September 28, 2012 8:33 pm

Animal spirits

Zoos offer sanctuary to threatened species and inspiration to their human visitors – but at what cost?
Children watch a polar bear swimming at Central Park Zoo in New York©Thomas Hoepker/Magnum

Children watch a polar bear swimming at Central Park Zoo in New York

Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity, by David Kirby, St. Martin’s Press, RRP$26.99/£18.99, 480 pages

The Odyssey of KP2: An Orphan Seal, a Marine Biologist, and the Fight to Save a Species, by Terrie Williams, Penguin Press, RRP$27.95, 304 pages

Zoo Story: Life In The Garden Of Captives, by Thomas French, Hyperion, RRP$24.99, 304 pages

Zooland: The Institution of Captivity, by Irus Braverman, Stanford University Press, RRP$24.95/£22.50, 280 pages

Most weekends I take my children to look at animals. More specifically, I take them to the Tierpark, the larger and less famous of Berlin’s two zoos, built by communist East Germany in the expansive grounds of a dispossessed Prussian palace. Every time, our children beam at the baby elephants, shudder before the prowling wolves, and stare with quiet fascination at curious macaques and indifferent crocodiles. And every time, I am confronted with the grandeur and the pity of animal intelligence displayed and constrained; of Creation circumscribed by man.

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I go to the zoo to remind myself – and to show my children – that there is a world beyond the ring road, places without commuter trains and office chairs. It is where I show them that lions and elephants have a reality that transcends their images in picture books and as cuddly toys. Yet at the same time, I am aware that the animals in the zoo have been urbanised – and, just as they promise a glimpse of the wild, so they also reflect back at us the enclosed spaces, repetitive behaviours and suppressed instincts that define our own existence.

Few visitors, I think, are immune to this ambivalence. Of course, zoos have both passionate supporters and outright opponents. But most people, like me, occupy a middle ground: delighting at the squirrel monkeys chasing each other’s tails, but shamed by the bored and contemptuous glance of the gorilla. Zoos embody the dilemmas of our relationship to a nature that we strive to control, for good and frequently for ill. These dilemmas provide the common thread to four fascinating books on the lives of animals in captivity.

 

The central dilemma is of course whether to keep animals removed from their natural habitats at all: to do so allows us to come closer to them, but only in an environment that seems unnatural and impoverished. In Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity, the investigative journalist David Kirby poses this question in the context of a very particular kind of zoo: the oceanariums and marine mammal parks in which some of the most sophisticated and spectacular of animals can be seen.

Kirby uses one terrible incident to launch an exploration of whether it can be right to confine highly intelligent and social species. On February 24 2010, an experienced trainer, Dawn Brancheau, was leading an enormous male killer whale called Tilikum through a performance at SeaWorld Orlando in Florida. This was a restrained routine, as it did not involve the trainer actually being in the pool with the animal – surfing on its back, for example, as was common in many “Shamu” shows (“Shamu” being the stage name SeaWorld often uses for performing killer whales). Towards the end, Brancheau lay down on a platform by the pool, at which point Tilikum grabbed her and pulled her into the water. She was carried to the bottom, then rammed and thrashed about for half an hour until her lifeless body could eventually be prised from the orca’s mouth.

This was a tragic incident, but it is far from unknown for animal keepers to be killed by their charges; only last month one was mauled to death by a tiger in Cologne Zoo. What makes this case remarkable are two further facts: first, that Tilikum had already been (at least partly) responsible for the deaths of two other people; and second, that in the entire history of humanity, there has not been a single recorded incident of a killer whale – despite their ominous name – killing a human being in the wild.

Kirby, in this engaging but over-long book, builds a powerful case against SeaWorld and similar institutions: it is not so much that killer whales are dangerous to humans, as that captivity makes them so. These naturally wide-roaming and social creatures are kept in conditions that cause physical illness, disturbed behaviour and premature death. The oceanariums deny this, and claim to be pursuing the goals that are used to justify all keeping of animals in captivity: education, research and conservation. But Kirby shows that the reality is more akin to a circus, in which any benefits are outweighed by the cost to the whale – and sometimes to the keepers.

