A number of people have asked me to write something about the absolutely horrific tragedy that occurred at the Pittsburgh Zoo when a two-year old boy was killed by a pack of African wild dogs (also called painted dogs). I was going to write something the day it happened, but after reading the account through teary eyes I simply couldn't sit down and write anything at all.
Now, a few days later with a clearer perspective, I'm glad to respond to these requests with a short piece about this tragedy in particular and zoos in general. A number of people have blamed the mother for apparently holding him up so that he could get a better view of the dogs. I honestly don't see any reason to blame Maddox Derkosh's mother. She did what countless parents and adults do when they go to a zoo. It's easily understandable that they want their children to have the best experience they can have.
Playing the blaming game is unproductive
An interesting essay I just read called "'Well-mannered predators'" and other speciesist notions about animal captivity" by Kathleen Stachowski raises a number of questions about zoos, people's attitudes toward animals in zoos, and what people think about whether or not the wild dogs should be killed for what they did. She points out that these tragedies are "human tragedies - and needless ones but for our speciesist insistence on keep wild beings for our own pleasure and profit." She goes on to write: "It’s almost impossible to contemplate the two year old child who fell into the African wild dog exhibit at the Pittsburg zoo. This horrendous incident has prompted all sorts of online chatter–everything from mommy/baby forums ('Poll question: Do you think the African painted dogs should be put down?') to gun owner forums ('If you’re carrying, open carry or concealed carry, in a zoo…and you see something like this happening…do you draw and fire at the animals to stop the attack?'). Argh. One article alone generated 660+ comments. There’s compassion for the mother as well as condemnation that goes beyond cruel. There’s bravado, there’s anguish. Would-be wildlife experts abound. The dogs have many defenders, as does the zoo. 'Sue the zoo,' others advise. And so it goes". (For more on speciesism please click here.)
In the poll about whether or not the dogs should be killed, as of now 90% of the respondents say "No". I agree. There is nothing to be gained by killing the dogs. What's interesting is that the question asks if the dogs should be euthanized, but this is not euthanasia because euthanasia is mercy killing, or a "good death", when individuals need to be relieved of interminable pain. This killing would actually be an example of what I call "zoothanasia" and must not be confused with euthanasia.
Nothing is to be gained by blaming the dogs who are condemned to captivity and killing them. This zoo and other zoos have to take more precautions if they choose to house natural born predators. And, one can easily argue that these and other animals simply do not belong in zoos.
Christine Dell'Amore, writing for National Geographic Daily News wonders Why Did African Wild Dogs Attack Boy? The answer really is pretty simple. The dogs were doing what they've evolved to do, and they shouldn't be blamed for what they did after Maddox Derkosh fell into their home. These captive dogs are still wild animals and "you can't take the wild out of the animal." (The same is true for exotic pets; they are still wild animals even if they're living in the cushy confines of someone's home.) And, it's interesting that experts do not think this was a predatory attack. It's also not known if Maddox died due to the fall or due to the attack.
What are zoos good for?
The real question at hand once again is why zoos exist and what they do, if anything, for the animals who find themselves living in totally unnatural spaces. While people take sides on the value of zoos it remains a fact that in the long term, they do little, if anything, for educating the public about their residents or for the conservation of the residents' wild relatives (see also). The animals are what can be called "faux animals", or fabricated animals, and they are not at all representative of their wild relatives. Sure, we hear stories from people how going to the zoo changed their opinion about animals, but very few go on to have careers in related fields or make meaningful financial contributions to conservation efforts. If zoos are to have a meaningful or significant impact numerous more people have to "walk their talk".
Going to zoos is not part of the process of rewilding our hearts. Be that as it may, zoos are here to stay at least for a while and all of their residents must be given the very best lives possible, and if that means removing them from public display and placing them in sanctuaries where they can live out their lives safely and in peace and dignity, so be it.
And while the debate goes on, please light candles for Maddox Derkosh.