(CHILDREN AND ZOOS) Instead of educating children about the lives of animals in the wild, zoos more often teach children to view animals as a form of entertainment, according to child psychiatrist Sujatha Ramakrishna. In this excerpt from her upcoming book Raising Kids Who Love Animals, Dr. Ramakrishna explains how even zoos with informational signs and the best habitats cannot compete with the educational value of a nature show on TV that films animals in the wild.
Read on to learn how Dr. Ramakrishna came to the conclusion that all zoos are bad, even the “good” ones, and what taking your children to a zoo could actually teach them about animals. — Global Animal
Excerpted with permission from the book, How NOT to Raise a Serial Killer: Teaching Your Child to Have Empathy for Animals by Sujatha Ramakrishna, M.D.
ZOOS ARE FIT FOR NEITHER CHILD NOR BEAST
Over the last few years, I’ve found myself in the middle of some disagreements about zoos. I’m a pediatric psychiatrist, and I also love animals, so my concerns are twofold. Animals in confinement often exhibit unnatural and even psychotic behavior, as a result of boredom and inactivity. This is an obvious sign that they are suffering. As for children, I’ve wondered whether a trip to the zoo is an educational experience, or if it only encourages them to treat animals with disrespect.
My family went to the zoo a lot when I was a kid. I have childhood memories of angry gorillas behind bars throwing things at unsuspecting visitors. Along with numerous others, I tossed marshmallows to polar bears, who avidly begged for them. There were no signs asking us not to feed the animals.
Obviously, those were not good ways for a young child to learn about animals, but zoos have changed a lot in the last few decades. There has been a push towards making exhibits look naturalistic, providing us with a more realistic picture of how animals live in the wild. Additionally, zoos must provide behavioral enrichment programs for their animals, as a means of preventing boredom and emotional stress, in order to be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Until recently, I hadn’t been inside a zoo in decades, because I found them to be way too depressing. After doing a bit of research about the new requirements, I started wondering whether or not things really have changed for the better. The only way to know for sure was to see for myself.
So I visited a traditional zoo, with wild animals from many different continents. I looked at the smaller animals first, who seemed to be relatively healthy and happy in their exhibits. But then I noticed others who weren’t doing so well.
Two wolves paced restlessly in a pen that had been made to look quite beautiful for human eyes, but which still provided them with very little living space. Several large cats likewise wandered back and forth in their cages, up and down hills and through grass, but nonetheless in stereotypical patterns indicative of emotional distress. The saddest part was watching the giraffes, whose long legs took them across their entire exhibit in only a few steps. The petting zoo was no better. A group of piglets in a barren stall desperately tried to gnaw at my fingers through the wire fence.
So much for the success of behavioral enrichment programs in alleviating boredom.
If kids learned anything of value by watching these animals, I certainly didn’t see it. What I did see was plenty of mockery and ignorance. For example, several families laughed at a female chimpanzee, who was hanging from a rope with her private parts in full view. One father saw the chimp and said to his son, “Look, a gorilla!” Dad must not have read the sign.
[quote]There was a display in the ape house listing detailed facts about habitat, behavior, and conservation, but that part of the building was completely empty. Everyone seemed more interested in pointing at the chimp’s bottom and making jokes.[/quote]
Wondering if other zoos might be different, I visited a smaller zoo, and also an aquarium housing marine mammals. Unfortunately, I observed similar problems at each of these venues.
Though I hoped to find evidence to the contrary, I must conclude that zoos continue to be detrimental to animal welfare, and that they do not teach children positive lessons about animals. Kids who watch leopards pacing in mindless patterns get a completely inaccurate picture of what large predators are all about. They also learn that making sentient beings suffer for human amusement is acceptable. We want to teach kids to show kindness towards animals, not stare at their misery while eating popcorn.
A more educational experience can be found at wildlife parks and sanctuaries, where animals are free to roam and do as they please. An even better alternative is watching nature videos, and I don’t mean cowboy shows where macho men tackle and torment dangerous beasts to demonstrate their own prowess. I mean ones with real naturalists who teach kids how animals eat, sleep, and live in the absence of human interference. For young people to fully understand and appreciate wild animals, and especially for them to believe that they’re worth saving, they must learn about their natural behaviors and importance to our ecosystem. Modern zoos teach none of these things.