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Zoo Story : THE MODERN ARK: The Story of Zoos: Past, Present and Future. By Vicki Croke . Scribner: 254 pp., $26

March 02, 1997|JEFFREY MOUSSAIEFF MASSON | Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson is the co-author of "When Elephants Weep" and of the forthcoming "Dogs Never Lie About Love: The Emotional Lives of Our Best Friends."

All of us have had the experience of going to a zoo in a good mood and leaving depressed. There is something that numbs the spirit in seeing magnificent animals, created for the freedom of jungle or forest life, confined, whether in a tiny cage or in a large compound, for the duration of their lives. It makes us an accomplice to even visit such places, let alone to enjoy them. Fewer and fewer enlightened people enjoy zoos. (The citizens of the progressive city of Vancouver, Canada, voted to close their Stanley Park Zoo in 1993.) With zoo attendance at an all-time high (last year in America, zoos were visited by a record 120 million people, nearly half the human population), people who run zoos may think those of us who are uneasy are a carping minority. This would be a mistake.

There are deep criticisms of zoos emerging from a large variety of sources. It is not so much this or that particular zoo or this or that particular exhibit but the very concept of a zoo, the very idea of keeping an animal captive for its entire natural life for the enjoyment or even for the education of another species, that is coming under critical scrutiny. What gives us the right to do this?

Certainly, as this thoughtful book makes clear, zoos began in a most reprehensible fashion, a way of amusing the public and making a profit. Modern zoos are uncomfortable with this legacy, so much so that the New York Zoological Society has decided to rename its zoos "conservation areas." And we learn from this book that the most progressive zoos are putting a great deal of energy into captive breeding and even re-release programs. If an animal is about to become extinct in the wild (as they do on a daily basis) and a zoo comes along and says it wants to capture the last remaining animals, breed them until they are a stable population and then release them back into the wild, who could possibly tell them not to do it?

But this book also lets us know that there are still serious problems in zoos, all zoos. What does it take for an animal to be "happy" and who is going to decide? Scientists working with dolphins in what were just oversized swimming pools swear that these animals were perfectly happy. But how could they say otherwise without losing funding, jobs, prestige and interesting research? Has anyone ever asked the dolphins? We are becoming more and more adept at communicating with other species--dolphins, gorillas, chimpanzees--but nobody is bothering to ask them about how they feel, probably because we already know the answer.

And even if many zoo animals have never known another home except the zoo, that does not mean that they are complete animals there. An elephant is simply not an elephant outside its own habitat, which could be a clue to the reason there have been so many recent deaths of handlers in the last few years in the United States (nine elephant-related human deaths in four years). Surely the elephants are trying to tell us about some unhappiness.

Croke is not afraid to single out particular exhibits and zoos for criticism. But she clearly has become a partisan of zoos. She fails to even mention alternatives. The great scientists in ethology are field biologists, which means that they work in the field, not in a zoo. People like Jane Goodall who work with chimpanzees do not work in zoos. Cynthia Moss, L. David Mechs, Birute Galdikas and the late Dian Fossey have all worked in the wild.

Moreover, there are already in place a number of sanctuaries that do a lot of the work that zoos should be doing but don't, like protecting animals that have been abused. The actress Tippi Hedren has one such sanctuary outside Los Angeles for the big cats. The Performing Animal Welfare Society, outside Sacramento, is also such a place. The animals there do not live a natural life, by any stretch of the imagination, but it beats any zoo I have ever seen. The newest concept on elephant keeping is "protected contact," where the keeper never comes into direct contact with the elephant. I understand, after all the recent deaths of keepers, the need for such action. But what happens to affection then? I know many of the keepers feel genuine affection, friendship, even love, for "their" elephants. But how can this be expressed in any way that the elephant understands? Some zoo directors (in Los Angeles, Detroit, Oakland, among others) have become interested in these sanctuaries and in the deeper criticism of zoos coming from informed members of the large number of organizations devoted to helping animals, such as Last Chance for Animals here in Los Angeles. But Croke never mentions them.

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