The Gorilla, the Boy, and the Question: Why Do We Need Zoos?

An African chimpanzee grimaces in a cage at a zoo in Dehiwala near Colombo on March 3, 2016, on World Wildlife Day. AFP PHOTO
An African chimpanzee grimaces in a cage at a zoo in Dehiwala near Colombo on March 3, 2016, on World Wildlife Day. AFP PHOTO/ Ishara S. KODIKARA / AFP / Ishara S.KODIKARA (Photo credit should read ISHARA S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images)

The killing of the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo has received the attention one could only expect. I don't care to join in the bashing and blaming, but I do think this is the right time to ask a far more basic question. Why do we need zoos?

Asked before, responses to the question predictably follow two paths. First, it's argued that zoos offer a way for people to get close to animals they may never see in nature and, as such, present extraordinary opportunities both for learning and for the development of empathy. Second, it's argued that zoos provide the last hope for breeding and maintaining diverse genetic pools for the survival of species which might otherwise become extinct in the wild.

The responses to those two categories of answers also follow two by now predictable paths. First, people who observe animals in a zoo are witnessing animals in an artificial situation which cannot offer anything of extraordinary value in terms of education, especially in our current information age, and such an artificial environment (no matter how carefully "naturalized") objectifies animals in a way that discourages true empathy. Second, as sad and tragic as it is, if the best we can hope for future generations of imperiled animals is life in captivity then perhaps extinction is the kinder route.

I've known kind, compassionate and really smart people on both sides of these arguments, but aside from those arguments...

...I was one of the people asked by San Francisco government to step into the aftermath of the 2007 tiger's escape from that City's zoo -- the episode which led to the death of the tiger and one young man -- to try and make sense of what had happened and of the conditions which led up to it. I have several rather visceral memories of the days I spent at the zoo but nothing more alive in memory than what it felt like to actually stand in that enclosure from which Tatiana escaped that Christmas Day.

Standing deep inside that concrete pit, looking up and out at people milling around, was horrible. I don't pretend to know how a tiger thinks, but I cannot imagine an animal finding such confinement anything other than horrible. That's "horrible" as in "causing horror." As in dreadful, awful, terrible, appalling, horrific, hideous, detestable, repulsive, repugnant, ghastly, vile, unspeakable and all the other synonyms found under the definition of horrible.

The issue at hand in Cincinnati is not whether or not the child's mother should have had her eyes more closely on her boy, just as the issue back in San Francisco was not whether or not the kid who died had tormented the tiger. The problem in Cincinnati is not whether or not the zoo should have had a better protocol in place or more barriers separating the public from the gorillas, just as the problem back in S.F. was not the height of the wall which was intended to keep the tigers in the concrete pit.

If zoos are the best we can offer animals so magnificent as tigers and gorillas, then it's time to recognize zoos as sad vestiges of a past when animals were broadly considered nothing other than objects for labor and shallow entertainment.