Issue 386 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


I enjoyed Derrick Jensen’s book excerpt “Thought to Exist in the Wild” [November 2007]. Most of what he writes, I agree with. Zoos promote the idea that they are saving animals, and many people — myself included — are lured into the zookeeping profession because they do care about animals and conservation. For many years I worked for a zoo and thought I was helping animals in the wild.

When Jensen places the blame on the zookeepers and zoo managers, however, he is forgetting one guilty party: the public. If people didn’t go to zoos and support them, we wouldn’t have zoos. So shame on all of us who have ever gone to the zoo.

The public wants to see baby animals, so zoos breed animals. And they breed them. And they breed them. Eventually you get a nasty phenomenon called a “surplus list” because of overbreeding. And if you give the animals a nice big enclosure, the public complains that they can’t see the animals. We didn’t allow our bears to hibernate in the winter, because people wouldn’t have been able to see them then.

Most zookeepers care about the animals and try to protect them from bad decisions made by managers, and from the public, who throw things at them. As the animals became like family to me, I started to resent the public. I felt I was living a lie and couldn’t pretend anymore that zoos were a good thing. So I quit after seventeen years. I still feel as if I’ve abandoned the animals, but at least now I’m free to speak out for them.

As far as education goes, you can learn more by watching nature shows. As far as conservation goes, zoos don’t do much of it. At least most of the animals in zoos aren’t coming from the wild anymore. They are bred in captivity. But very few captive animals are released into the wild. We are “saving” them so we can continue to look at them. Zoos are for people, not animals. If the animals do survive in the wild, it’ll be in spite of us, not because of us.

Miriam Dailey Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Much of what Derrick Jensen finds repugnant about zoos is accurate, or at least it once was. But he trivializes the valuable contributions zoos have made both to our culture and to our relations with other species.

I’m a frequent visitor to zoos — whether enlightened or primitive — in many parts of the world, and the other visitors always react to the animals with awe. For many of us who grew up away from nature, early zoo experiences are profoundly moving. They stick with us into adulthood and ultimately influence our perception of the world. Whether or not we banged on cages or laughed at the animals at the time, even the most jaded among us is changed by these encounters. There is no doubt that beholding a monkey or dolphin in a zoo is a far cry from seeing one in the wild, but even these captive individuals are vastly more authentic than their respective facsimiles in a cartoon or video game. And every zoo visitor knows these animals don’t come from zoos, but rather from a mysterious wild place — somewhere worth visiting, and maybe worth preserving.

Zoos have not only raised hundreds of millions of dollars for conservation, but some have been essential leaders in saving endangered species and habitats, employing thousands of conservation professionals around the globe. Of course if one looks back over a century, as Jensen does, one can easily find examples of animals — and humans — being treated in unimaginably horrific ways; Pygmies were put on display in cages in the early twentieth century! Such unfortunate realities mustn’t blind us to the fact that zoos have also brought meaningful protection to countless wild elephants, rhinos, giraffes, and gorillas.

Jensen would have us believe that the only ethical view is to hold all zoos in contempt, regardless of how modern, enriched, or sensitive they may be to the welfare of animals. Hopefully Sun readers will understand that although zoos are not without their flaws, they play an essential role in conservation and the welfare of animals the world over.

James D. Gilardi
Director, World Parrot Trust
Davis, California
Derrick Jensen responds:

James D. Gilardi writes of the money that zoos supposedly give to conservation, but Mike Seidman, former conservation officer for the Arizona Zoological Society and the Phoenix Zoo, writes: “Such is the depth of our society’s commitment to conservation — not to mention our love of nature — that we will gladly donate vast sums to keep animals in elaborate cages but not to let them live wild.” In recent years even the San Diego Zoo, considered by many to be at the forefront of conservation, spent more than three times as much on public relations than on wildlife-conservation studies.

Gilardi states that we must not allow the horrors of zoos (which he inaccurately attempts to relegate to the past) to “blind us to the fact that zoos have also brought meaningful protection to countless wild elephants, rhinos, giraffes, and gorillas.” But incarceration does not help wild creatures at all; it simply incarcerates them. The recent improvement in zoo conditions is primarily cosmetic: Extensive studies show that the mortality rate has remained remarkably consistent over the decades. Indeed, graphs showing mortality in the late twentieth century closely match those from the early nineteenth. In their 2002 book Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West, Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier write, “In all instances, mortality remained high during the first eighteen months, the principal difference being the presence of a few veterans among twentieth-century animals.”

