I went to the zoo this weekend, and as always I departed feeling a little ambivalent. When you see creatures like leopards, lemurs, elephants, and apes in those drab enclosures, mere simulacra of their natural habitats, it’s hard not to feel sorry for them. I doubt any faux rock cliff or pool of hose water will ever fully engage their wild intelligences. As I wandered the paved footpaths between continent-themed enclosures, I remembered how my sensitive, vegetarian friend Ben used to call zoos “animal jail.”
On the other hand, these creatures are safe — from predators, from food pressure, from droughts, from us. And isn’t safety what we humans have been striving for since the very start? Our drive to find shelter and protection, to isolate ourselves from the constant threats of the world (coupled with an overdeveloped prefrontal cortex), is the very thing that’s made us so successful on this planet. Maybe it’s because we’ve grown comfortable in our world of boxes that we feel animals will take some sanguine comfort in a zoo’s protection.
But why then do most of us assign a certain sadness to animals in zoos? Is it because we grok that it’s a fine line between being protected and being trapped? Personally, when I feel that boundary growing threadbare, a trip into the mountains becomes particularly important to my sanity. I can only imagine how the silverback gorilla feels as he peers through the glass day after day, at the gallery of baby strollers and hairless apes with cameras, while waiting for his food to be delivered.
A mother tending lovingly to her young, a playful polar bear, a sad-looking gibbon — you can hear the children exclaiming in surprise how the animals are just like people. Through the fences and over moats, the creatures in the zoo always seem to remind us of ourselves, but rarely do we invert that logic and draw the conclusion that we are like them. Or not so much like them as are them.
Granted, it can be a problematic perspective to take. After all, when the boundary between “us” and “them” grows blurry, so do many things we hold to be self-evident. Better to do as I did and gaze with wonder at that enormous, flat face in the glass, with its black leather skin and dense fur and searching eyes, and then get back in your little box of glass and steel and drive away.