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Peter H. Kahn, Jr.
Peter H Kahn Jr., Ph.D.

Please Don't Visit Zoos!

Zoos reify the human drive to dominate the Other.

Zoos reify the human drive to dominate the Other. Shame on zoos and shame on us for finding them pleasant. Would we similarly take a Sunday outing to San Quentin? Ooh, look at that black person over there honey, in that cage, isn't he cute. Hey dad, look at that big white guy with the busted tooth pulling the hair on the small guy, that's so cool. Hey mom, that guy in that corner cage hasn't moved since we were here this morning. Do you think he's sad? Oh no, honey, that's the same behavior as in their natural habitat. But mom how about that other big man that has been stomping his foot in place for the last 2 hours, is that normal for them, too? Whoa now, would you look at that, a guy with his pants down forcing....

Zoos exist somewhere between a crack house and a prison block. Go to have a good time and go at your own peril.

I wrote those words in a recent article, titled Cohabiting with the Wild (Ecopsychology, Vol. 1, 2009). They are harsh words. But I cannot fathom how we so easily accept zoos in our lives.

Some of my best friends have worked in zoos. One is Carol Saunders who had been the Director of Conservation Psychology at Brookfield Zoo outside of Chicago. She wanted children to develop into caring individuals - to be able to care for themselves, other people, individual animals, species, and the larger natural world. She also thought that an ethic of care should extend beyond the large charismatic megavertebrates or the warm and cuddly, to all animals. With the psychologist Gene Myers, and others, we conducted a psychological study at Brookfield Zoo on children's conceptions of bats.

Why bats? Well, we thought, let's focus on children's conceptions of an animal that was neither large nor cuddly. One of the exhibits at Brookfield Zoo is the "Australia House": a darkened, cave-like enclosure, about 80 feet long, that people enter and walk through. The exhibit houses Rodrigues fruit bats. A notable feature of this exhibit is that there is no barrier between the exhibit animals and the public. Thus, as people walk through the exhibit, they not only look at and hear the bats, but experience their immediate proximity. We planned to interview individually 120 children, from ages 6 through 17, after they exited the exhibit, on whether they cared about bats and why, and what they meant by the idea of care. But then things got dicey. I said to Carol, let's not make the mistake that other psychologists have made by driving a wedge between caring and justice, but recognize they're closely linked in development. So, let's include some questions that focused on this broader moral sphere. Carol asked whether I had some questions in mind. I said, how about the following: "Do you think it is all right or not all right to keep bats in a zoo? Why? Do you think bats have rights? Why? Which ones? Do bats have the right not to be killed by humans? Why? Do bats have the right to be wild? Why? Do bats have the right to live free? Why? Does the zoo violate the rights of bats by keeping them in the Australia House? Why? [If ‘no' to this question, and ‘yes' to the previous question: ‘Just a minute ago you said that bat's have the right to live free, and now you say that it's all right for zoos to violate that right. Can you help me understand what you are thinking about?'] Would it be better for the bats if zoos didn't keep them at all?"

Then, to make matters worse, I said how about we also include the following question: "One child I talked with said that he was concerned about keeping the bats in captivity. He said that the bats didn't do anything wrong, and that it seems that the bats are locked up in what in effect is a prison to them. What do you think? Do you think that keeping the bats in the Australia house is like keeping them in a prison?"

In hindsight, it's obvious that I was a difficult colleague. People who work in zoos believe on balance that they're helping to save the world. Carol had argued back that sure it would be great if we didn't have to keep animals in a zoo, but the environmental problems are immense, animal habitat recedes daily, species are going extinct-what are you going to do, just sit and watch it happen? Zoos protect genetic stock. Zoos allow specific animals to be ambassadors for their species. Visitors can come to care for zoo animals and leave wanting to save wild habitat. Carol took me out to watch the baboons. She started listing behavior after behavior that she saw with these baboons that years ago she saw with baboons in the wild, when she conducted her doctoral research. It's not bad here, she said. Later that night, with Gene Myers, I pressed it further. What if I showed you people that rose up in the morning, stretched, brushed their teeth, ate breakfast, walked around, talked with other humans using complex language, engaged in sport activities with one another, laughed and argued -- and they lived in San Quentin. Just because I can list an extensive repertoire of behaviors that are common between people in captivity and people who are free, I don't buy it that it's "not bad" in San Quentin. I don't recall if I had to finish my analogy explicitly or not. She eventually agreed that we could ask my questions to the children. She added other questions of her own that spoke to the potential benefits of zoos in aiding conservation and biodiversity. We recently published our study in the journal Anthrozoös.

Our results on the above questions set up a puzzle. We found that the majority of children believed that bats have rights, including the right to be wild and to live free. Yet the same children believed that the zoo doesn't violate the rights of bats, and that the zoo is not like a prison for the bats. How could children hold both viewpoints? We uncovered part of the answer through children's justifications. Often children reasoned that the individual bats were being well taken care of and have the necessary conditions (space, food, and company) to live their lives fully as bats.

I don't think it's a prison...bats get fed [and] they are free to roam about.

No. They [in the Australia House] and they can fly wherever they want to.

It's only a prison if the bats want to get out. But if the bats don't want to get out, then they're fine. [The interviewer then asks: "So do you think the bats want to get out or no?"] Probably not. Because they're being taken care of.

Other times, children reasoned that the species itself was being taking care of. For example, one child said: "No [captivity doesn't violate a bat's rights because] it's really for their own good-other species to be studied and documented."

Unfortunately, our interview was not designed with multiple counter probes to flesh out the potential contradictions in children's reasoning. For example, while it is true that bats in the Australia House are physically well taken care of, the same could be said-as I had said to Carol and Gene during our late-night discussion-about many people in prison, at least in minimum security prisons; and in both cases the fact remains that the individual (either the bat in the zoo or the person in prison) is not accorded the freedom typical of its species. Thus from our study it is difficult to know how children resolve such potential contradictions. Nonetheless, what is apparent is that even the older children did not seem to work with the complexity spontaneously. It is as if they had two different spheres of reasoning, one about animals and freedom, another about zoos and their mission; and these two spheres were very poorly coordinated. It may also be that there's an impoverishment in children's assumptions about what conditions are necessary for animal freedom and flourishing.

Carol and I are still friends and colleagues, even better than before, because of her generosity of spirit and her love of the world.

But still -- we shouldn't buy the counter-arguments for zoos, such as that they allow animals to be "ambassadors for their species." No more than any of us would want to be locked up in prison and be hauled around in a phantasm of a circus-ring and shown to others as representative of the species homo sapiens.

About the Author
Peter H. Kahn, Jr.

Peter H. Kahn, Jr. is Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington and the author of Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life.