One former trainer tells Kirby that he only became an anti-captivity campaigner after being moved from seals to killer whales; the latter seemed to understand and dislike being confined, he believed, whereas the seals “either didn’t realise or didn’t care”. This is an important point: conclusions about one species’ suitability for life in captivity might not apply to another.

 

Certainly, the Hawaiian monk seal KP2 (from “Kauai Pup 2”) seems quite happy in human hands, at least according to the account given by biologist Terrie Williams in The Odyssey of KP2: An Orphan Seal, a Marine Biologist, and the Fight to Save a Species.

KP2 was abandoned by his mother but rescued because his species is seriously endangered. As Hawaii’s zoos initially didn’t have room for him, he was sent to the author’s marine mammals laboratory at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Williams’ claim to be pursuing research and furthering conservation is certainly stronger than that of SeaWorld. Although her book is a light read and very much a personal story, it explains how the kind of hands-on experiments possible with captive animals can help the wild population: for example, by studying the seal’s temperature sensitivity and nutritional requirements, the right location can be selected for a marine reserve – at least in theory.

But what KP2’s story best illustrates is a further dilemma of taking animals into our care. The seal would soon have died without human intervention, yet in captivity he quickly becomes dependent on humans, unable to fend for himself. He is therefore left in a limbo, neither wild nor tame. So he is declared an ambassador for his species: a phrase used often in the zoo industry, as if such animals have freely come bearing some message of nature’s wisdom instead of being objects of study and spectacle.

 

A similar choice between natural death or unnatural life opens Thomas French’s Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives. Elephants in Africa are now mostly confined to national parks and reserves, which they can easily outgrow, threatening the local ecosystem. They are therefore frequently culled. But for some, as with KP2, there is an alternative: life in captivity. In this case, that means Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida, which controversially bought four wild elephants from Swaziland in 2003 and is the setting for this excellent exploration of the modern menagerie.

French, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is insightful and empathetic in his accounts of Lowry Park’s inhabitants, human or otherwise. Alongside the elephants, the story is told through three characters who embody different aspects of the zoo: Herman, the chimpanzee who craves the attention of humans – “preferably athletic blondes”; Enshalla, the Bengal tiger who likes perfume but despises people; and the park’s human alpha male, director Lex Salisbury, who is both concerned naturalist and power-hungry businessman.

French has a subtle appreciation of the zoo’s core dilemma and how it is experienced by the staff. They clearly respect, even love, their charges; yet they are the very ones who must prod the animals into their cages and lock the doors at night. “Any good keeper absolutely feels a guilty conscience,” one veteran staff member tells him. “There are definitely days when you walk in and you look at the animals, and you say, ‘I wish they didn’t have to be here.’”

 

Of course, whether they have to be there is a moot point, and a theme that Irus Braverman picks up in Zooland: The Institution of Captivity. Zoos have increasingly become an interconnected network of spaces in which animal populations can be managed and sustained despite the threats they face in the wild. This network is the “Zooland” of the book’s title, and its advocates portray it as a kind of Noah’s Ark, “containing the animals safely until the storm passes”. This is the essence of how modern zoos see themselves, one distilled by Braverman, a scholar of law and geography, in interviews with more than 70 zoo administrators and activists from both sides.

Zooland is an insightful catalogue of zoos’ claims and contradictions. We want to believe that they give us a glimpse of nature, or at least something more natural than an iPad. But Braverman illustrates how there is nothing natural about the lives of zoo animals: carnivores, for example, are not permitted to hunt live food. So instead of seeing them immersed in their defining activity, we see them lying about, waiting for their next meal to be delivered. The real message of zoos, she argues, is not the wonder of nature, but our dominance over it, even if its form of expression has changed: whereas once zoos celebrated our raw power to conquer the lion, now they call upon our power to save the savannah in which he lives. What continues is the “portrayal of humans as omnipotent agents who can destroy and redeem nature”.

Nonetheless, I won’t stop taking my children to the Tierpark. For all the many imperfections of zoos, I still believe in their power to inspire interest in life beyond the city. And now we have become so good at destroying nature, we need the inspiration to redeem it. A nature-loving friend summed this up when I told him I was writing this essay: “As a biologist,” he said, “I can’t approve of keeping animals in zoos; but if it weren’t for zoos, I wouldn’t have become a biologist.”

Stephen Cave is author of ‘Immortality’ (Biteback/Crown)

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