A giraffe would rather swap a luxurious zoo apartment for a bit of freedom

One of the tricky questions about zoos is whether they are good for animals, mainly because like prisons, not all zoos are alike. There are prisons where inmates have their own toilet, shower, TV, and even a yard.  Some giraffes have two or three rooms, a lounge, a garden, and a dining room. Giraffes in their zoo apartments might appear to have a lot of space, but they would rather replace it for a slice of freedom.

Maybe it would not be wise to let murderers roam outside, but there are not many reasons why a giraffe cannot stretch her legs freely across the savanna.

Imagine what crimes a man must commit to imprison him for 10, 20, 30, or even 150 years. These criminals are mostly rapists, bank robbers, murderers or serial killers. Even before their imprisonment, criminals have a fair trial where they have the right to defend themselves before being put behind bars on a temporary or lifelong basis. Now imagine an animal that could live for over 100 years. You would probably first think of a turtle as one with the most longevity. It could be said that unlike many other animals, the turtle is lucky because it has armor that protects it from the enemy. But the main question is: what can protect an animal from human greed?

Sentenced to life imprisonment by mistake

I met one such unfortunate animal in Seychelles as I strolled through one of the paradise gardens on that magical island. The giant tortoise was captured so visitors could watch and marvel at its longevity. The sight of the tortoise behind bars was quite disturbing. In addition to the cage, a sign stated that tortoises could live for more than 100 years. The question for visitors should be: Would you like to live in a cage for so long? It’s hard to get into a tortoise’s head and know what he or she is thinking, but this picture certainly doesn’t associate you with joy.

Captured giant turtle at Seychelles

The tortoise seemed to come to the bars of the cage hoping to escape but realized the futility of it. She probably went into a world of endless dreams as it would be the only place where anything else seemed possible. This tortoise is a representation of all the animals in zoos that dream of only one thing: freedom.

People like to watch dangerous and exotic animals up close from a safe distance. It is like enjoying a movie where a catastrophe happens while you are left with a feeling of satisfaction because you are safe and because it is happening to someone else. People used to say that it is one thing to read about an elephant or a tiger, but it is quite another to see in person how they eat, move, and interact. They often feel disappointed at zoos because, during their visit, the animals just sleep or lie down. There’s a lot more action on the Discovery Channel.

In the book ‘The Turtle Who Fights for Animal Rights,’ the life of animals at the zoo is presented from their point of view.  The lioness wonders how much fun it could watch someone else in prison. The elephant brothers complain about being born at the zoo and that they would love to experience the wildlife they heard about from their grandmother. It’s not just about anthropomorphizing animals and trying to fictitiously get into their minds, but there are scientific studies that confirm that animals aren’t very happy in zoos.

Zoos can’t provide enough space for animals.

At zoos, animals have little space; not nearly as much as they would have if they were living in the wild. This is especially the case for species that cross long distances in their natural habitats. Tigers and lions have about 18,000 times less space in zoos than they would in the wild. Polar bears have about a million times less space.

Because zoo animals do not have enough space, this often causes behavioral disorders. An example of a stereotyped behavioral problem is pacing, or repetitive walking back and forth, in carnivores such as lions. Zoo lions spend 48 percent of their time walking back and forth. A government-funded study on elephants at British zoos found that 54 percent of elephants showed repetitive behavioral problems too. One observed elephant showed 61 percent of repetitive behavior over a 24 hour period.

Now, can you imagine a man pacing back and forth across his living room or office a few thousand times for 24 hours? We would certainly think that he has serious psychiatric problems. We probably would suggest he see a psychiatrist or go out, take a walk, and breathe in some fresh air. I don’t think any lion or elephant would mind the idea of a walk outside.

Zoo animals die prematurely.

Let’s say that such a thing happened to a man: to be locked in a cage by his tribe, to give him food at specific times, and nurture him when needed. Would this action be acceptable just because the man has all the conditions to stay alive?

Having water, food, and a roof over your head is not enough for a happy life; quality of life is necessary too.

Although animals in some zoos have the right conditions, food, water, and care, they still live shorter lives than in the wild. African wild elephants live more than three times as long as those in zoos. Even Asian elephants who work in carpentry camps live longer than those born at zoos. However, this does not mean that their confinement would be justified even in the case of their prolonged life. About 40 percent of lion cubs in zoos die within the first month of life. In the wild, only 30 percent of pups die before the age of six months.

Excess animals are killed.

Zoos are first and foremost tourist attractions that make big money. Although they claim one of their tasks is to preserve species from extinction, hundreds of ‘excess animals’ are killed by zoos each year. Many captive animals are killed because they are not cost-effective to sell, and it is too expensive to get them back into their natural habitat.

In many zoos, animals are confined to a small space and are killed when no other zoo wants to buy them and there is not enough space in the enclosure for more animals. In early 2014, the Copenhagen Zoo killed a healthy, young giraffe called Marius. The event triggered a worldwide debate about killings at zoos, and a zoo spokesman acknowledged that thousands of healthy animals are killed in European zoos every year.

An alternative to the zoo.

Zoo advocates say that one of their roles is to educate children. After all these facts we know about the treatment of animals in zoos, the question is: what do children actually learn by looking at enclosed animals? They may see them eating, sleeping, moving, and interacting, but how can seeing this improve their knowledge and understanding of other species? They will learn instead that restricting freedom of animals is acceptable and that profit is more important than empathy and real animal welfare. But most of them, like the little girl in the book, The Turtle Who Fights For Animal Rights will say, “This animal is annoying because it just sleeps!” unaware that they dream of freedom or at least want some peace.

Instead of going to the zoo to watch animals walk back and forth, there are two other ways for children to meet wildlife. One is to watch nature documentaries that are often shown on television or can be found on the internet. Children can see what the life of animals looks like in their natural habitat. The other way is to read magazines like National Geographic and perfectly illustrated books in which children can find various and interesting things from the animal world.

Given that zoo animals often live in conditions where their urges and need to move are violently suppressed, it is unlikely that children will be able to learn anything from this except how ill-treated animals are.