Zoos commit at least five unforgivable sins. First, they destroy the lives of those they cage. Second, they destroy our understanding of who and what animals and habitats really are. Third, they destroy our understanding of who and what we really are. And fourth, they destroy the potential for mutual relationships, not only with those particular encaged animals but also with those still wild.
Zoos—like pornography, like science—substitute superficial relationships based on hierarchy, based on dominance and submission, based on a detached consumer manipulating and observing another who may or may not have given permission to be the object of this gaze, for deep relationships based on mutual respect and the giving of gifts.
Think of a pornographic picture. Even in cases where women are paid and willingly pose for pornography, they have not given me permission to see their bodies—or rather images of their bodies—right here right now. If I have a photograph, I have it forever, even if subsequently the woman withdraws her permission. This is the opposite of relationship, where the woman can present herself to me now, and now, and now, always at both her and my and our discretion (and of course I can present myself to her now, and now, and now, also always at her and my and our discretion). What in the latter case is a moment by moment gift becomes in the former case my property, to do with as I choose. This is, of course, true of all photographs.
And it is true of zoos. I do not and cannot command the bear whose home I share to appear before me. Nor the gray jays, the slender salamanders, the slugs. They are willful and independent.
Everything is far worse than I am making it seem. Zoos—like pornography, like science, like other toxic mimics—take a very real, necessary, creative, life-affirming, and most of all relational urge and turn it—pervert it—until it furthers not fully mutual relationships at all but instead superficial relationships based on domination and control. Indeed, zoos—like pornography, like science, like other toxic mimics—can cause people to forget those original relational urges, to forget mutuality is possible, to forget depth is possible, to believe control is natural and desirable. Pornography takes the creative relational need for sexuality with willing partners—and the intimacy this can imply—and simplifies it to the relationship of watcher and watched. Science takes the creative relational need for understanding and the gaining of wisdom and simplifies it to that same dynamic; watcher and watched; dominator and dominated; subject and object. Zoos take the creative need for participating in relationships with wild nonhuman others and simplify it until our “nature experience” consists of spending a few moments looking at—or simply walking by—insane bears and angry chimpanzees in concrete cages.
It’s actually worse than this. Incarcerating animals in zoos is to entering into relationships with them in the wild as rape is to making love. The former in each case requires coercion, limits the freedom of the victim, springs from, manifests, and reinforces self-perceived entitlement to full access to the victim on the part of the perpetrator. The former in each case damages the ability of both victim and perpetrator to enter into future intimate relationships. It distorts the notion of what constitutes a relationship. It is based on the dyad of dominance and submission. It closes off any possibility for real and willing understanding of the other.
The latter in each case is a dance among willing participants who give what they wish as they wish when they wish. It inspires present and future intimacy, present and future understanding of the other and the self. It nourishes those involved. It makes us more of who we are.