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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Don’t fence them in

    What began as a routine tiger-escapes-and-eats-visitors incident at the San Francisco Zoo last month has now spiraled into a complete mess – and it illustrates just how problematic society’s ideas about how a zoo should function still are. It began on Christmas Day, when a tiger slipped out of its enclosure and attacked three young men, injuring two of them and killing one. At first there were allegations that the young men may have been taunting the tiger before it escaped. Then it came out that the tiger, Tatiana, had lashed out at a zookeeper once before. San Francisco Zoo director Manuel Mollinedo suggested that the youths must have done something to provoke the tiger, because it was kept at bay by an 18-foot wall. He later admitted that the wall is actually only 12.5 feet high – a full four feet below the recommended national standard. Perhaps animal escapes are just his style – twelve of them occurred over the course of one year while he was the director of the Los Angeles Zoo, and since the tiger attack there have been near-escapes by a snow leopard and a polar bear at the San Francisco Zoo. While occasional escapes are to be expected, these numbers are unusually high.

    Mollinedo has been praised for “”revitalizing”” the Los Angeles and San Francisco zoos, but his revitalizations – like public feedings of large cats, which tend to agitate them – don’t seem to be doing the animals any good. That he nevertheless retains widespread support suggests that our priorities might be out of order when it comes to zoos.

    Tatiana, who was shot and killed by police, did what any large cat would do when discovering that it is surrounded by prey. Though she and her littermates had been trained to respond to a few commands as cubs, wild animals cannot be domesticated (as Roy Horn’s 2003 tiger injury illustrates.) To stow these normally solitary creatures away in cramped enclosures in busy zoos is to play with fire.

    So what are large cats doing in zoos? For that matter, why do we even have zoos anymore? They are a peculiar holdover from the 19th century in this age of environmentalism.

    Presumably, we still have zoos because we believe we can create enclosures which are inescapable enough that people can come by and enjoy the beauty of beasts in relative safety. We want to see what exotic animals look like and how they live, and we don’t want to see it from a mile away.

    But there’s something selfish about sentencing animals to a life of boredom, at best, for our own entertainment. You can’t learn anything about an animal at the zoo that you couldn’t also learn from a book or the Discovery Channel, and endangered species in captivity – like tigers – can and should be kept in enclosures more closely resembling the size and climate to which they are accustomed. Keeping its inhabitants healthy and happy should be the first priority of a zoo, not just a priority.

    To see how animals could live in captivity while retaining their lifestyles (and dignity), one need look no further than Tucson’s own Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which holds an exhaustive collection of plants and animals native to the region. And just a day’s drive to the west of us is the San Diego Wild Animal Park, another world-renowned home to thousands of animals, many of which are endangered, living in large replicas of their native habitats. An enjoyable day of animal watching can still be had at either place, but it won’t be at the expense of an animal’s well-being.

    National parks are another environment which serve animals better than zoos – and as anyone who has ever visited Yellowstone National Park will know, free range definitely doesn’t mean you won’t be seeing anything. Last time I was there, about a dozen buffalo came over to say hi.

    Animals can be content and safe in captivity, but only when it’s done right – and the aftermath of the San Francisco tiger attack is telling us that something is decidedly wrong with some of America’s zoos. It is important to have places where animals, especially endangered ones, are protected and looked after. But if we want safe places to view these animals, and happy animals to view then the focus shouldn’t be on human spectators – it should be on the animals being taken care of by the zoo. It is, after all, their home.


    Alyson Hill is a senior majoring in classics, German studies and history. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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