Trip to the Zoo

This is not a blog [post] about whether zoos should exist. This is a blog [post] that questions whether our National Zoo should continue to exist.

Last weekend I flew up to Washington, DC to see my sister and brother-in-law, who were in DC for a professional conference. On Saturday we decided to go to the National Zoo for the afternoon. It was a cool but pleasant day and we were, like many provincial visitors, looking forward to a nice time. What we had instead was a somewhat disturbing and dispiriting experience.

The National Zoo actually is part of the Smithsonian Institution. It was established in the late 19th century and occupies about 160 acres near Rock Creek Park. Entrance to the Zoo is free, and you can get there easily using public transportation (take the Metro Red Line to either Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan or Cleveland Park). Both the public areas and the animal areas were quite clean, and although obvious rat-and mouse-infestations have been reported in the past, we didn’t see any signs of such in the public areas.

The premier attraction at the Zoo of course is the giant panda family: Mei Xiang, Tian Tian and their cub Tai Shan. Their “habitat” is the only one at the Zoo with a named corporate sponsor (Fujifilm). Although it is the nicest animal area at the Zoo, to me it still seemed small, shabby and sterile. Since it was a cool day, Tai Shan and his dad were outside. Tai Shan was eating bamboo in his yard, and seemed calm and totally absorbed by the task. We were told by a volunteer that the Zoo veterinarians had separated Tian Tian and Mei Xiang earlier in the week because Mei Xiang is ready to be bred again, and the Zoo will attempt this using sperm from a panda other than Tian Tian. Needless to say, Tian Tian seemed VERY agitated by this turn of events. He paced continuously around his small outdoor area as we watched, pausing briefly to aggressively strip some bamboo. We saw Mei Xiang inside, reclining on some fake rocks in a room much like a concrete cell. Call me naïve, but I thought the pandas would be rolling around happily outside, something like one imagines the stuffed “panda bears” sold in the Zoo gift shops would do. Perhaps we just caught them on a bad day. Or maybe every day is a bad day.

From the Giant Panda exhibit we moved on to the Great Ape House, home of the Zoo’s group of lowland gorillas and other primates. We saw only one gorilla, a female sitting outside on a big concrete pipe (like you would see on an interstate highway construction project). She posed for this photo, and stared at us with an inscrutable look on her face.

lowland gorilla

Last on our agenda was the Elephant House, a large masonry building surrounded by what looks like a deserted elementary school playground. Washington’s climate prevents the elephants from being kept outside except in the summer months. Inside the Elephant House we saw the Zoo’s three remaining Asian elephants, which were standing and eating together in a cramped, cell-like concrete room. The space was so small the elephants, one of which is a juvenile, could hardly turn around. It hurt me to see them.

When I was in Sri Lanka I was fortunate to visit the Pennawela Elephant Orphanage, a conservation area in the hill country where a limited attempt is being made to simulate conditions in the wild for elephants orphaned due to habitat reduction, big game hunting, or the civil war. (Here is a photo of a Pennawela baby elephant taking its daily bath in the Maha Oya River. The comparison of an elephant’s life at Pennawela vs. the National Zoo is graphic and sad.)

baby elephant 2

Since my Zoo visit, I’ve done a little research and found that the Zoo’s last decade has been a troubled one. In fact, as the NY Times reported yesterday the entire Smithsonian organization is suffering. Since 2002, an alarming number of Zoo animals have died or been euthanized: elephants, zebras, giraffes, an orangutan, a pygmy hippo, a lion, a cheetah, a bald eagle and two red pandas. The red pandas, which unlike their more famous cousins resemble large raccoons with bear-like faces, died after ingesting rat poison buried in their habitat. In 2003, the Zoo almost lost its accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. At the end of 2004, the Zoo’s director resigned after the release of a Congressional review highly critical of Zoo management. The current director, who assumed the post in mid-2005, announced an ambitious 10-year program to upgrade the Zoo when he arrived, but I saw little if any evidence of its implementation during my visit.

The Zoo undoubtedly shares the Smithsonian’s overall problems of Congressional underfunding and apparent gross mismanagement. These are problems that can be solved, given time and attention. But I think the basic issue with the Zoo as it exists now on Connecticut Avenue is that its time has passed. When it opened more than 100 years ago, the idea of taking exotic animals out of cages and providing them with “habitats” was considered a novel and enlightened concept. No one who visits the Zoo’s Elephant House on a cool day in 2007 should think that crowding animals native to a tropical climate into a 1930’s stone barn is enlightened. More likely, they’ll think it’s cruel.


