By Pam Linn

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A changing ethic for zoos

For many years I was a fan and supporter of zoos that afford us an opportunity to see animals we would probably never encounter otherwise. But to call these animals wild, when they are viewed behind fences and in cages, is a stretch. They are mostly unwilling captives.

Ethically preferable are the wildlife rescue organizations that retrieve injured animals and birds from roads and beaches, always with the intent of returning them to the wild. With this in mind, those who repair the broken wings and treat the wounds take care not to habituate their charges to human contact. Still, a few no longer able to survive in the wild are kept as ambassadors, partly to raise money for the organizations that rescued them and partly to educate children, hikers and hunters to appreciate wildlife and to protect their habitat.

Having seen zoos in almost every city I’ve visited, my appreciation for them has waned. A few experiences are burned in my memory. When the Los Angeles Zoo first opened in Griffith Park, I went, hoping it would be different. And to some extent it was. The path surrounding an African exhibit was graded so I found myself eye-to-eye with an adult giraffe separated only by a moat. We gazed at each other quietly. She seemed to be telling me something. Maybe longing for an earlier life on the Serengeti where her legs extended in a full run and neck stretched up to reach tender leaves, or down to nuzzle her baby.

On the same day, I watched two tigers pacing back and forth through an artificial waterway, in some territorial dance, neither crossing an invisible divide midstream. An older tiger watched from a grassy island on the far side. It was a slow day at the zoo, and I watched in silence for a long time. This, I thought, was about as close as a captive tiger gets to life in the wild. Later I followed a paved path to another exhibit that shocked me. In a glass cage, another tiger paced endlessly, four steps left, dropping its head to turn, four steps right, turning back. After a long time, it paused, stared at me, so close I could see the flecks in its amber eyes, the look of futility, the spiky whiskers brushing the glass as it turned to resume pacing.

At the elephant enclosure, I sensed a deeper frustration. A lone female stood before sliding barn doors, weaving her trunk and shifting her weight from one huge foot to the other. She refused to look at the people who peered at her through chain link, presenting instead her wrinkled rump and scuffed legs. Is it abuse to stare at animals that don’t want to be looked at? I felt sadness so deep, it’s with me still.

I’ve loved elephants since childhood, for reasons no one in my family ever understood. Babar was my favorite animal character and I followed his travels in my favorite books. My first artistic endeavor at Miss Buckley’s School was a clay sculpture of an elephant standing on its hind legs hitting a baseball, or so I imagined. But when I had the opportunity to ride one, a reluctant participant of a traveling circus at the Indio horse show, I declined. Instead, I watched her for two weeks, at every opportunity, waiting patiently as children climbed aboard then carrying her giggling charges slowly around the circle driveway. She seemed so sweet and kind but she must have been bored witless.

So I rejoiced when I read that Ruby, the L.A. Zoo’s aging female, was at last being hauled to a refuge in northern California. And following the trend in this country to give up the use of elephants in circuses and zoos, Alaska has given up its last remaining elephant, shipping her to the same refuge. With any luck, Mabel will spend her remaining years there. I hope she and Ruby will be friends.

The November issue of The Sun excerpts a book by Derrick Jensen in collaboration with photographer Karen Tweedy-Holmes, “Thought to Exist in the Wild: Awakening from the Nightmare of Zoos.”

In prose far more poetic than anything I could write, Jensen describes the lives of captive bears, primates, giraffes and pandas. Some were born in captivity and know nothing else. In a generation or two, these once wild creatures may have little left of their wild instincts, at least not enough to survive without the security of fences and the food that arrives twice daily without effort or risk on their part.

Jensen recounts a story of a Native American spiritual leader who was in a circle with several environmentalists who were drumming and singing. One prayed, “Please save the spotted owl, the river otter, the peregrine falcon.” The Native American got up and whispered, “What are you doing, friend? Don’t pray for the animals. Pray to the animals.” He added, “You’re so arrogant. You think you’re bigger than they are. Right? Don’t pray for the redwood. Pray that you can become as courageous as a redwood. Ask the redwood what it wants.”

Perhaps we’re ready to ask the elephant and the tiger what they want.