Wednesday 4 April 2012

Why I won’t take my daughter to the zoo

Zoo Awareness Weekend starts on Friday, so I thought I’d write a post about why I won’t take Ebony to the zoo. I’m sure this might seem rather extremist to some of you but please, hear me out.
As my good friend Jo will tell you, trying to find nursery items that promote a respectful attitude towards animals is near impossible. All of the animal themed designs feature captive animals. It’s all farms, circuses and zoos. Circuses I find particularly odd because most parents nowadays wouldn’t even consider taking their child to see wild animals perform demeaning tricks, so why would they still choose to adorn the nursery with images of tigers on podiums and elephants in cages?

I want to make sure that Ebony is raised with an inherent respect for all living things. I want her to grow up to be compassionate, caring and loving towards people and animals alike. I also want her to seek out the truth instead of just accepting the majority viewpoint. I want her to question the way things are and aim towards the way she thinks things should be. I want her to believe that she alone does have the power to make a difference.
That’s why I don’t spend my afternoons singing “Old McDonald Had a Farm” to her. Most children likes animals, this makes sense to me. Which sadistic toy manufacturer thought: “Kids like animals? Great, then they’ll love farms.”
Farms are not happy places for animals. They are born and raised merely to be slaughtered for meat. Most meat comes from factory farms. There is no mention of battery cages, farrowing crates or beak trimming at Old McDonald’s Farm. The whole song is just very good publicity for a very terrible and inherently cruel industry, and I refuse to be a part of it.
I seem to have gone off on a tangent, I apologise. Back to zoos. Zoos may seem a less obvious location for animal cruelty but the animals are still suffering.
I want Ebony to understand that animals have needs, and that their needs are just as important as her needs. Some parents may argue that ‘Ok, animals in zoos have a crappy deal, but it’s great for my little Matilda to be able to get so close to a tiger’. I disagree, why should the tiger’s needs be compromised for Matilda? What is Matilda getting out of the visit to the zoo?

People often argue the educational value of a trip to the zoo. Yes, the child may learn about the size, colour and appearance of a lion. But they will not learn anything about the natural behaviour of the lion, because instead of hunting down prey in the plains of Africa, the lion is sat miserably in the rain in the West Midlands. In fact, children visiting zoos end up with a confused knowledge of wild animals because they are influenced by what they have seen at the zoo. Animals in zoos act differently because their natural instincts are being suppressed. They cannot hunt or roam as they would in the wild. If you based your knowledge of elephants purely upon zoo visits you would believe that most elephants have foot problems, in fact the foot problems are caused by being unable to roam vast distances each day as they would in the wild. Wild elephants roam up to 50km a day, imagine trying to do that in the elephant enclosure at Chester Zoo.
Most UK zoos claim education and conservation as their mission, after all, it gives them a reputable appearance, but are they really doing much to conserve species? Let’s get one thing straight, conservation should be about habitat. We need to conserve habitats in order to protect the animals that live in them. I see little benefit in having captive tigers in the UK if there is nowhere for them to exist in the wild. We are heading towards a situation where many species will exist only in captivity, and since captive animals have a much lower quality of life than their wild counterparts, we would only be keeping the species alive for human entertainment as the animals would be miserable.
Zoos claim to raise millions of pounds for conservation. In fact, they are often counting their own zoo as conservation work, and so although they may receive millions of pounds in entrance fees and donations throughout the year, only a very small (seriously, shockingly small for some zoos) percentage of this will actually go towards in-situ conservation projects. The rest will go towards the running of the zoo, and the keeping of animals in captivity. I don’t want my money to keep animals in captivity.
Maybe you think I am a cruel and terrible mother, starving my daughter of the fun of the zoo. Maybe you are currently on the phone to social services reporting me for neglect. But I think I am making the right decision.
I want Ebony’s life to be a full, rich and happy one, but I don’t want it to impact negatively on others. And this includes animals. This doesn’t mean Ebony will grow up clueless to the existence of giraffes, it just means she will grow up understanding why wild animals should remain wild.
I remember trips to the zoo, and I do remember the excitement at seeing wild animals so close. But it was exciting in the same way that a theme park is exciting, and that’s not what I think our relationship with animals should be. We should not place animals in unnatural settings for profit. As consumers we should question why we are supporting an industry that keeps wild animals in miserable enclosures.
I remember visiting Flamingo Land when I was 16, I had gone with some friends from school. Flamingo Land is a zoo and a theme park, and yet they still claim to be a serious conservation organisation, pah. It was a hot day, really hot, I ended up sunburnt at the end of it. As we were queueing up to go on a ride, or perhaps it was the monorail, we noticed the polar bear enclosure. A barren concrete enclosure, they hadn’t even bothered to pretend this was designed with the animal in mind. In the corner, squashed up against the wall, was the polar bear. He was sat in the very small amount of shade available to him in the sweltering heat. It was a completely unnatural sight and made me realise how much animals suffer for our entertainment. I’ve never been able to get that image of the polar bear out of my mind.

Perhaps one day I will be able to take Ebony to see these animals in the wild. I’m sure the excitement of waiting to see a lion or giraffe appear over the horizon in Africa will be far more magical than turning a corner at Edinburgh Zoo to find a panda sat exactly where the map said it would be. In the meantime though, she will learn lots about animals from me, her Dad, wildlife documentaries and books. And hopefully somewhere in that knowledge she will discover a respect for the world around her.  

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