wrong. Zoos are for human consumerism, not for animals’ benefit. These animals would probably rather be extinct than suffering.
Now, here’s where it gets personal. Many readers are probably Nashvillians (this is a Nashville based animal advocacy group, after all!). Maybe some of you are thinking: “Sure, these other places are awful–but not our beloved Nashville Zoo!” Even with the illusion of pretty enclosures and clean parks–yes, even the Nashville Zoo. Recently, our city heralded the Nashville Zoo’s decision to send their elephants to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald. This decision made the zoo appear progressive, like they were suddenly enlightened and realized zoos were becoming dated. That isn’t the case. These elephants were removed because they’d exceeded their use–they were old and the zoo was planning several renovations. This elephant herd was separated before the donation–Juno sent to Florida, where she died from an “undetected intestinal disease.” The other three were ferried to the sanctuary, so the Nashville Zoo could resume their vision for a larger elephant exhibit. In fact, they plan to expand their entire facility–culminating by 2020. Expansion means more animals behind bars. Animals either bred for this heinous existence, or ripped from the wild. Concerning the elephants, that plan is said to be on hold–but, in their own words, “our vision is to eventually have a growing elephant herd.”
Other animals are part of this plan. Young tigers are forthcoming–the old ones being sent to Tiger Haven, another marketing ploy to appear compassionate–and they are thrilled to be imprisoning white rhinos in the vacated elephant exhibit, stating they will be “a valuable start to our rhino collection.” Our local zoo is not paralleling society’s growing awareness. They still refer to this living beings as a “collection.”
Nashvillians, please do not support this business. Nashville parents, take your kids to see our own beautiful indigenous wildlife. I’ve taken my daughter to our stunning parks and we’ve seen herons, a variety of ducks, and deer. Seeing them makes her excited–and they’re free to live their lives without human control. If you or your children want to see other animals, travel. There are other options. Compassionate ones.