I am frustrated by Gilardi’s insistence that seeing incarcerated animals helps humans. In fact, as I argue in the excerpt, observing caged animals provides a false view of what those animals are. A far better and more responsible alternative is to look at the wild creatures who live near (or in) your home. Even in the midst of the largest cities, there are still wild creatures.

The following statement of Gilardi’s encapsulates why this culture is killing the planet: “Whether or not we banged on cages or laughed at the animals at the time, even the most jaded among us is changed by these encounters.” In other words, it doesn’t matter that this culture incarcerates, humiliates, and torments wild creatures, so long as we get to have an encounter we perceive as having changed us. But a wolverine doesn’t exist so that he or she can be taken from his or her home and put into a cage so that we can bang on it and then say that somehow we were changed by this experience. A wolverine exists for reasons other than our entertainment or even enlightenment. We should not pretend that zoos are other than what they are: amusement parks that use caged wild animals in place of roller coasters.

Having been a vegan for twenty-one years, I was thrilled to read your November issue. Derrick Jensen’s heartbreaking piece about zoos made me weep for every animal in confinement. Craig Childs’s essay “Raven” made me more forgiving of the crows who sometimes wake me before I am ready to get up. Sunbeams made me cheer to realize how many people have spoken out on behalf of animals, even when it seems that there is too much silence on the subject. Every word and photograph published in this issue gives me hope that there are people paying attention to how we human animals relate to our fellow beings. The future does not look as bleak as it did before.

Patti Breitman Fairfax, California

Reading the essay “Raven,” by Craig Childs, reminded me of a field trip I took while attending forestry school in 1983. My class was in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and our professor called us over to observe as he pulled out his pruning shears and cut down a spruce sapling perhaps six inches tall and less than an inch in diameter. Examining the cross section, he revealed the tree’s age to be sixty years.

It was an important lesson — in more ways than one. I remember being astonished that such a small tree could be that old. I also remember that the professor cut down the tree with what appeared to be no regard for its life. Although we students were on the road to becoming “natural-resource managers,” we would not be taught to consider the rights of the “resources” we were about to “manage.” For twenty-four years, I’ve felt guilt about this act in which I was a participant, and gratitude to the spruce for having allowed me to learn at its expense.

I suspect Childs is a product of a similar training, which teaches that human beings — particularly white men who have achieved academic and financial success — are at the top of the heap. When Childs entered the ravens’ canyon and recognized that he was not welcome, he left, but he returned later with three friends. With these added numbers, they discovered — and, to my mind, desecrated — a holy site of the ravens, all in the interest of “research.”

Mark Judelson Chestnut Ridge, New York
Craig Childs responds:

At the time of the raven story, my wife-to-be and I were flat broke and living in a cabin powered by one solar panel and a car battery. I had just come off seven years of living out of my truck and in the wilderness, working seasons as a river guide. So we were far from the “top of the heap.” This was not a story of my invading a world, but of my being a part of a world. I walked twenty-seven days in the desert to reach those ravens and have that moment of exchange. Many people can only dream of such candid encounters, and I was humbled and honored by what I witnessed. What I did was not research. It was wonder. It was living life on this earth.

The short story “Me Me Me,” by April Wilder [November 2007], is one of the funniest I have ever read. Beyond the outlandish humor, Wilder’s quirky characters possess heart. They are living, breathing, deeply flawed human beings trying to get through the day.

Andy Hjelmeland Plymouth, Minnesota

“Me Me Me” is the best story I’ve read in years: funny, tough, deep. If it doesn’t win a major prize . . . well, that whole business is so screwed up, I wouldn’t be surprised. But it was a joy and a marvel to read anyway. That feeling of not wanting to come to the end of a story gets rarer for me every year.

Poe Ballantine Chadron, Nebraska

To Krista Bremer, Sun associate publisher for circulation and marketing: I have just renewed for the next twenty-four issues, and it is all your fault. I had planned to allow my subscription to expire, but you had to point out in your Holiday Offer [November 2007] that the emotions I always feel while reading the stories and essays — and even Sy’s monthly musings — are not a bad thing.

The magic pills pharmaceutical companies concoct to erase pain and heartache also make us less human. Thanks for reminding me that The Sun is written by humans, for humans. If I keep working at it, I can remain one.

Bob Gwin Gales Ferry, Connecticut
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