One of my traditions when I am traveling is going to zoological parks or aquariums and staring at animals for hours. This may be weird for most people, but for me it is entirely normally.
This is because, from a very young age, I had always wanted to be an exotic veterinarian – meaning I would work at zoos. At nine years old, I attended a summer camp at NC State University where budding veterinarians spent two weeks learning the basics of veterinary school. Remember the crocodile hunter, Steve Irwin? I volunteered at his zoo in Beerwah, Australia during the summers of 2010, 2011, and 2015.
I love zoos – but I also think they are flawed. Which is why I find it so important to visit zoos and aquariums around the world. It is an amazing way to learn what places do right, and what they do wrong, so I can brainstorm how they can reform.
I think the trippiest part of a zoo is the primate house – these are animals that are our cousins, that we are extremely similar to, but we lock them in cages and treat them as entertainment for family outings. I fully support the necessity of zoos for education campaigns regarding the conservation of endangered species. But the number one thing I see in primate houses is a mob of humans crowding the enclosures with cameras at the ready to take photos of their genetic-cousins. Often there are children screaming; often adults trying to entice the primates into moving more. There is rarely ever respect for these creatures, only the desire to treat them as entertainment.
But if evolution had gone a little differently – we could have been the ones in the cages. (Side note – some deformed humans have been locked in cages and treated as entertainment. That’s where the term ‘Freak Show’ comes from.) And because we are so similar, you can truly recognize the emotion on the primates’ face. Sometimes it is happiness; sometimes it is sadness. And the sadness breaks my heart – these are magnificent creatures being treated as caged trophies for children’s entertainment.
I am not advocating for the boycott or closure of zoos. Zoos serve an incredible part in conservation; being able to see these animals in person creates empathy for their struggles and increases involvement in conservation. Growing up visiting zoos with my mother is how I gained such a love and compassion for endangered species. And many zoos do absolutely incredible work researching their animals to better learn how to preserve the wild populations. Most also have very effective fundraising campaigns for endangered species.
But there needs to be a change in the zoo patrons – instead of treating these creatures as features of entertainment for your children or your family, use your visit as an educational experience. As a transformational experience. Teach your children about the incredible adaptations animals have developed to perfectly fit their environment. Teach them the human fables about local animals, like that of the cheetah’s tear marks. Teach them about their struggles. Teach them about how we can help conserve these creatures. Teach them about how close these species are from being lost to the world completely. Teach them about the ones we have already lost forever.
Ultimately: Teach. Learn. Love. Treat Respectfully.
P.S. Dad – I’m alive. And definitely not opinionated, not at all, never.