My wife is one of the most tolerant, open-minded people I know. And yet for years, she liked to say that there is one “controversial” issue about which she could only see one side – gay marriage. Her attitude was quite simple. Consenting adults should be able to get married, regardless of race, color or sexual preference. She understood that, at least at one point, she was in the minority on this issue, but she didn’t care. Only one side of the debate had any resonance for her. That was that.
This past week, I experienced that same feeling of encountering a controversial issue, assuming that I was in the minority, but nevertheless viewing the majority view as utterly indefensible. It’s a strange feeling to have, as I don’t like disrespecting the general will, and my head is rarely so swelled that I feel incapable of being wrong. But on this issue, there seems to me to be only one civilized position to take, and yet I rarely hear anyone taking it. Either something’s very wrong with me, or our society is quite uncivilized in a particular domain. I’m betting on the latter.
The issue is whether human beings have any business corralling great apes and putting them in zoos. And yes, what I am picturing in raising this matter is the killing of a majestic gorilla by the Cincinnati Zoo. I’ve seen that incident covered by CNN on multiple occasions. Each time, the moderator took for granted that there is nothing wrong with an American zoo keeping a gorilla on its premises. The moderator then proceeded to interview zoo experts and legal experts on the issue of who was at fault for the gorilla’s death: the zoo, for intentionally killing the gorilla or for having a design failure that allowed a little boy into the gorilla pit; the boy’s mother, for not being more vigilant over her son; or nobody (“shit happens”). At least on the segments I watched, there were no animal-rights activists interviewed. It was simply assumed that zoos will have gorillas, and the only issue was what can/should be done to ensure that we don’t have to shoot any more of these animals or risk the lives of other children who feel compelled to hang out with gorillas at their local zoo.
Personally, I think reasonable people can disagree about the values of zoos generally. If you want to put insects in zoos, or reptiles, or amphibians, I’m not going to argue. But the Great Apes? I’m sorry. These are our closest relatives; they’re incredibly human-like animals. The DNA of chimps and bonobos differ from human DNA by a whopping 1.2%, and our difference with gorillas is only slightly greater (1.6%). So given that we are practically talking about our own kin, the only question we should be asking is whether we ourselves would enjoy living as some sort of zoo animal. In other words, how would be feel about an existence of life imprisonment when our only “crime” was to be born into a species that is less powerful than a slightly different species that feels free to utilize their weaker counterparts for their own selfish purposes.
You’d think that “we, the people” would be satisfied with heating up the planet to the point where one out of every six species of plants and animals is now facing extinction. Isn’t that enough of a muscle-flexing exercise for us? Do we really need to take those animals that most remind us of ourselves and prevent them from living freely, the way nature intended them to live and the way we would ourselves choose to live if given a choice? I understand that an argument could be made that if we don’t build zoos and expose one another to the beauty and diversity of the animal kingdom, we may be inclined to be even more reckless with the welfare of animals. But do we really need to keep representatives of ALL species in captivity? Can’t we distinguish between a snake, say, and a chimp or gorilla? For isn’t there only one real lesson to learn from a visit to the Great Ape house: that we’re looking at our family members. And no member of our family wants to do decades of hard time. Talk about locking up innocent victims!
As for the controversy that CNN would like to cover, I have no idea whether the zoo, the mother, both or neither should be punished for their conduct. It’s not my job to investigate that incident. But it is my job – and yours too – to ensure that our species is properly serving in the role of steward to the planet. The fact that we have so much power relative to other creatures is, in my view, a source of duties, not rights. If we can’t stop ourselves from killing fish, possums, and polar bears, let’s at least be sure that we’re treating the Great Apes well. Instead of putting them in a cage, let’s bring them to their natural habitat and set them free – and if we catch any humanoids there killing them in the wild, those are the folks who should be doing the hard time. Let’s put THEM in the zoos, not the innocent gorillas.