11 Responses to Trip to the Zoo

  1. Kevin says:

    I’m curious – do you see a role for zoos at all in modern society? Or are you just unhappy with the National Zoo specifically?

  2. B Barron says:

    Ah, Kevin! That’s the question. I hadn’t really thought about zoos until now, and I can’t remember when I’d been to one before this past week. Maybe the North Carolina Zoo with the children on Boxing Day in 1994? I don’t want to jump off the deep end here without more thought and research. Clearly I was depressed by the National Zoo. But the North Carolina Zoo is very different from the National Zoo. The NC Zoo’s land seems to go on forever, and as I recall most of the big animals like elephants roam free. I also understand that Zoo Atlanta, which in the ’80’s was ranked as one of the worst zoos EVER, has now turned around and become a model for humane animal care and conservation, but I haven’t been there.

    I keep thinking about the elephants in the National Zoo. They were so sad! My elephant Sita, in Sri Lanka, ate bananas out of my hand.

  3. Kevin says:

    Hmm. Well, I’ve only ever been to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago (when I was 10 or so, about fifteen years ago) and the St. Louis Zoo, and my first visit to the latter was a few weeks ago (despite my having lived here seven years now) when friends were in town.

    When we went through the zoo, while I enjoyed the reaction of the children to the penguins and the giraffes and tigers, I was also taken aback by the conditions in which the animals lived. The St. Louis Zoo doesn’t have nearly the problems of the National Zoo, but it didn’t seem like the animals could even possibly be living even a slightly fulfilling existence. What is a giraffe if he can’t run free? An eating and pooping machine? That cannot be the purpose of the giraffe as a giraffe. Can it?

    At the same time as I was distraught by the small enclosures, I also thought a lot about what it would be like if there were no zoo. The day we visited was one of the first truly warm days of the year, and thousands of people were there. Surely the zoo is more than just an attraction for small children; we were visiting as four adults with an interest in the animals. And I have no doubt that for those children, their parents, and other visitors like the four of us, zoos really teach something important about animals. It might not be a lot, but we’re definitely learning *something*.

    But is it worth the suffering of the animals? Do we believe that we (and the animals still in the wild) gain something more important than their suffering from getting to drop in and say hello from time to time? Does that learning justify the economic resources devoted to the whole project? I have no idea whatsoever.

  4. akdmyers says:

    I have also grappled with the question of whether zoos are worth the potential suffering of the animals. I say potential, because I think there are zoos and conservation centers that work hard to maintain enriching habitats and activities for their animals. On the other hand, there are the zoos that house their animals in concrete boxes.

    I’ve always had a kind of love/hate relationship with zoos. I love seeing the animals, but I often hate seeing the conditions they’re in. The Como Zoo in St. Paul, MN where I grew up is a prime example of the concrete box phenomenon, and I can’t go there; it hurts too much. The Minnesota Zoo, on the other hand, provides amazing habitats for their animals and does important education and conservation work as well.

    I think zoos have an important role to play both in education and conservation of species, whether they are participating in captive breeding programs or sponsoring research and conservation efforts in remote areas. I also think it’s important for people to be able to see these animals in person. There is a connection and an awe there that does not come through the television screen or the page of a book. But I all this is only worth it if the animals are being properly cared for, both mentally and physically. I know there is some oversight for zoos, an accreditation process, but we all know that poor conditions still abound. At what point do we stop pouring economic resources to improve a zoo and simply close it? How can we gauge the suffering of an animal, and how do we balance that with the potential educational benefit?

    I don’t think any of us here have the answers, but it bears thinking about. (uh, no pun intended…)

  5. Dana says:

    I remember hearing a story (on NPR, probably) about a zoo in a very northern state that was going to send its elephants to other, much more southern zoos, because their own climate hardly allowed the elephants to be outside at all, and at least one of them was in poor health. The zookeeper interviewed felt this was the best decision for the elephants, but many people in that state were very sad to be losing the only elephants many of them, and their children, were ever likely to see. So there’s Kevin’s question again: How much weight do we give to education vs. the animals’ welfare?

    While I can’t find that story in my brief perusal of the NPR archives, I did find two more:

    The Ethics of Zoos from May, 2005

    LA Zoo Under Pressure to Retire Its Elephants from March, 2006

    Actually, it looks like most of their stories about the ethics of zoos have featured elephants, so this is probably quite a large issue that you’ve touched on, Barbara.

