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Replacing cages with streaming feeds of animals -- an air zoo.

Zoos arose when access to animals either did not happen at all, or required grueling travel. Theoretically, zoos brought the exotic creatures of the world home in fascination (less charitably, in domination). Mostly, they were sad places for animals and people alike. Cramped, concrete jungles, too often in urban environments.

Perhaps, zoos improved on taxidermy. The denizens of “natural history” museums teaching children, teaching us, that Big Life is glass eyed and moth eaten – as far from the true ethos of wildlife as it could be. If zoos improved on the shotgun schools of zoology, however, it was marginal. Nothing is itself in a cage. As the Toronto City council to its credit recently concluded before sending Thika, Toka and Iringa to a California sanctuary, elephants do not belong in Toronto.

Today we have every possible means of observing animals in their natural element or large open sanctuaries. The NPS's live webcam of brown bears salmon fishing at Katmai is a perfect and excellent example! As science museums have evolved to present what is new in new ways, so we should encourage zoos to do the same, by moving animals to legitimate open space sanctuaries and bringing the images at home.

Imagine streaming feeds of formerly caged animals in sanctuaries. Imagine an “air zoo" that would truly allow our children, would allow us, to appreciate what it is to be a tiger, a lion or an elephant. And would do it in ways zoos do not and simply cannot achieve – close up, resting and foraging, interacting with their companions, being themselves. It also would conform to our evolving sense of proper treatment and care of animals, as the Toronto City Council has proved with its pioneering decision. Finally, it would keep zoos out of the exotic animal trade, an increasingly problematic relationship that troubles more and more of us past distraction.

Zoos can evolve better and faster, and should.

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  • Nov 6 2013: Maybe we need to do away with the term "zoo" and create a new form, like "Interspecies Park." For animals that have proven to be well-socialized to humans, the real deal could be there for all, kids & grownups, to enjoy. If space permits, wild creatures could range (thinking of San Diego's WildAnimal Park.) Interactive exhibits & lots of great green space to walk about. Living in San Francisco, I spent many hours at the SF Zoo when my kid was a toddler, and the joy was the walk through the African Safari; the sadness the big cat enclosures, even before the tragic events that unfurled there. I'm also conflicted about the state of the rescued big birds on display. These raptors were injured and would not survive in the wild--but is being tethered to a stand on display any better end? Let it be noted that kids love playing in the park at the zoo--climbing on the camel statue, etc. The park aspect is huge--kids love zoos because they get to run around, see animals, ride the train, hang out with their loved ones, etc. It's an asset to any city, especially one with minimal green space. I love the diversity of the visitors that use the SF zoo. Inappropriately housed animals are not required.

    I believe the SF zoo, and others, are open to change, but they are strapped for funds. How can we support the zoos, the animals in them, and get them to move into a more humane direction?
    • Nov 6 2013: I appreciate and respect your views, Margaret, and they've got me thinking. I wonder if we took away the kids' play sets and game areas, whether our children might not take a breath, look around, and -- as my child did -- pronounce the panther "sad," as she paced her enclosure to distraction. I wonder if we removed the Disney-model distraction and stopped treating among the most remarkable life on earth as nothing more than moving wallpaper behind the snow cone dispenser, most of our children would intuit and point out that most zoos are weird or sad. You've pinpointed it with the birds of prey! These animals have been injured, and must be confined, but they deserve better than a tether -- just as you say. And I think they can have it. Around the world, in sanctuaries, thoughtful people with little money make a positive difference for animals. They don't design, as you rightly point out, a "safari" for folks walking through without regard to the beings locked in there ... so, I'm not inclined to give them money, although I am inclined to take any necessary steps to help them think more creatively about a new paradigm. And, of course, I'm inclined to replace as quickly as possible the head of the AZA with someone who actually cares about animals, not entertainment. The absence of leadership resonates. Cheers, and thanks so much.

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