What does it take to close down a zoo? The death of nearly 500 of its captives in less than four years? The tragedy of South Lakes Safari Zoo in Cumbria is measured out in those losses – inconsequential or unlucky as they may be seen in the eyes of some, pathetic and terrible in the eyes of others. It is a tragedy that is both human and animal, one in which our emotional investment in, or disconnection from, the natural world plays out. It is the paradox with which we have to live, if we live with animals. And it is one in which there will, it seems, always be one set of losers – those who do not possess our language or our culture with which to protest at their treatment.
For the vast majority of us, a zoo is our first and perhaps only introduction to a living “wild” animal. The power of that communion is not to be understated. I asked a friend if he felt visits to a city zoo with his five-year-old daughter and four-year-old son were valuable – or even valid – as educational experiences, beyond the obvious moral questions that underlie them. “Yes,” he replied, without equivocation. “But we don’t have the right to see all animals. [They] not should expect to be able to see a tiger.”
We want our children to know that the world is full of beautiful animals, beyond the cartoons of Paw Patrol and social media clips of cute creatures doing funny things (usually because they have been taught to do so by humans).
Am I simply a vehicle for numerous bacteria that inhabit my microbiome? Or are they hosting me?Timothy Morton
But it is a slippery divide between exploitation and education. Those who supported the captivity of cetaceans such as orca and dolphin in the 20th century argued that, at a time when whales and dolphins were threatened in the wild, the bearing of witness was crucial to our general enlightenment. It was a bizarre logic: that these captives were in fact sacrifices to their species, having to perform their antics in concrete tanks in order that the paying public might have their eyes opened to the plight of all the others.
Of course, in our all-access virtual world, where anything can be summoned up by the stroke of a finger, the appeal of the real is real. We want to close that distance between ourselves and other species to feel less alone. There is a truly existential sense to this desire, a sort of desperate reassurance. As the artist and critic John Berger wrote in his essay Why Look at Animals?: “The eyes of an animal when they consider a man are attentive and wary … Man becomes aware of himself returning the look. The animal scrutinises him across a narrow abyss of non-comprehension.”
Given that abyss, can zoos have any place in modern life? Our relationship with any animal is always exploitative, precisely because we have elevated ourselves above other species. We have domesticated oxen and wolves and horses, and bent them to our collective will. Many billions of animals are bred merely to feed us. Why run a zoo so badly that hundreds of its animals die? Is this any better than the spectacle of 18th-century Bedlam, in which mentally ill humans were subjected to the stares of sane visitors? We know that important conservation work goes on in modern zoos, preserving species that might otherwise go extinct in their natural habitats. But, given that we are inevitably benefiting from the depredation of those habitats in what we consume, it hardly seems a justifiable process.
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A rabbit in a hutch, a dog on a lead, a cow in a field, an elephant on a concrete platform, a killer whale in a tank: they all perform their anthropomorphic function. It is an exchange almost as old as the hunt. The furore raised by the shooting of Cecil the lion in 2015 was, according to the contemporary philosopher, Timothy Morton, a new ray of hope. We humans need to demonstrate our solidarity with “non-human people” for our own good, says Morton; to heal ourselves in a holistic reappraisal of all life on Earth – even down to the microbes in our guts. “Am I simply a vehicle for numerous bacteria that inhabit my microbiome?” he asks. “Or are they hosting me?”
Could we configure our world to allow animals their freedom, without the destructive hierarchies that allow such anachronisms as zoos to exist – and in the process gain a new freedom of our own? It sounds like a utopia. Yet, as we ourselves drift away from our own essential animality – increasingly linked to and driven by the technology that offers to surpass us – it may be more important than ever for us to embrace a new way of looking at animals: not through the confinement of bars and nets, but through our own conflicted selves. In his famous book, The Human Zoo, Desmond Morris showed how humans in a city are like animals in a zoo – living in a place in which their survival needs are catered for – yet paying for that security and sustenance with their freedom.
As we become habituated to our unnatural environments, it is more important than ever that we should consider the rights of other species whose fates we hold in our hands. Either that, or we will all end up in a cage of one kind or another.
• Philip Hoare is an author, whose books include Leviathan or, The Whale, The Sea Inside, and RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR. He tweets @philipwhale