It seems like most everyone has fun childhood memories of vising the zoo, watching penguins scoot and slide across the ice, feeling transported to exotic locations all around the world through the viewing of lions, mountain goats, polar bears. But on the other side of those warm experiences of youthful world expansion is the fact that we were all looking at animals who were forced into confinement for our entertainment. The topic of zoo-keeping ethics is not a new one, but reading this article about the Woodland Park Zoo and its elephant conundrum got me thinking about the issue again. The zoo is currently engaged in an effort to fix the problem of having Asian elephants and one African elephant in the same exhibit (it’s not elephant discrimination, mind you; the two don’t get along and have had to be kept apart, making their room to roam even smaller). The zoo is hoping to transfer the African elephant, Watoto, by the end of the year.
Though the elephants are given an acre of open space in the zoo, this obviously doesn’t approach anything like the freedom they would have outside of captivity. There are those who argue that zoos are safer places for animals, and while this may be true (especially, in this case, with the issue of elephant poaching), how much value can be given to safety if it confines your life to a small section of space? Zoos can also be seen as pinnacle examples of mankind’s dominion over animals, which can lead to the dangerous mindset of humans having more right to the earth than any other creature.
Of course, the prospect of shutting down the zoo system doesn’t seem likely in the near future, but we can always work towards improving the living conditions of the animals inside them. Woodland Park is planning more improvements to the elephant exhibit, such as timed night-feeders for grazing and outdoor rain shelters. But activists like Alyne Fortgang protest that this isn’t enough; “The suffering of elephants in Asia and Africa does not justify their suffering here” says Fortgang. Very true. With the cultural landscape of places like Seattle continuing to progress in a more animal-friendly direction, I think there’s reason to be hopeful that zoos will continue to make efforts towards creating a healthier lifestyle for their animals, in the small ways that relatively small spaces can, at least.