Zoos: misery behind bars

By Delcianna Winders

Costa Rican officials recently announced that the country’s two zoos will shut their doors within the next year. Animals who can be returned to the jungles, forests and savannahs will know the joy of being where they belong. Those whose health or behavior has been too compromised by their years—or decades—in cramped cages will be placed in sanctuaries.

Around the world, governments are recognizing the fundamental injustice of keeping animals in captivity for our fleeting diversion. Recently, India banned captive-dolphin displays and El Salvador banned animal circuses. So why are the United States and Canada still so far behind when it comes to bringing animal-protection laws into the 21st century?

In zoos, aquariums and theme parks all over North America, tigers pace the length of their cages looking for relief that never comes. Birds are crammed into cages where they can barely spread their wings, much less fly. The few bears who aren’t forced to stand on concrete leave paw impressions in the dirt, where they step in the same spots over and over again. Elephants rock and sway like automatons with no “off” switch. Dolphins swim in endless circles.

The unmitigated monotony of captive animals’ existence goes far beyond mere boredom. Renowned oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau reported that he was forever changed after witnessing a captive dolphin commit suicide by ramming his head into a tank’s wall. Orcas in theme-park tanks break off their teeth by trying to chew through the metal bars that separate their pools. Caged chimpanzees chew their own fingers until they are raw and bleeding.

U.S. laws that govern captive animals are astonishingly minimal. Cage-size regulations, for example, require only that animals be given enough space to make “normal postural and social adjustments.” In practice, that means that a cage is “large” enough if an animal can stand up, lie down, turn, and move around a bit. A study conducted by researchers at Oxford University determined that the size of a typical zoo enclosure for polar bears is about one-millionth of the animals’ minimum home-range size.

In their rightful homes, elephants walk up to 30 miles a day. Lions and tigers control vast territories. Wildebeest migrate over the entire Serengeti Plain. Orcas and dolphins effortlessly explore the endless fathoms of the wide-open ocean.

Is it any wonder why some zoos have resorted to doping neurotic bears with anti-depressants to try to curb their anxiety? Or that zoos and aquariums keep a supply of antacids on hand because so many captive dolphins develop ulcers? According to a survey conducted by Franklin Park Zoo veterinarian Hayley Weston and Harvard professor Dr. Michael Mufson, at least 14 zoos have used drugs to control “undesirable” behaviors (read: upsetting to visitors) in captive gorillas.

We consider ourselves to be progressive and compassionate, but continuing to imprison intelligent social animals from birth to death simply for our own amusement is neither.

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