Zoo no place for animals

My view • The only healthy home for wildlife is the wild
by:  L.E. BASKOW, Chenda, a pygmy elephant (with Oregon Zoo deputy director Mike Keele), would be happier and healthier in the wild than in the  cold, damp climate here, a writer says.

For quite some time we've been known as a nation of animal lovers. We are horrified by active acts of cruelty against animals, yet remain relatively unconcerned about passive cruelty.

Although most of us would consider perpetually keeping a dog in a kennel to be unkind, the sight of a wild or exotic animal in permanent confinement rarely provokes outrage.

Almost no one is capable of giving exotic animals the conditions they would enjoy in the wild. Artificial exhibits, no matter how natural-looking to us, wither animals, both individually and as species.

They do very little to create an understanding of our place in the natural world, but do quite a good job illustrating the barrier that stands between the human and natural world.

Confined animals in zoos and circuses are left to suffer, both physically and mentally, for no justifiable reason, but we are surprised when they lash out.

Zoos and even some circuses claim to be conservation saviors, yet for most of them that means breeding to preserve collections - not habitat preservation - due to the public's awareness that capturing wild animals causes intense misery or death.

Greenwashing is prevalent; the number of species saved from extinction by zoos can be counted on one or two hands, a pathetic record when we consider that the Earth, according to scientists, is losing 30,000 species a year.

More large sections of wild lands ought to be preserved, because when wild predators have enough space to thrive all the other animals down the food chain within that ecosystem are saved as well.

Failure to maintain healthy biotic systems will lead to diminishing living standards for all life on Earth, including us. Zoos play such a minor role in conservation that it would be wise not to put too much trust in them.

But a change in attitude is at last sweeping the world. More and more acquaintances admit their private dislike of zoos and circuses, held secret for fear of being labeled eccentric or extremist.

And as a greater understanding emerges about nonhuman animals' fascinating lives - such as elephants' amazing social and psychological complexities - more wildlife advocates are speaking up, condemning the unsatisfactory and often poor conditions that urban zoos and circuses provide.

Several relatively progressive U.S. zoos have closed or begun the process of phasing out their elephant exhibits. But most zoos, including the Oregon Zoo, plod along and respond defensively, offering mere enclosure-size increases that do nothing to address the fundamental issue of keeping elephants in a debilitating, cold, damp climate.

To me, admiring an animal outside of its natural world is hollow and disconcerting, and it erases the animal's dignity, along with our sense of wonder.

We have no right to imprison animals for life - for our entertainment or for dubious education - especially with ubiquitous opportunities to learn about the world through travel, books and excellent films that show far more realistically how wildlife behave and function within intricate ecosystems than an exhibit ever could.

Films probably are a major reason for the drop in zoo and circus attendance worldwide, along with the growing awareness of the artificiality and depravity of keeping animals behind bars.

Oregon Zoo's future Predators of the Serengeti exhibit might not seem quite so repugnant, and the zoo might even be worthy of the leadership label it is seeking if it gave the animals' needs the front seat, above attendance figures.

Sadly, the high walls that will be built to keep visitors safe from the African cats also will serve to lower ourselves.

Saving wildlife requires positive action, not imprisonment. When wild habitats are truly lost, their dwellers cannot be preserved behind bars, because those animals would be unlike their original kind, missing freedom of choice and everything else that makes their lives worth living.

Eileen Stark is a conservationist and freelance writer living in Northeast Portland.