Who Belongs in the Zoo?

It may be that some animals just can't be kept humanely in captivity. Zoos may have to reinvent themselves — once again

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A new baby male giraffe looks around while Jessie the mom, has a some leaves during the babies' debut at the St. Louis Zoo on May 23, 2006.

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Bears, however, are a different story. Many experts believe they don't belong in zoos at all. They're too curious and exploratory to be satisfied by an artificial environment. But it's not clear what you do with a bear that's already in captivity. Animal-rights activists have long complained about the highly ritualized, seemingly neurotic behavior of Gus, the polar bear in New York City's Central Park Zoo. "Though Gus is perfectly healthy, people tell us to send him back," says Alison Powers, communications director of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Central Park's parent institution. "But Gus wasn't ripped out of the Arctic. He came from Ohio. He wouldn't stand a chance in the wild."

Many animal-behavior experts also oppose zoo confinement for giraffes, gazelles and other animals designed by evolution to run freely across miles of savannah. "What you see in zoos is just completely unnatural," says Marc Bekoff, an animal behaviorist at the University of Colorado. But most of all, Bekoff and his colleagues oppose the constraints imposed on elephants. "The only place I have seen truly happy elephants in captivity," says Hancocks, "is in the two elephant sanctuaries in the U.S. [in Tennessee and California]. Once you've seen how wonderful their lives are there, you realize whatever zoos do is doomed to be inadequate."

Hancocks' solution? A few national zoos in appropriate climates that tourists from all over the country can visit. "There are two Disney parks," he says. "That's enough for America's children. Similarly, two really good spots for elephants in the country would be sufficient."

A model for what such a spot might look like--and one that animal-behavior experts routinely cite with approval--is the zoo in Oakland, Calif., where four elephants live on 6 acres. "Our philosophy is to just let the elephants be elephants as much as possible," says executive director Joel Parrott. "That means giving them space, not dominating them, and working with them in ways that do not use physical discipline." The animals spend their days socializing, taking dust baths, swimming, eating and wallowing in the mud.

Like Parrott, Baker does not buy the idea that elephants can't be housed humanely--only that his facility doesn't have the money to do so. "I think there's still a huge amount we don't know about what animals need and want," he says. "Could we reach the point someday where we as a community say, We don't think this is a good species to keep in a zoo environment?" That option is always open. But given the pleasure zoos provide--especially for those kids pressed up against the chain-link fence--it's not one to be taken lightly.

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