Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

05 July, 2007

In Defense of Henry Vilas Zoo

Madison Guy recently posted about his hope that the Henry Vilas Zoo here in Madison will "relinquish the role of exhibiting big cats and other large wild animals". The notion of whether lions should be locked up in zoos is certainly a debatable issue. But there are other statements in the post which I find not only debatable, but troubling:

But little kids would be just as happy if the cats were replaced by farm animals and an expanded petting zoo…Once upon a time, before films and television existed, the practice could be defended as educational. Today, a National Geographic special is far more educational than a trip to the zoo.

Regarding the first part, I disagree that the lions are there expressly for little kids. Perhaps big kids and adults enjoy seeing the lions at the zoo as well. And since when did the preferences of little children become the deciding factor here?

Perhaps our disagreement comes down to giving an exact definition to "educational" but I find the notion that watching television is more educational than getting off one's ass and experiencing something first hand to be ridiculous. Of course, what one gets out of going to the zoo depends a lot on you. For instance, one's age, innate curiosity, and predispositions to animals are all going to come into play in determining what ones gets out of a visit to the zoo. Still, no battery of National Geographic specials even in 1080p high-def will ever approach the experience of confronting another animal face-to-face nor ever be able to replace the experience of a live instructor and the ability to see, touch, smell, and hear the animals in person. There is more to learning than sitting in your air conditioned living room while a narrator spews out facts at your ears while a 2D image flickers on your television set.

If you want sit in your living room and watch NG specials, that's fine. They certainly do have an educational component. Zoos, on the other hand, have the benefit of having knowledgeable folks around to whom you can pose questions. Regarding children, there is a Summer Zoo School where just such people help to educate young folk on animals and nature. If I had children, I would make sure they learned about animals by going to such a program where they could get exercise, be with other kids, and learn by interacting with the animals as well as other people instead of merely sitting on their asses watching television.

That Madison Guy seems to find zoos a relic of the colonial era is understandable. However, I find it very dubious to merely say that Homo sapiens shouldn't lock up Panthera leo. His argument is weakened by two things: 1) Exactly how much acreage is needed before locking up lions is OK? 2) If locking up animals is troublesome for you, then make a moral argument. Don't appeal to the mercurial preferences of small children and don't denigrate the educational capacity of zoos by privileging the watching of television over human contact and direct experience with the subject. If it's wrong to put lions in cages, it's wrong to do so regardless of whether going to the zoo will make you an expert on Panthera leo or what little kids prefer. And why does he give exclusivity to "free-ranging larger species"? If you're a small amphibian who likes to roam, then Madison Guy's call for your emancipation and repatriation doesn't apply to you. Sorry.
|| Palmer, 2:08 PM


Hi. Thanks for stopping by. No need to defend the Henry Vilas Zoo from this straw man.

I'm not advocating we shut down zoos -- or substitute TV for real-life outings. I just want small zoos to keep evolving in the direction they're already headed. In general, I'd like to see zoos outgrow the need to display species for which they cannot provide a real, functional equivalent of their natural habitat. For small creatures or domestic animals, that can be a very small space, but not for lions. If watching them on TV seems lifeless, why not schedule a vacation trip to the San Diego Zoo?

The Henry Vilas Zoo is an estimable organization. They manage quite nicely without the camels, elephants, giraffes and seals they used to have. One of these days the large cats will be added to this group -- and that will be great. The citizens of Madison -- adults and children alike -- will manage quite nicely.
Blogger Madison Guy, at 7:24 PM  
Unfortunately, not everyone is as wealthy as you appear to be and cannot just dash off to San Diego when that zoo itch needs to be scratched.

Please define "real, functional equivalent of their natural habitat". To my mind real, functional equivalents do not exist in San Diego nor any other urban setting. Again, what is the exact acreage you would be happy with for a lion in a zoo? Perhaps all this stuff varies by species. But, again, you privilege certain animals above others. Lions and camels and elephants, etc. are deserving of "real, functional equivalents" yet others are not. Please stop cherry picking which animals are to receive your grace and which must suffer without.

Please point out where I accused you of advocating the shutting down of zoos. And please point out the straw man. You explicitly posited that the Henry Vilas Zoo should not have lions and you justified this position with 3 things: 1) by pointing out the preferences of small children; 2) the minimal educational value that zoos have in contrast to National Geographic specials; and 3) larger zoos afford more space for animals to roam. My post largely addressed the first 2 justifications you gave.

I'll again address the 3rd by asking you to make a moral argument instead of just making sweeping generalizations. Why is it morally justified to keep lions in a big habitat in San Diego but not in a smaller setting in Madison? Is room to roam your exclusive criterion? What moral argument are you unwilling thus far to put forth? And what insights into leonine psychology do you possess that I do not?
Blogger Palmer, at 9:59 PM  

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