The Road to Zootopia

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"A male lion bit the arm of a 21-year-old zookeeper Sunday at Busch Gardens, severing it at the elbow... Zoo officials said they had not decided what to do with the lion." —The Associated Press, May 13, 2002

Amanda Bourassa was taking her family on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Busch Garden facilities when Max, the 12-year-old lion in question, took her arm off just below the elbow. He was already excited; Bourassa had just fed Max some red meat as part of a training exercise, and the lion may have smelled the meat on Bourassa's latex glove. She was standing behind a safety fence, but apparently wrapped a finger around one of the bars — an encroachment zookeepers are taught to avoid.

While I have a great deal of sympathy for Amanda, it's not so hard to understand why Max did what he did. Zoo officials say they won't sell or kill Max; after all, he was just doing what he was born to do. Everything in his makeup tells him to attack — that's why there are bars on his cage.

Try looking at this from the lion's perspective. One day, you're wandering happily around the grasslands, looking for a nice baby buffalo or perhaps a large lizard to snack on, and wham! You're hit by a stun gun, and the next thing you know, you've been stuffed into a cage. Three days later, everyone expects you to act "interesting" for expectant-looking adults and sniveling, balloon-toting kids lined up outside your faux-natural habitat at the local zoo.

The fundamental problem with zoos is they fool us into thinking we've got animals figured out, that we can invade their space whenever we feel like it just because we find them interesting. Occasionally we find out that's not okay with the animals. Consider, for instance, the experience of San Francisco Chronicle Editor (and Mr. Sharon Stone) Phil Bronstein, who entered the cage of a 10-foot Komodo dragon and had his foot promptly and severely chomped when said animal mistook his toes for delicious white mice.

I don't know about you, but in cases like this I'm rooting for the dragon. When we stick lions or tigers or giant lizards into contained spaces, feed them on a schedule and manipulate their behavior, we're selling ourselves a big old lie, namely: We control this animal.

But as anyone who's ever had a pet knows, the joke's on us: animals — with the exception of all poodles and the occasional sissy hamster — are not absolutely controllable. We do maintain sway over cats and dogs, primarily because their social hierarchy allows us humans to neatly insert ourselves in the dominant position. But while domesticated pets have had much of the wild bred out of them, they are still, at heart, animals — something your dog or cat is happy to remind you of, with a sharp nip or bark, should you ever forget, and try, say, to dress little Mitzi in a sweater. (If you are the kind of person who makes your dog wear rain boots, I think you should probably reconsider before he gets wind of this lion story.)

Why do we have zoos in the first place? So we can watch animals acting nothing like themselves in a plastic environment? So we can point at orangutans and pretend we're learning something about them when in fact we're simply capitalizing on their misery? So zoo gift shops can sell lots of "I Survived the Snake House" t-shirts? Proponents of zoos say that the public needs to see animals up close so we will be moved to fund habitats around the world. But try telling that to the unlucky beasts who get to waste away in thralldom so other animals half a world away can have better grass to eat.

There is a possible solution to the whole zoo conundrum: consolidation. Close down all the little local zoos and amusement areas; animals living at many of them are kept in terrible conditions. Then, open (or expand) three or four major, well-funded and -staffed refuge-style zoos. We can use the existing framework at the top-notch zoos in Washington, D.C. and San Diego, and then pinpoint another one or two locations with ample land and plenty of trained zoologists.

And what should we do with all the extra animals? Send them home — first class, free movies and everything. It's the very least we can do.