Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Morality of the Zoo and a Brief Discourse on Cruelty and Captivity

I've been watching the outrage that came in the aftermath of the child leaping/falling into the gorilla pen, which led to the gorilla's death.  I've seen all sorts of calls for punishment for the mother, as well as an interesting discussion, in many places, about the morality of zoos.

Should we have zoos?  Should we abolish zoos in favor of wildlife preserves?  Is a preserve just another type of zoo?

If a species will die out without human intervention, should humans allow extinction?  I do realize that with many species, we do just that.  And many species go extinct before we even realize they're in danger.  We are in the time of the Holocene Extinction, the 6th great die out (that we know of) on this planet.

It's an interesting discussion, one which leads me back to God.  Just as humans wrestle with the question of whether or not to intervene in extinction, and if so, what should the action be--does God have the same wrestling?  If we believe in a God of free will, is it even conceivable that God would intervene?

If we didn't have zoos, if we couldn't see these creatures live and up close, would we care at all?  The answer probably differs according to the human.

Yesterday, a colleague showed me a picture of a small dog that had a tiara on its head and some sort of clothing.  She asked, "Is this animal cruelty?"

I said no, but then I clarified, "Of course, I'm not going to see animal cruelty in a picture unless there's some part of the animal that's bleeding."

Do we see the same dynamic in the zoo?  I don't see it as cruel to keep animals in modern zoos, where efforts have been made to create a habitat close to the one they would inhabit in the wild, where they get food, where there are places for animal privacy, should the animal want it.

And the whole idea that animals are better in the wild is a false one too.  Many of these zoo animals would be in great danger from predators--and worse, from hunters and poachers.  So it's hard for me to see the zoo as a form of animal cruelty.

Still, I am uncomfortable with this kind of animal captivity for our viewing entertainment.  I think of that case in Yellowstone National Park, where the tourists took a bison calf to a ranger because they thought it was cold.  They put a wild animal in their car--what on earth made them think that would be O.K.?

I'm not sure I'd blame zoos, so much as I might blame Disney movies.  Or maybe as a species, we tend to anthropomorphize every creature--even God.  We assume that all creatures are just like us.

You might argue that God has called us to care for creation, and I would agree with you.  The nature of that care is where we might all differ--and I have no easy answers.

I am glad to see so many people wrestling with the ethical questions of what it means to be good stewards--even as I shudder at the vitriol aimed at that poor mother at the zoo.

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