As kids, we’re told that going to the zoo is not only a fun experience, but it’s a valuable one because we can “learn something” too. Who doesn’t remember the worksheets we had to fill out during class trips to the zoo, designed to ensure that we retained at least some basic knowledge about the animals witnessed in captivity – inevitably, we ended up learning was where these animals came from … but not where they truly belonged.
This is all too often the case with “educational” experiences in zoos. They are always geared to foster a deep appreciation of wildlife, while really just encouraging us to see these animals the same way we would a painting in a museum, as something to be gawked at and “interpreted.” Many zoos publicize the fact that they are focused on conservation and want to preserve the endangered species that reside in their glass boxes, but what they miss is the fact that the animals they’re “protecting” are nothing more than hollow versions of themselves.
Take the orangutan in this video for example. Shared with the funny caption of “monkey see, monkey do,” this video shows a little girl mimicking the actions of a captive orangutan, licking the glass and then giggling as the primate then copies her. This can be viewed as a sweet moment shared between two species, but it comes with the bitter reminder that this little girl has one thing the orangutan doesn’t: freedom. She can walk away from the enclosure and go home while this orangutan will be forced to stay in this isolated box for the entirety of his life. What is possibly more tragic in the orangutan’s situation is the idea that even if he could return to the wild, his native home might not even be there thanks to rampant deforestation for palm oil.
So on the surface we might see a cute exchange, but behind that facade there is the dual problem of how zoos enable us to forget that this species does not exist to play with us or entertain us and that as long as these animals are in artificial enclosures, we’re allowed to ignore the destruction being wrought on their rightful habitats.
Rather than gawking at animals in zoo enclosures, we could more meaningfully educate children by teaching them about why these animals are endangered and how their daily choices are causing this. The orangutan hasn’t lost 90 percent of its original range by accident, we did that. We could all stand to look beyond the glass and see the problems facing the world’s wildlife for what they really are – otherwise, zoos will be the only place any wild animal exists.