Years ago my older sister Natalie thought it would be a good idea to take a young relative to The Bronx Zoo. It’s the largest metropolitan zoo in the U.S. and among the largest in the world. We met up with our cousin’s then-fiancee, Kim, and took a very long bus ride from the edge of Queens, NY all the way up to The Bronx.
We had snacks and games but the little boy, who may be on the autism spectrum, got irritable on the long bus ride. When we finally arrived at the zoo of all zoos as promised we thought he would calm down. And he did. He was so calm he was bored.
We thought the lion exhibit would get him excited for sure. What little boy wouldn’t want to see a lion in real life? We waited with about 100 others for the lion to step out of “his cave”, but he never even poked his head out. The little boy didn’t even care for the monkey exhibit and those monkeys were lit. Nothing moved him.
With big, brown eyes he asked, “Why are we here?” The trip was a failure.
Kim, being the oldest, decided we should have lunch before leaving. As we quietly ate in the park’s eating section the little boy lifted his gaze from his sandwich, eyes all ablaze. He dropped his sandwich and leaped off the bench with excitement. We turned to see him rushing through a flock of pigeons eating scraps of discarded food about 12 feet away. They rose almost in unison and scattered all around him.
Then there was a squirrel the boy chased after. Then there were more pigeons. Then more pigeons. He was the happiest we had seen him all day, maybe even all year!
Natalie, Kim, and I were dumbfounded. We could’ve seen pigeons in Queens for free! Eventually, we figured after seeing animals from behind fences he was excited to see animals that were free.
Zoos are problematic for many reasons. Today I’ll focus on the one. Humans put certain animals on display in a zoo to appreciate. Other animals aren’t appreciated if we see them in cities every day. What animal is comfortable living in concrete and steel? We perceive nature as a place that’s out there somewhere. Somewhere that’s not a city. Real animals aren’t a nuisance to people where they live.
The little boy was right. Urban animals count too. These mental separations can have dire consequences for urban animals.
If we can’t appreciate the animals closest to us what makes us think we can appreciate the ones that are “out there”? What chance do conservation efforts for them stand, especially if they aren’t cute? Is this planet going to be solely populated by animals that are our pets, “out there somewhere”, or are cute?
As a species, can’t we do better than that?