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Zoos Are the Biggest Threat to Animal Rights

It is high time governments start noticing that zoos are the biggest threat to animal rights. If two months of being clamped indoors could make us feel so jittery, how would animals shut behind cages for a lifetime feel?

Nothing but tokens of fetishistic curiosity

In the initial days of the Coronavirus pandemic, when lockdown guidelines were far too strict, there was a meme doing the rounds of the internet that showed a panda sitting inside a caged enclosure, with droopy eyes, making a pitiful sight. The meme asked its viewers if two months of being clamped indoors could make us so jittery and restless, how would animals shut behind cages for a lifetime, feel. Indeed, zoological gardens, or what we popularly know as ‘zoos’ – mostly entertainment parks of an exotic breed in cities – are one of the worst kinds of ecological sin modern society perpetuates.

Zoos were introduced in the ancient times, in the form of menageries, as early as in the Egyptian or Mesopotamian civilizations. It spoke of their travels to unknown lands. It held testimony to such experiences – pieces of wild nature bearing proof to the existence of different lives in different corners of the planet, untraversed by the common – museums of walking, breathing, throbbing life for the wealthy to show off their possessions. In past civilizations, large scale architecture, the grandeur of material dwellings and also dwellings for the dead were the impressions left by rulers of women and men. Conquering nature, be it barren landscapes through habitable sprawling cityscapes or the wild through taming animals, has always been Man’s way of stamping his superior place in his immediate universe. Menageries for animals too served the same purpose. Keeping bits of the wild, curious samples of alien existence as a legitimization of conquest over incomprehensible seeming natural forces can be seen as the psychological aspect of chaining and caging life to satisfy a sense of sufficiency. Just like wardrobes for the rich, menageries were collections of life, different and exotic, for people of means.

Image: Sad Tiger in Zoo Cage via Shutterstock

With the shift to rationality and western science slowly engulfing the majority of recorded history, the model of the ‘public zoo’ emerged, devoted to the study of animal behaviour and zoological sciences. Like previously, animals would have caretakers and handlers while studying their activities, movements and reproduction from closer scrutiny ushered in zoo-keeping. Soon, as scientific research developed newer modules of study, more adventurous and authentic ones travelled through whole jungles or observed animals through secretly placed, well-hidden cameras. Zoos, however, stayed back in human civilization as proof of Man’s arrogance and obsession to hoard, even life for that matter. Zoos started serving the purpose of entertainment parks. Animals got reduced to aesthetics, showpieces of public menageries now.

City zoos and the one in my city

The present-day zoos we see in metropolitan cities the world over, and especially in developing countries lacking strong animal rights institutions, is basically an entertainment circus lacking activity or movement. It is caging up animals to serve as pieces of exhibition displays, as fetishistic tokens for our curious gaze regarding the ‘wild’; the wild in its essential difference from ‘civilization’. While circuses and hunting for sport have been ethically banned since they are seen to be morally conflicting and torturous to animals, zoos serve the same end although packaged as a harmless means. But city zoos aren’t harmless.

Growing up in a metropolitan city, also an erstwhile capital of the country while it was colonised, the zoo in my city Calcutta is quite old. It hosts an extensive array of animals in displays from several continents and across several species. People throng in hundreds, every day, to ‘see’ these animals. See them locked up behind cages, isolated from their natural habitat and natural routines and patterns of living. And most importantly, most of the time, deprived of the company and the right to survive without human interference.

Giraffes inside zoo guard fencing. Alipore Zoo, Kolkata via Shutterstock

The zoo in my city is in the middle of a rapidly urbanising formerly isolated locale. On my last and relatively recent visit, to satisfy the relentless demands of my young cousin, I found out that even the animals hadn’t been spared of the noise and raucous celebrations of the party season of end December. That too, right in the middle of the day. The part of the zoo that shelters birds, mostly peacocks and parrots of various species, rare birds, shy birds, overlooked some hotel or mansion that had ear-numbing music playing right in the middle of the day. Added to it, the thousands of people crowding the place, littering it with ice cream cones and finished Biriyani packets. Of course, now the littering takes place at specific green spots, yet the zoo premises have been legitimised as picnic spots for people across all ages. I felt despondent indeed imagining the plight of the four giraffes in the giraffe enclosure thinking how from up those long necks, despite such towering visions, all they could see were the heads of thousand human heads, wandering about, staring at them, smiling foolishly, all without any purpose, all so meaningless, just as the reason for them being caged.

