I’ve written over 2000 words of drafts trying to work out this article. It’s just a trip to the zoo – surely it’s not that hard. I’d spent my COVID lockdown exercise time doing a daily lap around the zoo close to my house and occasionally I could see a glimpse of a snow leopard or the trunk of an elephant reaching above the fence. I adore animals so when it re-opened its gates again I was first through the door, and the day also combined with freezing rain so after about midday the whole place cleared out.
It was magical to have the zoo to myself. After months of COVID isolation the animals were completely unguarded and even curious at my presence. At one point I locked eyes with a tiger sheltering from the rain and we studied each other silently as the rain pattered across the lake that separated us.
It was incredible.
I have been trying to write an article about the magical experience I had that day. But, of course, leaving the bubble of the zoo at the end of the day I returned to a world where the riots continue in America and the country burns. The death of George Floyd has hit me hard. Now I’m going to try my best to avoid any comparisons between jungle animals and black people because god knows history is littered with that kind of racist fuckery, and it has no place on this blog. In fact, I don’t want to talk about racism at all here. But in trying to deal with my grief, it has caused me to review moments in my life where I’ve consciously or unconsciously supported systems that have an unfair balance of power. Unfortunately I realise that Zoos are one of those systems. So this week of all weeks I can’t find the words for the article I initially wanted to write.
Collecting animals for curiosity and entertainment dates back to 2500 BC where the rich and powerful of Egypt collected hippopotami, wildcats, elephants and more. Ancient zoos pop up across Europe, China and the Middle East evolving independently as stories or curious creatures from far away lands make their way back to cities. Zoos, or rather menageries, were collections of curiosity and vibrant display of wealth as the money required to fetch animals from across the globe and transport them safely was considerable. Even within my lifetime I can remember the remnants of Elephant and Giant Tortoise rides for children at the zoos we visited when I was small.
While it was an electric experience to share a moment with that tiger at my local zoo, it wasn’t a wild tiger that happened to be wandering through my neighbourhood. That tiger was there because of those centuries of systematic exploitation of animals for entertainment. Most modern zoos have done incredible work recently to become champions of conservation, but I can’t lie to myself and pretend that was the best life possible for that magnificent cat.
So where do we go from here? Obviously I can’t go and burn down the zoo. And, even if I got that tiger and released it back into the jungles of South East Asia, it would not do very well now that it’s become accustomed to perfectly balanced home-delivered meals. So for now the path to dismantle zoos is to start caring about conservation without the enticement of a wild animal to draw me in.
Obviously the best way is to donate, but I also acknowledge we’re in a recession they’re going to write text books about, so I’ve found five everyday ways to care about tiger conservation:
- Choose recycled paper products or products produced with sustainable forestry practice. Furniture made with exotic woods are also frequently taken from wild forests reducing the habitat available to tigers.
- Vote for governments that make environmental protection and halting climate change a priority. I’m not going to push you towards a particular one but make sure to ask the question and have confidence your chosen politician has a real plan and not just a press release.
- Avoid products the contain Palm Oil. It’s frequently just advertised as ‘vegetable oil’ in Australia also join the movement to have mandatory labelling on products to help you make informed choices. Palm Oil itself if not a problem but the huge demand for it is causing large areas of forest habitat to be cleared to make room for farmland in Indonesia.
- Recycle electronics, including mobile phones, and reduce unnecessary electronics purchases. Rare metals are often sourced from illegal mining operations that are no good for people or animals but can be economically retrieved from obsolete goods.
- Swipe Left. Don’t encourage others to visit exploitative zoos on holiday. Social media (I’m looking at you Tinder) is full of pictures of people patting ‘sleepy’ tigers at zoos across the world. Not only are they horrendous for the welfare of the tigers but they are also frequently stocked with animals that began life in the wild. There’s also evidence many of them operate as body-part farms for the Chinese market. Visit zoos and learn about local conservation when you’re on holiday by all means – but check their credentials before you book your tickets.
Loving animals and wanting to experience them up close is something that we can see though history is a universal desire, and truly there is nothing wrong with that. However, manufacturing that experience at the expense of an animal is wrong – and even if you can’t change the system in one day, you should give back for the positive you receive. As sad as this moment in time is, I’m grateful for the opportunity to check my privilege in all its facets with the support and encouragement of so many wonderful communities. One thing that has become apparent for me this week is that when you turn the looking glass to review your world, you often find more than you expected reflected back.