Tuesday, 31 May 2016

On Zoos, The Gorilla, The Death & The Reaction

I'm soon expecting to see the first of many memes expressing the following:

"Every day hundreds of people are dying in x conflict or under y oppression or of z disease and it goes largely ignored, but one gorilla is killed in a zoo and everyone can't stop talking about it and posting photos and comments".

What's been interesting for me about human nature and the reaction is that I'll bet the totality of sadness and regret for the gorilla dying is much greater than it would have been if the boy had fallen over the edge, hit his head and died.

There's probably a threefold reason for this, and possibly not wholly irrational either, roughly along the lines of:

1) There are far more humans than gorillas in the world, so proportional to the size of the species, one less gorilla is (sub)consciously seen as more regrettable than one less human, particularly as there is much talk about whether they could have intervened in a non-fatal way.

2) The cost of this gorilla's life is rightly seen as so easily avoidable, so there is some form of sublimation whereby underlying resentment is (un)consciously directed towards the parents for not keeping a better eye on their child.

3) There are all sorts of multifaceted emotional responses to the death of the gorilla (the photo itself is enough to elicit sadness) which extend to associative thoughts of keeping animals from their natural habitat, the effect the human species has on other animal species, and that there is a taint to the human condition - a kind of fallenness - that other primates do not possess.

Three points on the above. Firstly, as tempting as I'm sure many might find it, I wouldn't wish to see too much opprobrium directed at the parents. While we can all say with hindsight that they could have kept a better eye on the boy, I'm sure every parent will tell you that realistically it's terribly hard to keep your children in the safest proximity to a parent at all times. Even within the vicinity of their parents, children wander, they explore, and 99.9% of the time nothing serious happens. This has been a case with a tragic outcome - but I think if too much condemnation is directed at the parents there will be an awful lot of hypocrisy reflected back at those that condemn (specks and planks in eyes spring to mind).

Secondly, it's understandable why more is made of this incident than of the continual conflicts, oppressions and diseases that blight humanity every day - shooting a gorilla in a zoo is a lot more unusual to the casual observer than the regular torrent of tragedy and adversity one rather expects to see on the news every day.

Thirdly, putting aside all moral views and knowledge of hindsight for a moment - there is one thing I feel certain about: in the heat of the moment, if it were your child down there with the gorilla you'd have very little thought for the well-being of the gorilla, whether it's an endangered species, and so on, you would be terrified out of your mind at the thought of losing your child and be screaming at the response team to shoot the gorilla.

Are zoos good things?
In the wake of the death of Harambe the gorilla, and all talk of whether the fences should have been better, and whether all the decisions were the correct ones, some people have been declaring that zoos are bad things and should be discontinued. Immediately after an event is the worst time to assess a proposition like that, as people tend to be reactionary and not weigh up all the pros and cons (which in most cases are the same before or after events like this) - but I have a couple of thoughts on the matter.

When considering whether zoos are a good thing, what I mean is, do the net positives outweigh the net negatives (including for humans as well as animals)? In most cases, pet ownership seems to me to be a good thing for both the animal and the owners because the pleasures of having a dog or cat or horse at your property far outweigh the costs (food, injections, the looking after time, etc).

Zoos, on the other hand, confer significantly more costs and benefits on animals. The benefits are regular food, low risk of predation or injury from other creatures, and safety from poaching and hunting. The costs are lack of freedom in their natural habitat, and having to put up with lots of people with ice creams looking at them all day, and on the odd occasion getting shot by zookeepers.

From a layman's perspective, my instinct is that the benefits outweigh the costs for the animals, but it's hard to be sure, particularly as one can't know the mind of another creature. Maybe whales and primates in captivity suffer psychologically less than, say, meerkats or iguanas - it is difficult to know.

One of the benefits of zoos is that they offer educational programs for the children, youth and family - but in today's modern age learning potential via videos and the internet is so huge that that might be less of a factor nowadays. Another benefit, and this all depends on the country, but some zoos can help preserve genetic diversity. A third benefit is that folks who see and interact with animals are more likely to support the survival of the species. Thus, whether zoos benefit individual animals or not, they may well benefit the survival of the species and biodiversity.

As everything is a trade off, one can argue that zoos are good things overall because they can serve as important reservoirs/stockpiles of rare and endangered animals and precious genetic variation until habitats can be restored. But one can also argue that zoos are an overall problem because those benefits do not make up for the negatives associated with keeping animals in possibly sub-optimal conditions. 

All that said, once we start to look at some figures, though, we get a better idea of how much value zoos provide. According to a quick Google search, there are over 10,000 zoos in the world, gaining over 600 million vistors per year, and with figures like that it's clearly an industry that's created hundreds of thousands of jobs. Consequently, once you add to that all the scientific research, the animals that are saved from extinction through the breeding of endangered species, and all the public education distilled from their existence, I think it's fairly easy to argue with confidence that for humans zoos are a net benefit to the world. As for whether that constitutes a net gain for humans and animals combined, my gut instinct is that it does - but I'll leave you to make up your own minds on that one. 

* This surely doesn't need saying but obviously I am always talking about zoos that treat animals well and with care. Unquestionably any zoo or circus that fails to do this is disgraceful and should have their licence taken away and never work with animals again.