It has always hurt me to see people cage birds for ‘pets’ or some rare breed of eccentric multimillionaires trying to tame the wild inside their enormous mansions. Not all animals are meant to be ‘pets’, and neither are they meant for ‘display’ or serving as additional props of ‘fun’ on those winter afternoons when humankind fails to find itself any job. The birds inside zoos are the saddest of all. Whenever you pass by the birdcages, all of the chirping, all of the life that could have been free and in flight, embracing what the rhythms of life ordained for it naturally, is now ruined by the interference of arrogant and uncaring humans. Capturing a bit of the wild to show to the breed of the ‘civilised’ that we can conquer all – that’s what zoos stand for.

There was one specially lonely rhinoceros that sat face away from the crowd. Its enclosure seemed especially small and the fact equally surprising was that it had no two others of its kind for company. It takes no wildlife expert to see that animals too can feel lonely and sad and that sadness too shows on their beings. The tigers and lions do not look any healthier. Royal beasts of the jungle are reduced to edgy bobcats inside the cages. Some cages stand empty bearing testimony to the rare lives lived and wasted, and not filled with replacements thereafter.

Tortures of captivity

Image: Bear caged in bad living condition via Shutterstock

Research shows zoos do not favour the psychological well-being of animals. Animals get depressed, frustrated and often harm each other while being forced to live caged lives. In the lack of activity or movement, their natural rhythm of life is truncated. They lose control over their own lives. A lot of times, social animals suffer isolation while animals that dislike contact are made to suffer amidst the constant humdrum of the ebb and flow of human visitors. The caging of animals is done arbitrarily, and it has been found that sometimes animals on the lower rungs of the food chain might be caged close to predators. Animals often go untreated. Baby animals might be sent to other zoos, often continents apart in climates utterly different to what they have adapted to—locked up inside superficially stimulated environments resembling their places of origin. All in all, zoos scream the utter terrors of captivity for any kind of emotive life.

Why we have them and what can be done

Zoos in the modern-day sustain few arguments in their favour. However, a most potent one – and perhaps forcefully perpetuated (since they churn in revenues, hundreds of people throng to these places every day during the favoured seasons) – is that of wildlife conservation and protection. A lot argue in favour of awareness with natural life and zoology and the purpose of ‘education’ for children. However, anything bred in captivity fails to stay ‘natural’ and no educational purpose is served at the cost of controlling the agency of another, even if it be that of a ‘lesser’ species down the chain of biological determinism. Humans might be the most intelligent on the planet, but intelligence used to impinge on freedom is nothing but evil.

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Image: Sad Baby Monkey Caged via Shutterstock

Why the need to conserve wildlife by caging them inside tame environments? Wildlife can be preserved more if human beings stay content with their share of nature and its resources without overextending itself onto the living spaces of other species. As life turned increasingly anthropocentric, with humans manipulating environmental ethics to suit their needs, science too played a selfish role. Animals were forced to share society with humans for varied purposes of the latter, the majority of which stemmed from an unwarranted curiosity into life separate from ours. While that helped us understand our environment well, it certainly messed with the boundaries all ecosystems share and limit at concerning each other. Under such a situation, when human life causes other forms to compromise, even to the point of decimation, it stands as our sole responsibility to undo harm as much as possible. Hence, wildlife conservation is an essential thing in modern society. Wildlife sanctuaries and national reserves with limited tourism was a great solution coined to the problem. With animals roaming in natural habitats, which bear the monitoring by environmental experts to promote the growth of a species and rise in numbers of animals, these have lost their share of the planet to human encroachment.

Zoos ought to be banned, and governments ought to take notice! They are nothing but large-scale prisons or extermination camps for animal life, deprived of control, forced to serve as the fodder of entertainment for humans. It is high time humans let go of anthropocentric environmental ethics and let the planet just be.

Written By

An aspiring journalist and writer. Literature major.

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