Unless you were hiding out in a cave, without internet, it was hard to avoid the story of Tillikum, the killer whale who killed one of his “trainers” last week. Over the days that followed the event, comments spread on Facebook, the New York Times speculated on Tilly’s mental health, and calls to kill, or free, the orca popped up everywhere.
The keeping of animals for human amusement has a long and storied history, and the stories are usually about great suffering and cruelty being inflicted on the animals. Early zoos in China and Egypt were expressions of imperial power: the time, energy and money required to capture, transport and maintain (however briefly—mortality rates were tremendous) all those exotic animals could only come from an organized, centralized authority.
These days we’ve reinvented the zoo, and the animal exhibition, or at least put a different spin on them. Animals in captivity are “nature exhibits,” the places that hold them captive are “educational centers” for ” wildlife conservation.”
I grew up going to zoos, here in New York and elsewhere, a lot. The Central Park Zoo of my childhood was a nightmare I didn’t quite see—lions and tigers in concrete cells, lined up like their stuffed cousins in the Museum of Natural History across the park. I still remember the smells (not good), and the interminable pacing of the big cats measuring out their days in 12-foot lengths along the bars of their cages.
When I was older, I visited the zoo in Rome. Wolves in pens not big enough for my Jack Russell terrier, bears in such advanced stages of boredom and neglect that exposing children to their state was more abusive than educational. Why did hundreds of animals have to die slow, miserable, premature deaths so that we could watch them?
In the wild orcas live, on average, 30 years for males and 50 for females, with some making it to 60 or 70 years old. The Humane Society tells us that captive orcas seldom live past 20. In this respect Tillikum, the oldest orca in captivity, at about 19, is one of the lucky ones. The HSUS also lists the greatest threats to orca survival: among them, “capture for the public display industry.”
This isn’t just about Sea World (which is owned by the infamous Blackstone Group, btw) or the plight of Tillikum. It’s about a systematized for-profit abuse of animals. Orca shows are not educational, and they’re not good for the animals or, apparently, the people who “train” them. For every happy performer, scores have been captured, died in transport or captivity, or prematurely. Male orcas in the wild remain with their mothers for their whole lives, in large matrilineal groups, with lifelong familial bonds. They are not meant to live in swimming pools, with limited contact with others of their kind.
And what’s true for orcas is true for virtually all wild animals in captivity. They are bored and lonely, they are physically unwell: they fail to thrive and they die prematurely, all for our amusement. Some are carted around on trucks and trains to perform in circuses, others languish in roadside pens or zoological parks. I’m no longer amused.
As Jacques Cousteau famously said: “There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary confinement.”
NYC zoos are run by the nonprofit group Wildlife Conservation Society. The animals you see at the zoos are, more than likely, there because they were injured in the wild and would not be alive otherwise. WCS employs vets and research scientists who devote their lives to keeping these animals alive and happy.
Have you ever thought that the experience of viewing exotic animals in up close proximity could be educational for old and young alike?
You may have gotten your fill of seeing lions and rhinos in captivity and feel that their confinement is inhumane, but what about all those poor kids whose visits to the zoo on school field trips encounter for the first and possibly only time, these gorgeous creatures? Doesn’t experiencing the majesty and scale of zoo animals promote sympathetic conservation-minded animal lovers? Sure, conditions can and should be improved but zoos are still vital tools for disseminating fundamental information about all types of animals and environmental/habitat conservation.