Why do we need a zoo in Sacramento at all? Why do we need a zoos anywhere in the 21st century?
These are questions asked but not answered in our community and around the world, but are worth pondering because zoos are cruel institutions.
They are anachronistic. They are symbols of the hubris of humans. We remove animals from their natural habitats. We confine them to enclosures that are pleasing to the human eye but are no less restrictive to the natural instincts of creatures unfortunate enough to intersect with human curiosity.
The Sacramento Zoo has been the anchor of Land Park for 91 years and it was big news this week when The Bee’s Cynthia Hubert reported that zoo leaders were pondering a potential move of the zoo to a larger space somewhere else in the city.
Once out, the big news shifted to a conversation centered on the feelings of humans distressed by how they would feel if their beloved zoo was somewhere besides Sacramento’s gorgeous urban park nestled among some of Sacramento’s loveliest neighborhoods.
“To me, the zoo is a little Shangri-La,” Land Park resident Linda Overstreet told The Bee. Overstreet attended Holy Spirit School. Retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was an altar boy at Holy Spirit Church. They’re all walking distance from the zoo and in the heart of Sacramento’s traditional base of political power and affluence.
As soon as the news broke about a zoo move, Mayor Darrell Steinberg blessed the idea and spoke of the importance of the zoo as a financial draw for Sacramento.
“It is consistent with my call for creating more destination amenities for Sacramento,” Steinberg announced. “ We have a wonderful zoo. It’s a treasure.”
We’re talking about big money. A $75 million renovation of the zoo at Land Park was in the works. But now, that $75 million is viewed as insufficient.
Zoo leaders are thinking bigger, bolder. Maybe it will take $120 to $150 million to really make the zoo an attraction.
“I’d love to bring rhinos here,” said Jason Jacobs, the zoo’s new director. “It would be wonderful to have a big troupe of chimpanzees, a herd of giraffes. This is what the community wants us to be.”
I used to go to the zoo all the time. I took my children there on many a Sunday. We were members. And every time we went, we were treated wonderfully by the humans who worked there. But I always felt terrible for the animals confined there
One memory stands out: We were near the enclosure where tigers were incarcerated. I found myself staring at a magnificent cat through the thick window separating me from the animal. It was expressionless – as if it were sedated – when a little kid darted right by me. The tiger suddenly tensed up and assumed an aggressive posture, its muscles coiling in one ominous movement. Its face and eyes were instantly alive. I caught a glimpse of natural instinct – of the tiger’s very nature – rising above the lethargy of captivity.
I actually felt scared for a moment until remembering the big glass enclosure was there separating me from the tiger. I saw the look of realization in the tiger, when it reached the same conclusion. It turned and walked back to a place in the shade where it lay down. It didn’t need to kill its prey because humans fed it. It had no outlet for its natural instincts. It was a zoo animal. It was there for us to gawk at and nothing more.
Why am I a party to this? Why are we all a party to this? It starts with the mythology of zoos as places where children and adults are educated about animals incarcerated there. Zoo hierarchies shroud themselves in a cloak of scholarship and scientific rigor. Zoos function, we are told, as incubators of knowledge imparted to kids and adults. But threading the needle of that lie to reach greater understanding of animals still requires the confinement of animals within unnatural spaces for our entertainment.
If you believe the mythology, then zoos are cute and cuddly. But not everyone believes. Some animal rights groups rightly challenge the idea of zoos as centers for education.
“The truth is that zoos primarily exist for profit,” wrote Animals Australia for a Kinder World, which works to protect vulnerable animals. “...A zoo can teach you a lot about how animals behave in captivity but will teach you very little about the behaviour of animals in the wild....FACT: The best way to learn about animals is in their natural habitat.“
A growing global movement opposes the captivity of animals. “Even the best artificial environments can’t come close to matching the space, diversity, and freedom that animals want and need,” the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) says on its site. “This deprivation – combined with relentless boredom, loneliness, and sometimes even abuse from the people who are supposed to be caring for them – causes many captive animals to lose their minds. “
When I read that last line, I thought of the tiger I saw at the Sacramento Zoo a decade ago. I’m no expert, but its spirit seemed broken to me. On family visits, many of the animals would be asleep or simply sitting lifelessly.
Why are we party to this? Because we accept it. We accepted circuses for generations until advocates and journalists shined a light on how circus trainers would abuse animals to make them do “tricks.” We still accept water parks featuring sea mammals performing tricks, despite widespread evidence of abuse.
Zoos are tougher to oppose because some – like the Sacramento Zoo – have spent generations embedded in communities. They have made themselves civic attractions, civic amenities and civic institutions.
But they have done so by capturing and confining animals for our entertainment. If we’re being honest, there is no way to put a pretty bow on that. If you’re really noticing the animals while you’re at the zoo, it’s depressing, isn’t it? It is for me. I can’t support the idea of zoos anymore.
And instead of figuring out how to profit from it, I wish Sacramento wasn’t in the zoo business at all.