"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The End Of Zoos As We Know Them–Not Soon Enough For Me

The first, most telling, and lasting memory I have of zoos is the stench – ape stench, tiger piss, and piles of steaming elephant dung. The outside pens were tolerable but uninteresting.  What could be less interesting than a lone polar bear sleeping on the side of a chilled pool? My friends and I always thought that zookeepers deliberately kept male and female apart because of propriety. It was bad enough for children to have to see mammoth  elephant penises and lion balls; but there was no way that they were about to allow mounting and copulation. 

Of course for us mounting and copulation were the only reasons to go to the zoo.  Jimmy Fallon said he once saw two gorillas doing it at the Bronx Zoo.  The male had the female pinned up against the cage.  He grabbed the bars for purchase, and rammed Mr. Johnson home right in front of Jimmy and his fifth grade class from the Vance School. “A mistake”, said Herman Tuttle, the chaperone, who complained to the authorities who explained in turn that the zookeeper was new, retarded, and part of a program of outreach to the disabled community.

Nevertheless, we all figured that if it happened once, it could happen again; but in response to the New York Daily News front page photograph and graphic headline (KING KONG GOES APE S—T), the Hartford Zoo had instituted strict protocols to ensure strict segregation of the sexes, and we were out of luck.

My parents took me to the National Zoo in Washington which was not a whole lot better.  Rank animal cages, sleeping animals in outside pens, idle elephants, and tigers hidden in the camouflage.  The only interesting place was the aviary– a huge indoor bird house with all kinds of species which darted and squabbled, flitted and perched and made a screeching ruckus. The birds looked like they were having fun, although as my father explained, the aviary was only Darwinism in a closed space.  “They’re not having any fun”, he said.  “They’re fighting for survival.”

After that I found the aviary even more interesting - thousands of birds defending their perches, attacking intruders, and protecting foraged food according to the Law of the Jungle even though they were only finches and swallows, it was far better than watching inert bears, lions, and seals.

My final visit to a zoo was in college when over Spring Break I visited a friend who lived in a city which boasted of its new, modern, and humane zoo.  He was aware of my feelings about zoos, but he insisted that this would be an entirely different and satisfying experience.  “It’s like looking at animals in the wild”.

The zoo had indeed removed most tight enclosures and narrow, inhibiting cages and replaced them with what the zoo called ‘extensive husbandry’ – letting the animals roam as naturally as possible within the setting of the institution.  The problem was no matter how the curators tried, they could never replicate the veldt, jungle, or plains of the animals’ natural habitat; and all that they accomplished with all the moats, verges, copses, and trees was a Disneyland version of the animal kingdom.  No fun for the animals, and certainly no fun for visitors who could barely get a glimpse of the animals which by nature are reclusive.

Modern technology is changing all that.  Miniature cameras can now be hooked up to animals in the wild, birds of prey, field mice, voles, and copperheads.  The color and resolution are state of the art, and filmmakers have begun to produce documentaries which provide the viewer with a more correct and intimate version of life in the wild than any zoo ever could. 

Once virtual reality progresses even more, complete 3D, fully animated experiences of the Serengeti, Antarctic rookeries, or Great Whites will be possible. There will be no need for zoos or any real experience for that matter, since the virtual world will be far more intense and satisfying.

Chelsea Wald, writing in The Atlantic (11.26.14) notes:

Waldrappteam (Austria) app users don't even need to visit the animals in person; they can see photos and read about the individual animals' personalities right there on the screen. (They can also submit their own photos and observations, which is what the institute is really hoping for with this project.) The head of the Waldrappteam, conservationist Johannes Fritz, told me that he thinks of the award-winning Animal Tracker app, developed by the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology, as the start of a new kind of [virtual] zoo in which people can get to know animals in their own element.

This advance is good for everyone.  Consumers can get a more intimate glimpse into the lives of their favorite animals than ever before.  Enhanced virtual reality programs, produced with live footage from animal mini-cams will more ‘real’ than the real thing.  Moreover, thanks to interactive technologies, the experience will be dynamic.  Information about each animal can be called up by verbal commands; and the viewer will be able to direct the program to show the animal in a different context – eating, running, killing, sleeping, etc.

No zoos means no more captivity for animals.  As expansive and humane as the San Diego Zoo is, it is still a prison for animals who go mad there.  As Joseph Wallace-Wells noted in New York Magazine noted last year:

A giraffe who freaks out about men with large cameras, a brown bear whose cage door is the subject of his obsessive compulsive disorder, a 5,000-pound killer whale who shows her trainer who is boss by dragging him underwater for just about as long as he can live, before letting him go—these episodes seem like something more complicated than simple errors of confinement. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in some way the animals understand that the world around them is an artificial one, that these phobias and psychotic episodes represent reactions to that artifice, or subversions of it.

No zoos means no captivity and no animal schizophrenia.

Although most former zoo-goers will opt for the virtual experience because of the immediacy, interactivity, and responsiveness of high-tech programs, others may choose to visit the game parks in Africa.  “There is nothing like the real thing”, said a friend of mine who had dismissed virtual reality for decades but who had been surprised at its progress and currency.  He has always insisted that people will always want to stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon and take in its majesty.  “There is no way that the computer can recreate that”, he said. 

Of course there is, and it is only a matter of time.

There will always be romantics like my friend who talk about the ineffable and the spiritual experience of being with animals in the wild. “Sentient beings of different species together”, he said.  His adjectives were all superlatives – majestic, Biblical, enlightening – and nothing but the flesh and blood zebras and wildebeests of the Tanzanian plains would ever do.

On a recent trip to Madagascar I was invited by colleagues to visit the lemur game park.  A lemur is a cross between a monkey and a raccoon and to me never anything special.  Ever since my years in India, I have kept my distance from monkeys who climbed the walls of every Hindu temple; and cadged, pestered, and bit visitors.  Raccoons in DC have always been rabid, and I do my bit by scattering poison pellets in the trashcans.

American expatriates could never get enough of the lemurs, however.  They were more than animals or even icons and symbols of Madagascar.  They justified the always difficult and often unpleasant expatriate experience.  I was badgered, hectored, and cajoled. 

It will take many decades before we all have finally put animals in the wild behind us.  The African game parks will be closed and animals finally hunted by poor Tanzanians for food.  Zoos will close, the Grand Canyon will go back to its natural cycles of erosion and constant change; but for anyone who is interested, the electronic virtual archive will be unmatched.

“So finally we will be able to watch animals copulate after all”, said Jimmy Fallon the other day when I told him about the coming demise of zoos. 

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