A Deeper Sympathy for the Plight of Captive Animals
A traumatic surgery made a journalist understand the miseries of caged animals.
Posted August 12, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
A few weeks ago, I read a riveting and moving personal essay by journalist Christina Russo called "I Was a Journalist Who Reported on Captive Animals — Then I Became One."1 The subtitle for Russo's piece reads, "After being damaged in a surgery, I understand their plight even more." I was stilled and frankly extremely hesitant to ask Russo if she would do an interview about her life-changing, harrowing experience. Gladly, she agreed to answer a few questions.
Why did you write "I Was a Journalist Who Reported on Captive Animals — Then I Became One?"
My life has been eviscerated since my surgery in 2018. I knew that I would write something about this experience, although I did not know what. After the operation, I thought my surgeon would work zealously to alleviate my unbearable pain. But she did not. And over time, I felt more and more dismissed.
I felt a profound sense of loneliness. Invisibility. Purposeless. Life felt mute. I simply woke up and stared out the same window every day. Watched the same trees sway. I existed within the same four walls, looked at the same gray chair, slept on the same pullout couch, stared at the same bookshelf, dimmed the same light switch. Over and over and over again.
Then, one day, I had this internal, intuitive smack: This is exactly what it is like to be an animal in a zoo. And wrote the essay.
How does your essay relate to your background and general areas of interest?
In 2007, I spent 18 months producing a public radio documentary on the ethics of American zoos. So I had a decent foundation. I also wrote more stories about zoos as a freelancer. And then, the last four years before my surgery, my work almost exclusively focused on the capture of wild elephants from Zimbabwe for zoos in China. Those stories were published in National Geographic and The Guardian. The Guardian article, which showed secret footage of an elephant being captured for zoos, won an award from the National Press Club.
And then a few weeks later, I had my surgery.
Who is your intended audience?
I’m grateful to anyone who reads my reportage—but as it pertains to this essay, anyone who works at a zoo, visits zoos, or thinks zoos are benign. I believe differently. And it took me some years to come to fully understand this.
Firstly, if you look at zoos from an animal welfare perspective, zoos exist in a unique space. They are practically woven into the American fabric. They are in almost every major city. They are the go-to classroom field trip. They are the weekend outing for parents with children. They are omnipresent.
Within the zoo cosmos, there are distinctions. Some zoos are members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Some are considered "below" AZA, and some are considered completely abhorrent—the “roadside zoo.”
This is where animal welfare groups and wildlife conservation groups converge with zoos. Most esteemed groups attach themselves to the “better” ones, potentially collaborate with them, and then in other cases, attack the despicable ones.
But therein lies the problem. The distinctions between these places are bogus. And a distraction. No matter the size, shape, or place of a zoo, they all send the same corrosive message: It is completely acceptable for humans to cage animals.
That message is where all the suffering stems from. That is the heart of the issue.
What are some of the topics you weave into your piece and what are some of your major messages?
The piece is personal. But due to my situation, I feel this deep kinship with animals in a zoo. Almost every beat I take now in my life, I think: How would an animal in a zoo feel in this situation? What happens if a lone giraffe is in pain? What happens if a fox loses a mate in an exhibit? What happens when a parrot wants to be with a flock? What does that do to his or her mind?
And because my surgery was gynecological, I think about how zoos use artificial insemination. A former zoo director recently described to me the process of an elephant being artificially inseminated and how she was screaming and wide-eyed with terror while being inserted. This is what the public should also know about—not just the announcement of yet another baby elephant calf. As a side note, I should say as a journalist, I think journalism has failed the animal world spectacularly.
So, my condition has made me think about zoo animals’ suffering, body and mind. I cannot overstate what a purposeless life feels like. I cannot overstate the despair that comes with seeing the same view day in and out. I cannot overstate loneliness, losing one’s autonomy, physical torment. Animals are designed to walk freely, smelling for water, eating berries, communicating with their friends and family, playing, hiding, digging, climbing trees, being.
Before my surgery, I was an avid hiker and loved observing the incredible biodiversity in the woods. I think about the kinds of foods and certain medicines animals get from the wild habitat that zoos do not provide. Foods that would help various ailments or digestive issues.
When I was creating my documentary, I visited one zoo—an AZA zoo, I should add— and the zookeeper gave the gorilla a Dixie cup to eat, saying, "Oh, it’s a great form of fiber." And I was thinking: Are you kidding me? You actually feed gorillas Dixie cups? I was stunned.
Then, I was taken down to see a silverback gorilla who had been living in isolation for 10 years—I mention him in my Medium piece. When I walked into what I can only describe as a prison cell, he was sitting against the back wall, with this awful, completely destroyed look on his face and his arm draped over his bent knee. He got up off the floor and he rushed toward us. The director of the zoo calmly said that he was showing off his dominance. I thought: No, he wants to get the hell out of this basement.
I left the interview shaking.
These are just a few examples of what I was thinking about while writing my essay: that life is kaleidoscopic, full of colors, textures, movements, and experiences. It all disappears when you live in captivity.
Are you hopeful that things will change for the better as people learn about what you went through?
I don’t have a great deal of faith in people as it pertains to animals; I've seen too much apathy. There’s this video of an elephant named Xiaofei, who was shipped to China from Zimbabwe in 2012. I do not know if he is still alive—which raises the other problem with the zoo industry: The oversight of these animals is abysmal, nationally, and internationally. Anyway, this video has haunted me for years. It is suffering embodied.
I will say I have never left a zoo feeling good. I have never left a zoo feeling better than when I arrived. I have only left a zoo feeling that something is deeply wrong. And I actually think a lot of people feel that way but that feeling is not being harnessed with action.
I would feel heartened if the steps to abolish zoos, to dismantle them, to seriously consider the logistics of a world without zoos really got going.
If my essay contributes to that conversation, I would be very pleased. From my perspective—from my personal experience of living a trapped life—I have no doubt whatsoever the time is long overdue. The cages need to go.
1) Christina Russo was a journalist for 20 years, worked as a producer in public radio including WBUR’s The Connection and On Point with Tom Ashbrook as well as shows at WNYC and KQED in San Francisco. She began to focus exclusively on animal issues as a freelancer and wrote for National Geographic, the Guardian, and other outlets. More information can be seen here.
Bekoff, Marc. Captive: A New Book About Zoos Is a Game Changer.
_____. The Captive Panda Breeding Boondoggle: The Invisible Side. (Everything you might not want to know about how captive pandas are produced.)
_____. Should Zoo Workers and Veterinarians Kill Healthy Animals?
_____. "Zooicide: Seeing Cruelty, Demanding Abolition".
_____. Different Views on How to Make Zoos More Resident-Friendly.
_____. Swedish Zoo "Zoothanizes" Nine Healthy, "Useless" Lion Cubs.
_____. Zoo Ethics and the Challenges of Compassionate Conservation.
_____. It's Still Not Happening at the Zoo: Sharp Divisions Remain. (At a recent meeting the zoo director who killed giraffe Marius is called a hero.)