Off the Trail

The beginning of the end for zoos

Animals in zoos get depressed.

Kinda obvious, I know.

Still, it’s nice to see The New York Times covering this issue. The article is about a man who helps captive animals cope better with the trauma of being held captive. Drugs are sometimes used.

I feel for this man because he is doing his best to ease their pain, though he must know that the only real solution is about leaving zoos behind entirely. He is at best playing triage. Yet it’s a start, a very good start. Anything to ease their pain.

And I was happy to see this in the article:

The notion that animals think and feel may be rampant among pet owners, but it makes all kinds of scientific types uncomfortable. “If you ask my colleagues whether animals have emotions and thoughts,” says Philip Low, a prominent computational neuroscientist, “many will drop their voices to a whisper or simply change the subject. They don’t want to touch it.” Jaak Panksepp, a professor at Washington State University, has studied the emotional responses of rats. “Once, not very long ago,” he said, “you couldn’t even talk about these things with colleagues.”

But that may be changing. A profusion of recent studies has shown animals to be far closer to us than we previously believed — it turns out that common shore crabs feel and remember pain, zebra finches experience REM sleep, fruit-fly brothers cooperate, dolphins and elephants recognize themselves in mirrors, chimpanzees assist one another without expecting favors in return and dogs really do feel elation in their owners’ presence. In the summer of 2012, an unprecedented document, masterminded by Low — “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Human and Nonhuman Animals” — was signed by a group of leading animal researchers in the presence of Stephen Hawking. It asserted that mammals, birds and other creatures like octopuses possess consciousness and, in all likelihood, emotions and self-awareness. Scientists, as a rule, don’t issue declarations. But Low claims that the new research, and the ripples of unease it has engendered among rank-and-file colleagues, demanded an emphatic gesture. “Afterward, an eminent neuroanatomist came up to me and said, ‘We were all thinking this, but were afraid to say it,’ ” Low recalled.

The most important question of the article gets posed but not well answered:

But can improved conditions justify captivity?

The answer is simple of course. Yet the reporter goes to great lengths to rationalize how animals might prefer zoos to the wild.

Nevertheless, this article is a sign that people are asking questions, questions that will eventually lead us down the road to the end of zoos as we know them.