I am not the greatest animal activist. I would like to do more to help with things like Lolita – the killer whale in a tiny tank. I would like to save the tigers and elephants and rhinos. I would like to protect habitats being eroded by greedy logging and farming. I think these are important to our future as a people and a planet.
The sheer psychology of the images of the tiger, the wolf, the whale… these creatures have inspired and driven people for millennia. The images, and the myths will lose some of their power when people can not see them or hear them in person. Seeing 700 pounds of tiger walk towards you with just a thin barrier to keep him back… there is a primal response in the imagination that we will lose if we lose them.
That’s actually why I support zoo’s so much. Every zoo I’ve been to is working to save animals from extinction. They have breeding programs. When I was at the London zoo, they have a special turtle breeding program because no one has ever bred this nearly-extinct-turtle in captivity so the zoo is collecting as many of the turtles as they can to figure out the “secret sauce” for breeding the turtle. (and yes, I’m the nerd who reads the plaques on the wall)
I am spoiled by the Atlanta zoo. Atlanta zoo is very proud that they try to create habitats instead of cages. I visit zoo’s in other cities the way some people go to Hard Rock Cafe’s. Even the most pitiful zoo I’ve been to, most of the animals have enough space to get a modicum of exercise. Most zoo’s are trying to make their animals happy, or at least very comfortable. I remember in the Tokyo zoo they had warthogs and my first reaction was “ugh, look how much cement is in there” and then two of them took off running and went sliding across that cement on their bellies (which was covered with a layer of mud), tails up. I revised my thinking very quickly – those pigs loved their mud-n-slide.
Even the large mammals – lions, tigers, elephants, gorillas – are being given educational and exercise toys in a zoo. Granted, I think Willie B maxed out at like 800 pounds. Elephants run no more than a few tons (I know, it’s still a lot). Orca average 6 tons. That’s 2 or 3 elephants each. And they are super-social, so they need each other.
When I go to the Georgia Aquarium we have dolphins and you can see in their bodies they are not unhappy. Hell, the difference in the beluga whales since they arrived is amazing. I remember when I first saw them, they looked tired and sore. Now they are always grinning and playing. Their bodies are so expressive, I can’t imagine the orca are so much less expressive that people can’t see it (when I watched Blackfish, I was appalled). Again belugas are just over a ton or so. So you’re looking at 4-6 belugas per orca.
I think there is a balance. The best option is to leave animals in the wild, but zoos are bringing animals in who wouldn’t survive as well in the wild (one of the cats in the Oklahoma zoo when I went there years and years ago only had 3 legs) and can still help the species through breeding programs. I want to support the best work being done in zoos and aquariums, but I also want to make sure we are always evaluating how to make sure these animals are at least as happy as they would be in the wild – because that is where they really belong.