Sunday, July 12, 2009

Zoos, Habit(at)s and Thoughts on Animal and Human Freedom

Ape at zoo looking at the camera
Tiger staring through a fence at camera
In Yann Martel's acclaimed book Life of Pi the first person narrator defends the case for zoos and discusses notions of freedom from the point of view of animals. Some people criticize zoos for being confined spaces as opposed to the natural habitat and forms of life, and it mostly boils down to questions of freedom and happiness.

Are zoos a form of jail for the animals and are they unhappy there? Are they stressed because of all the human attention and the clicking cameras and the pointy fingers?

A zoo is indeed a confined space, but it comes with various advantages. One of them is safety; another is a steady supply of food. In the wild, it is literally a jungle. All the animals need to hunt for food in order to avoid starvation, but with it there is the constant danger of becoming prey to other stronger and fiercer animals. In the zoo, they may lose some of those killer instincts, but they are fed and protected by humans.

In the book, there is an analysis of how animals are actually very conservative creatures. Animals generally prefer recurring habits and routine over going out and searching for adventure beyond their territory or safety zone. It is not out of sheer fun that they go hunting; it is a necessity. If they could stay home and order a pizza, they would immediately opt for that.

When we look at it, we humans are not that different. We also run on routines and safety zones. We are equally traditional deep inside. Although we may have notions of freedom, we often still cling to a “settled life,” having our house, a shelter, a roof over our heads, and we do not roam the country and sleep outside “free as a bird.”

Freedom becomes a matter of expressing one's thoughts and ideas and also in choosing lifestyles and actions that best suit us, with a little of occasional foreign travel thrown in. Yet it is not wild anarchy since life follows its own rhythm; it is dependent on basic necessities and certain habits, whether they be expressed through work, a spouse, or certain recurring reassuring activities.

If animals are taken care of, have enough space and one that reflects their own habitat, when they are fed on a regular basis, then the zoo would seem an ideal place. They would not be able to survive in their natural habitat, the jungle - something the animals in Madagascar realized the hard way - but they would become their own brand of species. And if treated well, it would be a great way to preserve species from extinction. If only, of course, they would adapt to the crazy “famous” lifestyle and the paparazzi of foreign tourists and local people, including swarms of shouting and running kids.


The Prince of Centraxis said...

Humans are similar. They've created cellular zoos for themselves, totally divorced from nature - called cities and towns.
They even lock themselves in their cells at night - the keepers have an easy time of it.

Tomas said...

Wow, all your posts are worthy pondering deeper indeed. That builds trust in you; I even don't fear to joke loudly:
my life is the indwelling in Zoo ... that's my only way to survive, because I am recognized as the disabled for life (out of job and means to survive otherwise than through the charity I receive)
As animals amuse people for food, so I share my insights with all for ... because I am alive.

Duni said...

Life of Pi was a riveting book.
I've always had a special affinity towards animals and never liked the notion of keeping them 'imprisoned' for their sakes as well as our. However, in the light of their diminishing natural habitat, maybe a zoo's the best option.

Great post!

Rchrd said...

Yes! Yes! Yes! In light of the current economic state, maybe zoos are the best places for animals to live in. Habitat loss, extinction, and pollution run rampant as if it is as wild as the wilds it invades.

As it stands, we humans also put ourselves in our own zoos. Most of us live in ivory towers already - detached and careless to the outside world. With food deliveries, the internet, and weather-proof housing, we basically became specimens in our own zoo with ourselves as our keeper.

John said...


Let us not mistake what is best for the animal with the argument of the ethics of zoo-keeping.

Humans do not incarcerate animals out of benevolence. They do this for their own selfish motivations. I am not an activist in this area, but to recast this fact as a virtue would be misleading.

That said, I am glad we have zoos, because without them I would never have got to read this line:

“If only of course they would adapt to the crazy ‘famous’ lifestyle and the paparazzi of foreign tourists and local people, including swarms of shouting and running kids.