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The Absurdity of Modern Zoos

Updated: Jun 08, 2022 08:45
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A sign for the San Francisco Zoo placed near the seaside Great Highway. Waves are seen breaking in the background.

A tiger, a giraffe, an ibex, and an ape, all represented in a climate where temperatures rarely climb above eighty degrees.


The best enrichment for which a lion in a zoo might hope would be a squirrel inadvertently wandering into the enclosure. For us, that’s a win-win situation. So long as it’s accidental, we won’t need to have that added conversation about the ethics of feeding live animals to their captive natural predators. Throwing cuts of butchered meat to the lions for a show, now that is much more civilized.

Zoos are obviously morally reprehensible places by modern standards, right? What purpose do these relics of the circus era serve? The cages have been disguised and updated, but the animals live nonetheless confined to a space not much larger than a person’s field of vision. They live in simulations of their natural habitats. They eat, sleep, and pace for throngs of adults and screaming children day after day, over and over.

Spend too much time watching the zoo’s furry residents wander back and forth and you might wonder if this too is a simulation. Did you eat some unique mushrooms before your visit? That was probably a terrible idea. Don’t worry though, you’re an independent human being free to roam the world. You need only participate in our little dystopia long enough to justify your existence and your right to food and shelter, and never ask who is gazing at whom. 

If the animals don’t quite depress you, you may catch a glimpse of a khaki-covered zookeeper hard at work in its artificial environment. Their youthful sparks had each ignited a passion for the care of animals. They find themselves now in a limbo between prison guard and jester. Soon their task became to keep their wards not only alive but alert, to stimulate the herds of visitors each day.

If you continue you’ll encounter a fog of hot popcorn, buttery salted pretzels, and the melted candy scent of spun sugar, all permeating the nostrils of creatures a thousand times more sensitive than us, but at least we can cook. If you don’t have time to cook for yourself, you have a wide variety of options. You do not need your meal hoisted into a tree or dropped into a cage, dressed up like it’s still alive.

Now don’t go blaming the staff. It’s only them and a few volunteers who empathize with animals enough to get their hands dirty, their efforts misguided into keeping zoos afloat. You could throw a dart at a spinning globe and hit a similar group of bleeding hearts desperately trying to care for animals taken into captivity, and the zoo will work that angle. It’s good PR for an awful institution. 

If you want to feel closer to animals, watch Sir David Attenborough narrate their unique lives as they thrive in their rightful, wild surroundings. Come on, you already went hiking twice this week according to your dating profile. With all these pixels flying across the open savannah, should we still trap giraffes just to watch them bat their enormous lashes? You don’t need the screams of fifty kids to confirm that what you are witnessing is awesome. Let the otters make playful loops in the water and snuggle up together for a nap where they belong. You don’t need to meet a grizzly bear in real-life to know it could easily kill you.

The next time you need a nature fix, skip the zoo. Maintain that moral high ground from the comfort of your home. Just make sure you donate to a sensible conservation organization to make sure you’re better than your friends. It’s all tax-deductible.


Cowritten with an anonymous friend and colleague.

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3 Comments

  1. JoAnn Brookes
    June 8, 2022 at 9:20 am — Reply

    You are correct that it’s nuts that we keep animals who have no business in our climate in zoos. On the flip side, Many zoos have amazing conservation and rehabilitation programs that are helping animals in the wild. Also, for most people, it is there only exposure to these types of animals. It’s a tough one.

  2. cd
    June 9, 2022 at 1:46 pm — Reply

    Yep! Without meaningful conservation efforts, captive breeding programs are pretty pointless — even if the intent *were* to release these animals into the wild. Baby animals do, however, attract paying visitors…

  3. George M Davis
    June 9, 2022 at 3:07 pm — Reply

    The San Francisco Zoo is only open less than 8 hours a day. So, the animals get a lot of quiet.
    Some zoo animals are rare and endangered in the wild, it’s captive breeding or extinction.
    With no natural predators and good veternarian treatment, zoo animals outlive by far their wild breathren.
    Everyone should see a live elephant in real time and place at least once in their life.

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