  6. Electra says:

    I grew up effectively right next door to the San Diego Wild Animal Park and went there often with my family. It spoiled me completely. Even in that 1800 acre enclosure, there were a lot of exibits that I felt closed the animals in compared to how I had read their natural habitat should be (sans human encroachment, of course). Having spent all of my zoo-going experiences at this place, I thought that I didn’t ever want to visit a zoo-like zoo where the enclosures were very small. I maintained that decision pretty much my whole life.
    The first time I went to Japan, though, my husband and I went to the Kyoto Zoo because we happened to walk past it. Not to put too emotional terms to it, but the experience crushed my soul. While it gave me the opportunity to see animals in very close quarters (like tanuki which I didn’t even know existed outside of mythology), it was obvious that most of them were absolutely miserable. In contrast to elephants being in cold environments, we saw a panda bear in the 30°C 100% humidity Kyoto summer heat. Its pool hadn’t been cleaned in what seemed to be several weeks, and it was full of algae and scum. And the water looked tepid. The only animals that looked like it was partially enjoying himself was a chimpanzee that liked interacting with people.
    I think that there was one single other zoo I’ve been to, and the only thing I felt positively about it was that I got to stand about 2m from a male lion and a female tiger while they were fed (Okay, so there was also 10cm of glass between us, but still…) and finally got a concrete feeling for the size of these animals.
    Its too bad that there aren’t more places like the San Diego Wild Animal Park. When I have kids, I’m going to drive right past Disneyland and Sea World and go straight to Escondido where the Park is.

  7. JF says:

    I was just at the Como Zoo in St. Paul on Saturday. That seemed to have poor quality of care and resources for those animals. The trees are made of plastic, the giraffes were licking the paint on the walls, and one gorilla was repeatedly eating up its same regurgitated food. When asking an employee at the zoo about this, she replied that “The animals do all sorts of fun things like that.” I cannot go there again and feel like there should be more I could do to make a difference for those animals.

  8. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Here a RadioLab show about zoos and some of the issues we touch on here.

  9. R.B says:

    My mom, niece and my children recently visited Como Zoo in St. Paul, having been there before we all knew what we were likely to see, that is the sadness in each animal’s eye.
    We went to the Primates building and saw the Spider Monkeys in their fake environment of cement trees, stagnant air, cement ground and dirty plexi-glass sky. They looked so completely bored, nothing at all like the active, swinging social ones you see on nature programs.
    At one point a particular monkey came over to the glass and looked at us then pressed his hand against the glass and put his head down. The feeling conveyed was that of utter hopelessness. It was as if he sensed that we understood and there was an unspoken communication. Not long after, another monkey slowly approached and put her arm around the first and lay her head upon him in a comforting gesture. We all felt very overwhelmed with sadness for these sweet creatures.
    The other “exhibits” in the Primates building are the same thing, a room of cement forms protruding from the cement ground with the most natural thing in any room being the “hemp” ropes that dangle here and there.
    Thousands of people visit this place to teach their kids about “wild” animals. Is this truly what we want to teach? How to put animals on display and take away all their dignity and subject them to a life of imprisonment in an artificial world, one that has absolutely no resemblance to their natural habitat?
    My mom made a reference to zoo’s being an archaic idea. I agree, why can’t we do away with these outdated institutions and show these animals respect by letting them live out the rest of their days in a more fitting habitat and then put our focus on more respectful ways to TRULY learn about and understand these animals in the future? Let’s use our technology in a non-invasive way to understand these animals. If we can put up cameras on city streets to view passerby’s, why can’t we do the same in these natural habitats?
    How can it be that we have done so much and come so far in the way of technology, human rights, inventions, even exploration of our world and others, yet we still view animals and their feeling and rights like we’re in the Dark Ages?
    Walking away that day our spirits were low, but there seemed to be a message, one that is there for anyone willing to open up their eyes, and heart. Ours came from the Spider Monkeys, but yours may come from the Lions, giraffes, polar bears or the seals. The message is to evolve. We must evolve our consciousness and be stewards of the Earth and her creatures so that we may fulfill our obligations as caretakers.
    The memory of that Spider monkey touching my child’s hand through the glass, is what gives me hope. Take your children so that they may see and learn and in return bring about change for a better way.

  10. guyintheblackhat says:

    John Berger’s excellent 1977 essay “Why Look at Animals?” might apply here. It focuses on the inherently tragic relationship established between animals, humans and their respective gazes at zoological displays. He concludes that, when he/she is looking at an animal, the zoo spectator is “looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal” when s/he looks at the firmly confined beasts. This act of looking is premised on asymmetrical power relations so deep-seated that neither animal nor spectator are able to further enrich themselves from the experience.

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