The Los Angeles Zoo, while well regarded and an exemplary urban zoo at that, has a dark history (as most long-standing zoos do) that lurks barely under the surface. A mile or so down the road from the existing Los Angeles Zoo in Griffith Park, are the remnants of the first Los Angeles Zoo built in 1913. Without much effort, you could visit these archeological ruins (as that is what they resemble) and gather an idea of how cramped, unnatural, and inhumane the captivity was for these animals. These were not enclosures, or pseudo-natural environments, but cages carved into the rock, and no larger than a small trailer. These were the places where captive lions, gorillas, and bears were relegated to live out their strange existence under the watchful eye of the throngs of zoo goers that flooded the zoo each day.
As I said, The Los Angeles Zoo of today is a much different, more enlightened animal (forgive the pun) than its old shadow self, but still the issues around keeping captive populations of animals in non-native, unnatural environments remain. Many argue that the act of maintaining a responsible zoo is helping to preserve diversity as well as protect endangered animal populations that would otherwise dwindle or perish in the wild. Still, as any parent knows, bringing a child to the zoo is both a thrilling experience, as well as an experience that is fraught with many thorny ethical issues concerning the very existence of zoos.
Basically, zoos are more or less fantastic entertainment for visitors with an underlying educational component for those willing to do the work. The more reputable zoos out there provide rigorous programming to enlighten visitors (young and old) about the nature and existence of the animals on display, as well as teach about conservation. And without a doubt, children love, love, love zoos. But still, as I have always regarded them, they are seemingly necessary evils of human civilization.
To witness the marvel of the animal kingdom (in the comfort of our own cities and towns) we are required to remove these animals from their natural environment, remove them from the vitality and volatility of the wild, and place them in controlled manmade environments to live out the remainder of their existence as living gene bags. OK, this is a little harsh, but anyone who has really observed a wild animal in captivity could plainly see they are lacking that joie de vivre that has been unwittingly traded for safety from predators, free medical care, and a steady diet of grub.
That said, the very best zoos out there are true civic resources as well as exceedingly valuable public spaces. Zoo directors have been credited with creating more naturalistic enclosures and designs to keep animals active, as well as more comfortable. However, I know I am not alone in feeling that ethical conflict, when trotting my toddler from one artificial savannah to a simulated rain forest, that we, as patrons, are both entertained as well as implicated.
How do we present this thorny issue to our children without ruining the fun? Does the mere act of having a sort of cursory contact with these animals bolster our humanity and make us more aware and sympathetic to there cause? Can zoos, no matter how enlightened and progressive, ever escape the limitations of their construct?
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.