Another example of human indifference to the welfare of animals is that awful prison known as the ‘zoo’. Most zoos are strictly limited in size and located in large population centres. They are primarily an exercise in money-making, which means the animals must be visible to the fee-paying public during opening hours. As a result, large animals, that in the wild would range over vast areas, are kept behind bars in small enclosures to be ogled and photographed by the crowds of customers. This creates a highly stressful situation for the animals and it’s not unreasonable to assume they would like nothing more than to get as far away from their captors as possible. But they can’t; we’ve made sure of that.
When I was visiting the Melbourne Zoo in 2006, a staff member told me that some of the larger mammals had to be confined in ‘smaller-than-optimal’ cages, because, if the cage were longer, the animals would get too much of a run-up when they threw themselves against the bars. This staff member seemed to think that shortening their run-up was a reasonable and sensible solution, and gave no indication of understanding that those animals were so desperate to get out of their cells that they were prepared to seriously injure, even kill themselves, in their attempts to escape. That the better solution would have been to take the animal out of the cell altogether didn’t seem to occur to her and I’m sure she would be someone who claimed to ‘love’ animals.
It is terribly upsetting to know that many of the large mammals imprisoned in zoos have been driven insane by the slow, exquisite tortures of social deprivation, lack of freedom, and their forced contact with hundreds of thousands of humans. We see the same sort of lingering cruelty perpetuated against in circuses and marine theme parks. All these places normalise the idea that it is acceptable to use animals as sources of entertainment. What doesn’t seem to be understood by the people involved in these operations is that to imprison an animal, especially a large animal, is to mentally torture it. The fact that we allow things of this magnitude to occur, merely to satisfy our comparatively trivial desire for entertainment, says volumes about us and the kind of society we’ve created. Isn’t it time we shook up our mute acceptance of zoos and completely revised our whole approach to the imprisonment of animals for any reason?
In fairness, it should be added that there are some zoos where the animals, and they are usually small animals, are provided with sufficient space, privacy, intellectual stimulation, food and water to allow them to thrive. It can be argued there is a place for zoos of this kind, particularly where endangered species are kept safe to continue breeding, but in my view, most others ought to be closed and the animals relocated to sanctuaries or open plains zoos, or even euthanised, because they would be better off dead if the alternative is to be driven insane, step by relentless step. To say the life of a caged animal is not worth living is entirely correct, and entirely correctable.