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Zoos are the opposite of educational: they construct fictions about their captives

By: Martha Gill

Every afternoon at London Zoo until the early 1970s a table laid with cups, saucers and a teapot would be set out for the chimpanzees. An amusing set piece was anticipated: chimps throwing crockery at each other and jumping on chairs. But there was an early complication.

Chimpanzees are exceptionally good at mastering tools. They quickly learned to use the pot correctly and would sit politely at the table, taking afternoon tea.

“When the public tea parties began to threaten the human ego, something had to be done,” Frans de Waal writes in Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?. “The apes were retrained to spill the tea, throw food around, drink from the teapot’s spout.” Being fast learners, they excelled at this, too – establishing a routine with comic flair, popping the cups in the teapot when the keeper’s back was turned. The ruse worked. Contemporary newspapers reported the animals behaving with their “usual unselfconscious abandon”.

The chimps had done something unnerving in those early days. Their display of competence challenged not only the egos of their audience but the very premise of the zoo itself. If animals were capable of sense or even sensibility, this collection of cages and cells might start to look a little sinister. Less like innocent entertainment, perhaps, and more like a sadistic sort of prison. It was in the interest of zoos to teach customers the opposite lesson. The zoo became a place of fiction, a sort of anti-educator. It couldn’t quite tell the truth about the animals it housed.

It is strange that these days zoos like to think of themselves as educators: this is often a mission statement, a primary defence. Last week, an appeal by Joanna Lumley to free the UK’s 50 captive elephants – they are being physically and psychologically damaged, it claimed – was rejected by the CEO of Chester Zoo. Lumley’s claims, he said, were “outdated”. Modern zoos were enlightened places, a “million miles away” from how they were half a century ago, and crucial to conservation.

"Once you know that behind bars languish intelligent, sensitive creatures, zoos become the sort of day trip only a sociopath would enjoy"

Is he right? We should perhaps start by pointing out what he does not say: that elephants do suffer in zoos. For it is hard to avoid the fact that these places still make animals miserable, particularly large and intelligent ones. Elephants, big cats and primates plainly do not enjoy captivity.

Even airy modern enclosures decorated with grassy slopes and pretty vines cannot hope to replicate the infinite richness of life in natural surroundings. Animals pace, rock and scratch themselves, and often die young. A surprising number of zoo animals are on psychoactive drugs. In 2000, a survey of North American zoos found that almost half were giving their gorillas Valium to help them cope with their lives of sterile monotony.

Any defence of modern zoos, therefore – like Chester’s outraged statement last week – tends to contain a sort of unstated bargain. Yes, our inmates may be miserable, zoos don’t quite say, but their sad sanitised lives serve a higher cause: grand conservation projects and the education of the public. At the price of one caged elephant, we can save many more in the wild, and meanwhile nurture generations of animal lovers, who might one day become conservationists themselves. But, for this, people first need to see animals in the flesh. Like capricious ancient gods, before we will show mercy and kindness, humans require a sacrifice or two.

But even this barbaric bargain doesn’t quite add up. Zoos are expensive to run; they do not generate huge surpluses of cash for good deeds. The Born Free Foundation says that, of the UK’s biggest charitable zoos, just 4.2% of profits go to field conservation. And even zoos that claim to donate larger amounts fail to explain why it is necessary to keep some animals in cages in order to save others. (Captive breeding for release into the wild seldom works, especially when done thousands of miles from natural habitats.) Zoos are, after all, the offspring of menageries, collections of exotic animals kept by the powerful. There is no historical, or logical, link to conservation. And it is in their claims to be educators that zoos really fall short. For a century of animal research trends in a single direction: that we have vastly overestimated our own specialness among the creatures with whom we share the planet.

Cooperation, theory of mind, tool use, planning, perceptions of time, grief, fear, empathy, friendship – the range of species in which these “uniquely human” capacities are discovered has grown wider and wider.

But zoos are obliged to teach the opposite lesson. Once you know that behind bars languish intelligent, sensitive creatures, zoos become the sort of day trip only a sociopath would enjoy. So instead, as you pass through the gates, there has to be a process of unknowing these facts.

The zoo must help visitors construct protective fictions – that these pacing, twitching animals are perfectly happy, or behaving just as they would in the wild, or so unobservant that the painted jungle behind them serves as a substitute for the real thing. Within these essentially Victorian constructions, then, attitudes inevitably bend towards Victorian ideas: that animals are basically automatons, a collection of reflexes, unable to really feel anything at all.

And will zoos inspire people to become conservationists? Unlikely. After all, conservation is rooted in the philosophy that we do not have a natural dominion over other species, or the right to use them as we will. But zoos are founded on the opposing principle – that of humans as consumers, animals to be consumed.

“Adults take children to the zoo to show them the originals of their [soft toy] reproductions,” wrote John Berger. It is where they go to learn that animals are not fellow creatures but things.

 Martha Gill is an Observer columnist




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