Zoo Story

April 12th, 2010 by Charles Siebert

A writer considers the zoo today and wonders: are they better for the animals, or for us?

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The Responsibility Project

Just down the street from my Brooklyn, N.Y. apartment, there once lived a rhinoceros named Rudy. If you entered the Prospect Park Zoo through the side entrance, just behind the park’s still functioning, century-old wooden carousel, Rudy was your very first encounter, standing there on his small grassless patch of city the way rhinos everywhere and for millennia have stood: two black, pin-point eyes peering out of dirt-caked armor, the horned head drifting heavily an inch or so above the earth.

I first met Rudy back in the late 1950s, when my parents took me to the zoo as a kid from our little brick row house a few neighborhoods away. In truth, Rudy was never much of a draw — rhinos being, I suppose, entirely too unanimated to look at for very long. Yet I found Rudy that much more enticing: a stillness to aspire to; a breathing part of prehistory; sensate stone. Among my first orders of business upon moving into this neighborhood some 20 years ago was to run down the block and find Rudy right where I’d left him, the lone rhino blankly blinking amidst high-rise apartments and swirling city sounds.

Often in the course of my afternoon walks through Prospect Park I’d stop along the zoo’s barred perimeter and look directly into Rudy’s sunken, walled-in enclosure. I’d stand there, waving, making noises, trying to take the measure of his ken. I wondered if police sirens startled him, if he noticed the songs of the city’s starlings and sparrows in the surrounding trees, or if he ever swayed to the sound of the carousel’s slow, sad calliope. And then late one hot spring night, the entire neighborhood was stirred by the awful sounds of screaming and gunshots coming from the zoo grounds.

Two boys, the newspapers reported the following day, had climbed over the zoo’s outer perimeter fence and decided to take a swim in the polar bear’s moat. By the time the police arrived to the scene, they found the bears pawing at the limp body of one of the boys. Thinking that he might be still alive and that the other boy might be hiding somewhere else inside the enclosure, the police lifted their shotguns and killed the polar bears. A short time later, the news came that the zoo was closed for renovations. A sign posted out front noted that most of the large animals were being permanently relocated to other, more spacious, theme-park-type facilities around the country.

“And the rhinoceros?” I asked the woman who answered my phone call to the zoo’s administrative offices.

“You mean Rudy,” she said. “He’s leaving tomorrow for a better life in the suburbs of Michigan.”

In the area where Rudy once stolidly stood, a family of wallabies now hops about through wavy wands of savannah-like grasses. Behind them is a simulated hillside shot through with tunnels, large and small, so that kids can get up close and personal with a colony of prairie dogs. Farther along, past where the elephants and the hippos and the different bear enclosures used to be, one comes to heart of the old zoo. The grandly ornamented Beaux Arts Ape, and Lion, and Reptile Houses are still there, arranged in a circle around the central seal pool, but all the “Animal City’s” original inhabitants are long gone. Where once the big apes, cats, and snakes languished in the stinky equivalent of tiled subway bathrooms fashioned with little more than a token log or a vine swing for entertainment, I now find glassed-in dioramas, brightly lit and entirely odorless, featuring more easily contained creatures like spider monkeys and capuchins, iguanas, voles, and meerkats.

There was a certain innocence about the old-style zoos. It was as if we were so thrilled then just to have wrangled the animals here into our world that simply giving them room and board seemed enough to us. Now, however, we’ve come to know too much about the likes of Rudy and the others — both the increasing diminishment of their natural homes and the previously unimaginable complexity of their brains and social interactions — to responsibly keep them in such crude quarters any longer.

Indeed, a number of zoos and aquariums across the country have now decided to relinquish animals like elephants, chimpanzees, and whales. Numerous new studies show that these species share numerous brain structures with our own — and, like us, also suffer severe stress and psychological trauma from prolonged confinement and social isolation. Such trauma can cause these creatures to act out in erratic and often violent ways, as it can with humans. The examples have become all too numerous. Last year, Travis, a chimpanzee raised to live in a home in Stamford, Connecticut, brutally attacked and disfigured the neighbor of his longtime owner. A few years earlier, a former circus elephant named Winkie lashed at out and killed her handler at a Tennessee-based sanctuary for traumatized captive elephants. In increasing numbers, dolphins captured and confined for “Dolphin Assisted Therapy” programs at swank resorts are attacking and attempting to drown the very humans whose traumas those dolphins were originally “recruited” to help heal. In February, an orca named Tilly killed one of her trainers at San Diego’s Sea World.

As I stood the other day by the zoo’s seal pool — the seamless, body-long presses of the seals through water somehow countervailing their own confinement — I couldn’t help but question the continued keeping of any of the creatures there. Why discriminate against them just for appearing to be eminently more “keepable.” The essential premise of the old zoo was that the inhabitants were the representatives of an extant and still thriving wilderness, unwitting emissaries brought here to grant us a deeper regard and respect for their true home. That notion was always a specious one; it seems ever more so today, when the zoo animals’ actual homes essentially have become fenced-off nature dioramas: outsized versions of the very sorts of suburban-wilderness theme parks to which the likes of Rudy were long ago dispatched.

Some years ago, I was offered a private tour of the then nearly finished indoor tropical rainforest facility at the Bronx Zoo. My guide, Alan Rabinowitz of the New York Zoological Society, a long-time field biologist who’d spent most of his career in the jungles of Belize working to save some of the planet’s last remaining jaguars, led me past a series of noiseless, climate-controlled dioramas, wistfully pointing out the exhibit’s painstakingly exact replications of the jaguar’s natural home, right down to the hoary vines and carefully painted lichen on the papier-mâché rocks. Just outside the facility’s exit, a digital counter displayed the world’s rapidly disappearing acreage of rainforest.

“Our hope,” a clearly ambivalent Rabinowitz said as we watched the numbers dwindle, “is that facilities like this one will make people work to save the actual place.” He paused a moment and then sighed. “Or perhaps it will just keep them coming back here.”

We have reached a truly a topsy-turvy juncture in the long tumultuous history of our relations with the wild. Once, we needed to bring the animals into our civil environs to remind us of the wilderness we’d walled ourselves off from. Now, however, we have so successfully encroached on and dominated that wilderness that we must plant its remaining inhabitants in our midst, fenced off from us. When the wild becomes the theme park, why have zoos at all?

Charles Siebert is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and is the author most recently “The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals.”