As a young girl, I loved to visit the zoo. As a teen, I boycotted because seeing caged animals made me too sad. Now as a parent, I find myself in a quandary. My girls love non-human creatures as much as I do, but they don’t notice when a cage seems too small. The amazing animals simply fill them with wonder.
Before I got a membership at the San Francisco zoo, I read about the Zoo’s rehab and breeding programs and felt like they were doing work to help many of the animals. For example, the grizzly bears currently living in Grizzly Gulch was rescued hours before their scheduled euthanasia after they ransacked a ranch. I even wondered if it was possible that some of the animals might be happier in the zoo, freed from struggling for food on a daily basis. It might be nice to be a zoo polar bear right now, rather than a starving creature swimming hundreds of miles in open water for a bite to eat. Yet, it would be blind to ignore the fact that the animals are caged, and many of the animals probably don’t like their cages.
And PETA’s recent report alleging that Ringling Brothers abuses their animals rattled my confidence (again) that people who profit from animals have incentive to treat them kindly. Of course I was appalled at the elephant abuse depicted in the novel Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen, but that was ages ago. I felt sure something like that wouldn’t happen in a country as regulated as the U.S. is today.
Despite the alleged abuses, however, I have concluded that for now, I’ll bring my kids to the zoo. At least our zoo. Animal videos are wonderful, but it’s not the same as seeing an animal live, meeting its gaze with your own. And when the kids ask about the animals in the cages, I’ll be honest. I will invite them to think about how the animals might be happier free, but I’ll also challenge them to think about how the zoo makes their lives easier.
What do you think? Do you bring children to the zoo to inspire their love of nature, or does it defeat the purpose when the animals are in cages?