Beastly zoos

A bank holiday guilt-trip to London Zoo.

Ray Crowley

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Topics Politics

Did you know that bank holiday Monday 21 April was National Zoo Awareness Day? (1) Neither did I, until I was accosted walking into London Zoo, by a small and rather obnoxious child with a megaphone.

Zoo Awareness Day, it seems, is not a day dedicated to informing people about zoos’ conservation efforts, but rather a day for telling the public why zoos should be boycotted. ‘How would you like to live in a cage?’, the child screamed into my boyfriend’s ear. She obviously hadn’t seen our flat.

The aim of our trip to the zoo was to do something we wouldn’t usually do with the bank holiday. We agreed beforehand not to get annoyed by any of the environmentalist propaganda, and to ignore any notices about conservation or endangered species. We just went to look at cute animals – why else would you go to a zoo?

National Zoo Awareness Day is organised by the Captive Animals Protection Society (CAPS), whose aim is to expose zoos as places of immoral entertainment. I can’t say there were many people campaigning outside the zoo, while the queues to get in were pretty long. There were about 10 people handing out ‘sad eyes and empty lives’ leaflets, as we stomped past and stood in the queue, keeping calm.

Just as we’d paid and were about to go in, someone yelled through the megaphone: ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourselves – these animals didn’t give their permission to be here!’ I guess you know you’re meant to be with someone when you both explode at the same time with the same comment: ‘That’s because they can’t talk!’

Of course, we were being naive. You can’t just go to the zoo to look at cute animals anymore. Every piece of written information tells you not only what species you are looking at, but how close to extinction it is, and why. In just about all cases, it’s the fault of humans, through hunting, habitat destruction, etc.

The first animal we saw was this big, strange, pig-type thing with a long snout. I can’t tell you what type of pig thing it was, because my boyfriend warned me off reading the placard, which explained how these pigs are endangered since Africans hunt them for meat. Having been to parts of Africa where poverty is rife, and where food quite rightly wins over animal protection in the priority stakes, reading any more would have caused me to stick my ice cream somewhere unpleasant.

The funniest placards were the ones that sheepishly said: ‘As yet, this species is not under threat.’ Sadly, we couldn’t avoid the cage you’re supposed to stand in to have your photo taken, under a sign that reads: ‘The earth’s most destructive species.’ We thought going to see the insects might be a safe bet, until we realised that the signs pointing to ‘BUGS’ actually stood for an exhibit called ‘Biodiversity Underpinning Global Survival’.

I couldn’t decide which was worse – the anti-human spin inside the zoo, or the indignant crusties by the gates.

London Zoo is embarrassingly apologetic about the fact that it is a zoo. There aren’t many big animals there anymore – no rhinos, no elephants. There is a large area which is home to bears, which we passed during a ‘keeper talk’. The poor zoo keeper used the majority of her speech to reassure the public that a bear’s ‘rocking’ behaviour had been picked up at a previous home, that the bear was gradually cutting down, and that they were doing all sorts of things to keep her entertained and not rocking: ‘Look, there are ropes, logs, places to play. We hide their food under logs.’ It reminded me of an NHS smoking cessation clinic.

CAPS describes London Zoo’s claims to be protecting endangered species as the ‘con in conservation’, an excuse to keep animals in cages. To be honest, I’m not very interested in the zoo’s sincerity or conservation efforts. For me, the visit was a more exotic alternative to seeing a sweet hamster in a pet-shop window and stopping to look. You don’t need an ‘excuse’ to keep animals in cages, in my book. That people want to look at them is reason enough.

You should be able go to a zoo to look at animals, just because animals are beautiful, amazing, cute, weird, or plain funny. I quite liked the chimp that sometimes spits and throws pooh at people – although I’m sure the CAPS people outside would say it’s a sure sign of the animal’s psychological distress at being in captivity.

Most people wouldn’t go out of their way to be cruel to animals. I don’t know of any pet shops that have sold out of mice because people keep buying them to see what will happen if they’re microwaved. But is there really anything wrong with keeping them in cages, eating them, or wearing them?

Until I am shown Copernicus the capybara, Descartes the dolphin, Einstein the echidna, or Mozart mouse, there is no case to be made for animals having the same right to freedom as we do. Even London Zoo’s dextrous chimps couldn’t build a cage, let alone decide whether to live in it or not.

It’s ridiculous to boycott London Zoo because there are animals there in cages, but I would warn against anyone going who might get annoyed reading about how humans stink, and are destroying the planet and all its creatures. This message is especially annoying after hours spent watching monkeys chase each other pointlessly, and gorillas moving straw around. Could these creatures have done a better job with the planet than us?

(1) See the National Zoo Awareness Day section of the Captive Animals Protection Society website

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Topics Politics

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