By Hannah Tyler
I know what an aardvark’s tongue feels like when seeking out insects. I know how to gut a fish and cut it into chunks fit for a turtle. I can tell you exactly how a white-cheeked gibbon sounds when they sing. I can deftly feed live wax worms into hollow wood for aye-ayes to break into. I know the correct way to handle a tortoise. I can weigh a snake. And I can sleep though lions vocalising at dawn as soundly as someone who has lived next to train tracks for years.
I worked at a zoo for four years, and I leant a lot of things without even knowing I was learning them. I knew where animals were likely to be in their enclosures at certain times of the day, I could start to see different behaviours in individuals and ready body language. I’m not trained in zoology, I came to it sideways, so as well as observing and listening I rinsed keepers and conservation scientists for information and knowledge.
Sometimes, all of a sudden, I would look up at an enclosure and see everything in a new light. A cage, I would think, that animal is in a cage.
Oh god, is that animal happy? I wondered, whilst myself being in the midst of some heinous bout of anxiety. I would always ask myself if I was doing the right thing, if I believed in the organisation and the answer was always:
When you tell people at parties that you work at a zoo, there’s an alarming number of them who think you haven’t noticed that the animals are in cages. I started just walking away from these conversations. I can see how it might look wrong, or cruel. But for me, to not do it? That is violent.
There have been five major extinction events in earth’s history. The worst one happened 260 million years ago, in the Permian. It took 60,000 years, a blink in geologic time, for 96% of marine species, and over 70% of land species, to be wiped out. The world then took 10,000 years to recover. We can’t even conceive of the life that may have evolved out of the species that existed then if this event hadn’t taken place. Humans may never have existed. Extinction events have the potential to be good, a kind of evolutionary reset button. But they are never fun for those living (or dying) through them. All five, from what we know, were caused by a changing climate, were kicked off by volcanic activity or asteroids or a similar destabilising event. Humans have been destabilising the earth for a good couple of hundred years now.
Scientists have argued that we are living through a sixth mass extinction, and whether we are or not doesn’t really matter. We know that species are dying out around 100 times more quickly than they would if humans weren’t around. If we stay at our current rate of fossil fuel emissions, the temperature is due to rise 4.3 degrees Celsius. That could lead to 1 in 6 species going extinct. It is hard to make proper predictions as many species populations are data deficient.
We need people to study animals, to take note of populations. Being exposed to wildlife at a young age is not possible for all kids, especially if you live in the city, or are poor. A school trip to the zoo may be all that some kids get.
We need people to care about animals for them to care about saving them. Even the large charismatic species are at risk. Sumatran tigers have the potential to become extinct within our lifetimes, with only around 400 left in the wild, a decreasing population, and multiple threats. And if they are at risk, then what of the insects, the reptiles, the boring-looking animals that no one cares about?
And people sit there and say that they don’t approve of zoos, whilst doing nothing to save wildlife? (Most admit they don’t give money to overseas conservation charities). That is violence to me.
We need people to understand what we are losing. The question isn’t how do we preserve nature? But, why do humans see themselves as separate from it?
In history, zoos have functioned as displays of power, often by royalty. In the late 20th Century, you find them re-branding as conservation charities as the focus shifts from displaying animals as exotic objects, to places that educate people about the natural world. If we felt that we were part of the natural world, we wouldn’t need an institution to display it to us.
People are uncomfortable with looking at animals in the same way people are uncomfortable with the power dynamics of looking in general. We as humans have a habit of anthropomorphising animals in zoos.
One complaint I would field often was the idea that the gorillas were ‘sad’, but when gorillas ‘smile’ or bear their teeth it is usually a subordinate signal. Eye contact, while occasionally playful, can be read as aggressive and it’s a natural inclination for humans—but not gorillas. Their enclosure was seen as ‘not natural’. The interior section of their space has a metal frame and uses ropes, nets, and sacks as play material. The gorillas spent much more time inside than in their outside area which was ‘natural’ (grassy, with small trees and bushes) but very open. Whilst this inside environment might seem wrong for them, wild gorillas live in dense, enclosed tropical rainforests and aren’t particularly keen on open space. Just because something ‘looks’ natural doesn’t mean it is.
I’ve just started reading The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert, in which she visits a frog hotel used to save frogs from the spread of chytrid, a fungus that’s wiping out amphibians. When asking one of the herpetologists when he thinks the environment might be at a stage where the frogs can be released again, he fails to find an answer.
Zoos are about hope.
We keep these animals in the hope that nature can recover to an extent where they can be released. Zoos aren’t a jail, they’re a contingency plan. They’re the hope for a future where we see ourselves as part of nature. Hope for a safe environment where these animals might one day survive.
Where we might survive.