Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Are Zoos An Anachronism?

One of the best fiction books published in the last few years is Life of Pi, a highly imaginative novel about, among many other things, a young Indian boy's survival in a lifeboat following a shipwreck in the Pacific Ocean.

Pi Patel is the son of a zookeeper. And in the early sections of the book Pi puts a unique spin on the essential goodness of zoos, arguing that it is the Wild that stresses animals and limits their capacity for happiness and play. The zoo becomes protection from predators and the daily uncertainty of finding food.

It was a charming section of the book, and most of the zoos I've seen recently have made a concerted effort to expand and naturalize the habitats of the animals. But elephants seem to be the biggest draw to zoos, and they are often the most difficult to manage, leading to stories like this:

Oxford University researchers contended 40 percent of zoo elephants display so-called stereotypical behavior, which their 2002 report defined as repetitive movements that lack purpose. The report said studies have shown zoo elephants tend to die younger, are more prone to aggression and are less capable of breeding compared with the hundreds of thousands of elephants left in the wild. Moreover, critics say many zoo elephants, though hardy, spend too much time cramped indoors, get little exercise and become susceptible to infections and arthritis from walking on concrete floors.

And these challenges lead to this:

Some zoos give animals behaving stereotypically the same antidepressant drugs found to ease compulsive behaviors in people.

With the Crocodile Hunters and Animal Planet channels, you wonder whether the zoo is still required to familiarize the public with exotic animals. And you wonder whether or not Pi Patel has a point.