Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Image meets reality at Henry Vilas Zoo

The sign shows an image of the proud King of Beasts. The real lion looks old and tired and a bit sad, although happy just to catch a bit of sun in his small fenced-in area. Does he really need to be there?

I know the large zoos with lots of acreage play an important role in species preservation -- and they have room to let the animals roam a bit. But I hope that smaller zoos like Madison's eventually are able to relinquish the role of exhibiting big cats and other large wild animals. The facilities of the Henry Vilas Zoo have improved impressively over the years, and the zoo's dedicated staff does the best they can. But little kids would be just as happy if the cats were replaced by farm animals and an expanded petting zoo. The rest of us, or at least many of us, could breathe a sigh of relief.

Bringing back exotic living trophies from the far corners of the world for display in zoos began on a large scale during the colonial era. Once upon a time, before films and television existed, the practice could be defended as educational. Today, a National Geographic special is far more educational than a trip to the zoo. Let's start thinking outside the box in regard to the role of smaller zoos. And, in the case of the free-ranging larger species who need room to live their lives, it wouldn't hurt to get rid of the confining box altogether.


Anonymous said...

Hi there! I came here via your link on Flickr, and I have to say I agree with the sentiments that you've shared here. It is so much easier to be educated about the world these days, that it would be hard to use education as a reason to keep a "Noah's Ark" of creatures in every single zoo. It is heart-wrenching to see majestic animals reduced to tourist attractions.

Doug (Flickr: dougbut)

Dr Diablo said...

I wouldn't say you're thinking outside the cage here, MadGuy; the notion of zoo animals Born Free but living miserably in shackles is in fact the standard cliche. I cannot join you in deploring Simba's captivity.

I won't insinuate what the shrinks call "projection" here, but the lion seems to be sunning himself contentedly, displaying no obvious dysphoria.

Old and tired Simbq may be, in which case he wouldn't last a week in the wild. Now you could argue that a life of confinement is not worth living. However, boomers, members of history's most affluent and pampered generation, too readily conclude that a life not lived under optimal conditions is meaningless. In reality, plenty of people and animals live meaningful lives without having every amenity.

Simba might appreciate more space. Felines sit around a lot, though, and he is not likely dreaming of climbing Kilimanjaro like Hemingway's leopard. Simba gets three squares a day, climate control, and medical care, and is in some ways, he is a lucky beast. People romanticize the wild life, but it is often a very tough way to make a living.

Furthermore, since 90% of zoo animals were born in captivity--including virtually all lions--Simba is not dreaming of Africa. It is important to his species that some lions live and reproduce in capivity. It will allow re-introduction some day if his wild brethren become too few in number.

If you really think a video can substitute for an encounter with the living thing, why go to Olbricht Botanical Gardens? Just pop open a beer and pop in the video "Olbricht: The Sofa Tour." I'm sure they have something like that in their gift shop. The answer, of course, is that a video, however educational, is a very poverty-stricken sensory experience. An encounter with real-life flora and fauna is not merely "educational" but aesthetic and emotional. People's increasing willingness to settle for videos is destroying the culture.

A properly run small zoo benefits its animal residents as well as the public. Its accomodations are in many ways an analog to the luxury condo developments you'r always photographing. The lion lives better than millions of people, which is where I tend to direct my ire.

Madison Guy said...

Dr. Diablo, I know life for lions in the wild is no picnic (I learned that on TV). I know this guy has never known the wild, and I'm not saying he has a terrible life. Perhaps I am projecting that hint of sadness. But he's not a house cat, and he's not living the life that millions of years of evolution prepared him for. He may be in a country club prison, but he's in a prison nevertheless.

Although zoos provide food and shelter, I've never heard anyone suggest we put homeless people in them to better their lives. What gives us the right to treat animals any differently? Why do we feel the need to use animals this way and demonstrate to our children that other species exist primarily for our own pleasure and entertainment?

I'm not advocating we shut down zoos. I just want them to keep evolving in the direction they're already headed. I'd like to see zoos outgrow the need to display species for which they cannot provide a real, functional equivalent of their natural habitat. Is that so unreasonable a wish?

Anonymous said...

Well, seems you have you mind set that greater space equals greater experience. Tell me... what do you do for a vocation? Do you sit behind a computer in a cubicle all day doing work at the behest of others, wishing you were somewhere else? Perhaps in the farm country surroundng Madison where work occurs at seemingly a more leisurely pace? I can tell you that I, out in the farm country beyond Madison, sit at a computer too, much of the day, to make ends meet. Others around me are farmers, tilling the soil, planting the seeds, worrying about whether the crops will grow or get flooded.... life is not always as it seems.

You comment that "Simba is not a housecat" well... in size, you're correct, and in mentality you're correct also. I can speak about this with accuracy as I am an animal trainer by hobby and on occasion by trade. Big cats are much more like big dogs than like housecats. They don't do a durn thing more than they feel like. They move when it's socially necessary (mating or defense of territory), "economically" necessary (as in hunting for food) or emotionally necessary (like playing and or other similar activities like greeting people or animals familiar to them).

You state you wish the Vilas park to provide a "functional environment"... do you realize what that entails? That would mean underfeeding him so he'd have to "capture" some of his food. Admittedly that hidden food is used as enrichment for some species, but for big cats that turns into trouble in a hurry, cuz if they feel sated, they're not going to look for food. What do you get? rotting meat. Bad stuff for the public to see and smell. Would it mean a larger enclosure? Sure, he'd wander around more, but that would also prevent the keepers from noticing any major changes in his physique or behavior patterns. It's easier to watch kids on a 100x100 foot playground than on 40 acres of land. Same diff here. So his medical care would suffer.

You're also making the great leap that big cats shouldn't/can't be kept as pets and interact with humans on a much closer basis. This, indeed, has been done (even as far back as the Pharoahs of Egypt), can (circus cats, Sigfried and Roy, etc), and continues to be done. Do the cats dream of doing more? No, just like most dogs don't dream of doing more. It seems only humanity as a species is mentally compelled to try for "bigger, better, more". Simba's concerns are much more simplistic. The bug that's flying around his ear, the satisfaction of a full tummy. The warm sun or cool floor.... these kinds of concepts are what are prevalent in his mind. Not even the fact of having a roof and four walls enters into his thought process, just the vague concept of "shelter" may crop up now and again.

It has developed that more and more of society seems to have distanced themselves from what "nature" truly is, and how truly harsh it can be. I'm not saying that you are completely separated from that understanding, but.... most people don't truly "get it" as they don't grasp the concept of contentment in their quest for "more bigger better". More is not always better. "Better" isn't always better, as usually it turns out unlike how one dreams it should be.

Perhaps you should take a lesson from Simba and just enjoy a day of daydreaming, have a full tummy, and take a snooze in the sun. And if you ever have the chance, take the opportunity to snuggle up to a big cat like him and realize that life can be good if you just accept it for what it is.... a brief moment in the sun, with hopefully many generations being able to walk the very paths you tread.

Tim Fuller
President, National Exotic Owners and Pet Owners Association