Sunday, 30 March 2008

Thinking about the Zoo

I was recently doing some research on conservation when I came across this site dedicated to informing the public about the Byculla Zoo redevelopment plan -

While I do keep track of issues like these through the newspapers and the Net, I must admit that this site caught me off guard. It offers actual scanned copies of the CZA's (Central Zoo Authority's) initial report and its criticisms of the master plan to redevelop Mumbai's only Zoo, previously not seen among the popular media.

The newspapers and T.V channels, by contrast, seem to have not given us the whole picture, and instead have focused on merely reporting actions and reactions from different parties involved rather than conducting an analysis of the gaps inherent in the master plan, leading most of us to believe that every thing's alright with the plan itself.

While I understand many of the concerns about the New Zoo - I can't help but wonder about the logic behind creating a zoo in the first place. This brings up a few interesting questions, which I'd like to tackle through an imaginary friend -

Me - Why do we need to have a zoo in a city that contains a large national park?

My friend - Because the zoo, unlike the SGNP, will have assorted wildlife representing all the diversity of India.

Me - Right, so the Zoo has rhinos, etc. that you wouldn't find in the SGNP, but does that justify building a zoo in the first place?

My friend - Yes, because we can't expect everyone to travel all the way to Corbett or Kaziranga or other such supposedly beautiful national parks where they may or may not get a chance to glimpse a rhino, Marmoset, etc. In short, it's troublesome and expensive. We'd rather bring the wildlife to us than go to the wildlife.

Me - Right, but all you've done is prove to me that it's easier to visit a zoo than a park. The fact that this is a easier option does not in itself justify creating a park in the first place. Don't tell me that the reason you want to create a zoo is because it's easy to visit one. That's not really a reason. That's just an argument for argument's sake.

My friend - Well, we have to have a zoo because zoo's have birds and animals, things of beauty,and things of beauty are a joy forever. We need these things close by for the sake of our children, for education, so they can be made aware of conservation issues. You've said yourself that real conservation begins young.

Me - True, but at what cost, would you imprison an animal just to educate a child, or entertain the public. Surely, that's a mockery of education. Aren't there other ways to do this. Zoos used to exist because the public had no means by which they could marvel at wildlife, other than books or actual travel. Now we have T.V, the Internet, we can watch birds and animals at our leisure. We can travel without leaving our living rooms. And use these very resources to educate and entertain people. Doesn't that render the zoo obsolete?

My friend - No, because nothing compares to seeing one of these creatures in the flesh. You've been to the Dubai zoo. Would you position that experience at an equal level alongside an hour of Animal planet?

Me - Maybe, it depends, I'm not sure. But you're still justifying imprisonment for the sake of personal pleasure.

My friend - And what's wrong with that. A lot of the things we do for personal pleasure necessitate undesirable actions. Think of the ice cream you so love. Think of the ingredients. Milk? Think of the process to acquire it. Don't cows suffer, forced to live in squalid, cramped conditions? You're a non-vegetarian. Don't you advocate animal slaughter? So how can you now change track and be concerned about animal welfare. Or is it just 'exotic' animals that you're concerned about?

Me - You're going off topic. That's a different issue. I do admit that a lot of people out there seem like they're wearing blinders. They seem to want to protect only rare wildlife, yet don't care about strays, or even poor people for that matter. For my part, I believe that killing animals for food is O.K, as long as it's done humanely. And so I don't see any contradiction in being a non-vegetarian and fighting for animal rights at the same time. But what I'm talking about here is both similar and different. We need to make sure no animal suffers unduly for our sake. Food is a different issue. I'm O.K with killing domesticated animals for food. But we can't use that same logic to kill whales and tigers for meat. Why, because there are so few of them. Maybe if we brought the tiger population up to 1,00,000 we could then go about hunting tigers for their meat? That's an interesting point but I don't want to get into that now.

My friend - So what you're saying is you are O.K with killing animals as long as there are many of them and its done humanely. You're also saying that we need to be concerned about animal welfare in general, whether in a zoo or a farm.

Me - Exactly, the only difference, in my opinion, is that zoos are unnatural because we can get by without them, whereas we need farms, and farms being a case where animals are kept captive, we need to make sure their stay is as comfortable as possible.

My friend - I agree with you there, but I'm not clear about the line that you've drawn between domesticated and wild animals. You seem to have drawn an imaginary line between the two , thereby concluding that one group is fit for captivity and the other belongs in the wild only. I know that looking at history, we can see that some animals have become fit for domestication and companionship. But just because we've managed to domesticate some animals because of their nature, does not mean that the rest have to be restricted to the jungles, even if they are dangerous. We can always exhibit them at zoos, making sure they're comfortable, and their level of discomfiture wouldn't really be that much different from any domesticated animals, would it?

Me - I'm not so sure you can compare the two groups. Domesticated animals seem to be fit for captivity. They seem to enjoy it , or have adapted to enjoy it. Zoo creatures, on the other hand, seem listless and sad, confined and trapped.

My friend - Is that really your expert opinion, or a guess?

Me - More of a guess based on observation. Assuming I'm right, that zoo creatures do suffer unnaturally, then that would negate your argument about exhibiting creatures for personal pleasure, with the caveat that this suffering is really unnatural.

My friend - We can imprison animals in enclosures that simulate their natural settings, removing their feeling of imprisonment...

Me - But would that be enough? I feel we need more research here. My questions are these -

1. Do wild animals differ from domesticated animals in that they suffer to a degree that we can't ignore when they're placed in zoos?
2. Do their offspring suffer as much?
3. If yes, then is the existence of zoos suspect if all they do is exhibit creatures without using them for conservation purposes like breeding, etc.

And here's where we end our discussion, with doubt...

I'm still searching for answers.

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