As you most likely know, over Memorial Day weekend (2016), a four-year-old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. The incident resulted in the killing of Harambe, a 17-year-old male western lowland gorilla—and in worldwide outrage.
Among those blamed are the parents, the zookeepers for misinterpreting the gorilla’s motives (with sharp disagreement among experts), and all the people whose screaming probably upset Harambe.
Other voices, however, make a different claim: that the ultimate crime is the existence of zoos. To me, this is the most mindful—and compassionate—point of view.
A few decades ago I went to San Diego for a New Age trade show. I had one free day, which I decided to spend at the San Diego Zoo, reputedly the best in the country. Perhaps it was, but the experience convinced me that best isn’t nearly good enough and that the captivity of wild animals is a crime. I resolved never to go to a zoo again.
The Life Imprisonment of Harambe
Many humans would be outraged if a child born in jail were kept there for his or her entire life, but this is exactly what happened to Harambe. Born in captivity, he never experienced the freedom of the wild, the life a gorilla is meant to live. Instead, he lived in a cell under the constant scrutiny of humans.
Certainly, gorillas aren’t the only victims. Imagine a cheetah, the fastest animal in the world, confined to a tiny space, or a bird designed to soar in the sky stuck in a cage. How can this be justified?
Do Zoos Educate?
People who admit to uneasiness about zoos sometimes offer this justification. You can read sharply contrasting viewpoints, but even a study of 6,000 zoo visitors by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums only showed a 5% increase in understanding the importance of biodiversity—and no corresponding intention to take action.
Many experts believe that movies, videos, and books that depict animals’ lives in the wild can do a far better job of promoting appreciation, understanding, and involvement. Far more important, the animals have their freedom, and humans are not endangered.
Conservationists have pointed out that for a fraction of the cost of keeping an animal such as a gorilla in captivity, the fight against the poaching of these animals could be made far more effective.
What Zoos DO Teach
They teach us, especially impressionable children, that the differences between “animals” and humans is so great that it’s ok to imprison the “animals” in small enclosures for the entertainment of humans. They teach us to shut off natural compassion and a sense of oneness and open the way for separation and cruelty. Their existence diminishes the human spirit.
Mindfulness, in contrast, opens us to the realization that we must extend our notion of brotherhood and sisterhood to include all species of life. It teaches us to experience and appreciate the oneness of all life, not in an academic or intellectual way but in a tangible, heart-felt sense.
Our brother, Harambe, has fallen. May his death give us the inspiration to call for the end of the prisons called zoos. In that act, may our spirits know greater freedom.
Image courtesy of M – Pics at FreeDigitalPhotos.net