Thursday, June 9, 2011

On the morality of zoos.

The creature pictured above is a fire bellied newt named Petri.  I think it's a Chinese fire bellied newt, but it may be Japanese.  The pet shop that sold it to my friends told them Petri would probably live three years.  That was 13 years ago.  In the wild, Petri probably would have been eaten by a larger predator, or frozen during a harsh winter in China.  In the safety of his aquarium, he has lived a long life.

Which led me to thinking about zoos.  I love to visit zoos.  I love to see the exotic animals, but I always go home depressed.  These creatures live in captivity.  No matter how nice or interactive their environment may be, they are not free.

A zoo presents a moral difficulty.  There is a well-reasoned argument that zoos help preserve animals in the wild by getting visitors interested in wildlife preservation.  Anyone who has gone to the zoo as a child or with children can attest to this.  And zoos study animals, learn about them, and even breed them.

These efforts help animals overall, but for the specific animals held captive, it's not the life they were designed for.  Nature is a harsh place.  In their natural habitat, animals routinely starve, sustain injury, fight predators, and live short lives.  But they also migrate, play, mate, wander, eat and roam.  No zebra in a zoo will ever take part in the Great Migration.  No zoo lion will ever hunt down a gazelle.

So while I support the efforts of zoos to promote conservation and learn more about animals, I find it very hard to visit them anymore.  However, I am optimistic about the future.  As education and birth control become available to more people around the world, I think we'll see human populations level out or eventually reduce.  For example, Europe and the United States would both have falling populations if not for immigration.

As human numbers level out and we learn how to better sustain ourselves, the world will have large areas of undeveloped land and animal populations (at least the ones that remain) will have a chance to rebound.  The next 20 years will be crucial to this process, so we should preserve what animals we can right now and plan ahead for the next generation. 

On a final note, an article I found states fire bellied newts can live up to 30 years! I should probably mention this to my friends.

(Thanks to Chris and Shannon for the picture of Petri.  Here is a good blog about newts, and another with some sharp photos.)

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