Zoological Musing

So I went to the Great Lakes Aquarium with a friend of mine this past weekend.

It was a fun visit.  There were lots of interesting things to learn and see (I particularly enjoyed the Shipwrecks Alive exhibit, if only because I had a fascination with them when I was younger).  But ultimately, something bothers me about the whole thing.  As I’ve grown older, I’ve also grown more and more uncomfortable with the concept of zoos.  The idea of taking animals and putting them on display just seems really strange to me.

Perhaps an analogy is in order.  Have you ever seen the old episode of The Twilight Zone entitled “People are alike all over”?

If you haven’t, I’ll summarize.  The plot basically follows two astronauts as they make their way to Mars.  One of them is an optimistic man who believes that “people are alike all over”.  The other man is a bitter cynic.  When they attempt to land on Mars, the resulting crash kills the optimistic astronaut, leaving the cynic injured and alone.  He hears strange noises outside the ship that make him think some nightmare lies on the other side.  But when the ship is finally opened, it is revealed that the Martians look human and seem friendly.  They take him to a house decorated like it would be on Earth and tell him that it is his.  He initially loves the place, but once the Martians leave him alone he looks around and discovers that he can’t get out.  Furthermore, he finds out that he is part of a zoo exhibit, put on display so the Martians can gawk and take pictures of him.  The episode ends with him resting his head on the bars and saying “You were right.  People are alike…people are alike everywhere.”

I remember this episode because it posed a very interesting moral question about the nature of putting animals in zoos and our arrogant self-assurance that we are superior.  And I was reminded of that as we perused the aquariums this weekend.  More than once, I wondered how much the fish and other animals truly knew of their captive status.  Part of me understands that their brains aren’t as complex as ours, that many of them probably only care about eating, sleeping, and being alive.  But it’s hard for me not to feel a little weird about the fact that we take these animals, stuff them in cages, and then sit there gawking and snapping photos of them.  I’m sure the animals are well taken care of, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are still caged up for our pleasure.

Part of the reason this bothers me is because every time a lion, wolf, or something similar escapes from the zoo and attacks someone, everyone starts calling for its head like it’s some kind of demon or something.  And I usually sit there thinking “well what did you expect?  You took a wild animal from its homeland and threw it into a cage.  They’re in unfamiliar territory.  They don’t know what’s going on.  They’re alone and afraid.  Of course they’re going to go on the offensive.”

Does it make people feel better or justified if they label it a monster, a “thing” that needs to be put down rather than a living, breathing animal that shares this Earth with us?  Maybe.  I don’t want to think in such cynical terms, but there’s a certain ring of truth to the idea that I can’t shake.

This is not to say that zoos are all evil or anything.  There was an otter habitat at the Great Lakes Aquarium that we saw part of a presentation on.  In it, the woman speaking told us how these otters were originally from Louisiana.  They ate a ton of crayfish, which upset some of the local farmers.  One of them laid out a trap and the otters got caught in it.  If it wasn’t for the intervention of the Aquarium and the organizations it is connected with, the otters would no doubt have been killed.  Some good has come out of this idea, but at its core the Aquarium and other places like it are little more than tourist attractions to me rather than true havens for animals.

Do I have all the answers?  No.  Despite my qualms about the situation, I still enjoyed visiting the Great Lakes Aquarium.  I will freely admit to that.  I do wish there was a better way to go about things than stuffing animals in small little tanks or cages, but I honestly have no idea.  As long as it makes money, it’s going to continue happening.  I’m not calling for the abolition of all zoos and aquariums or anything, but I think this moral question is one worth considering.


Well that’s all I have for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.


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