The Elephant in the Room

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Zoos, aquariums and circuses have attracted us since childhood. With the promise of cotton candy and stuffed toy souvenirs, plus the exotic animals on display for us to gawk at, it’s hard to oppose the allure of such a captivating attraction. behind this façade of colour and joy, however, is a harsh reality.

Covered up by a million-dollar industry is the suffering and exploitation of intelligent, sentient beings. It is seemingly unimaginable that these businesses would engage in cruel practices, especially when the words ‘rescue’ and ‘conservation’ are thrown around so often. Zoos are often reassuring us that their animals are kept for conservation purposes, and circuses prefer to idealise the conditions under which their animals are kept – both industries undoubtedly choose to cover up the heartbreakingly cruel truth.

Animals have been used for entertainment for thousands of years – from bullfighting in Spain, to Greyhound racing here in Australia. In both of these situations, many animals participate in activities that are dangerous and unnatural to them – against their will – all for the sake of entertainment. Restraining an animal and forcing it to perform is not artistic or cultural – it is slavery.

Zoos might seem like a milder form, with animals often having their own state of the art enclosures, fit with flora and fauna to mimic their natural habitats. Let’s not, however, be fooled by this superlative artificial environment – a polar bear relocated across the world to sit in a glass enclosure in 30 degree heat could not be happy. Taking any animal out of its natural habitat, and then forcing it to adapt to a smaller, and less diverse environment, will undoubtedly place mental and physical stress on it, as its natural behaviours become thwarted. There is nothing ‘educational’ about watching a miserable gorilla hopelessly attempt to interact within its artificial enclosure – we can learn about animals without having to confine them to bleak conditions.

Harambe may now only resonate in people’s minds as an Internet meme, but the murder of this critically endangered, and highly intelligent creature, says a lot about the way many zoos and animal enclosures treat their animals. Gorillas and other primates are patient and calm creatures, capable of making tools and communicating with each other using sign language, similar to us humans. Why is it acceptable to deprive them of their freedom and confine them to tiny enclosures?

‘Zoochosis’ is a term used to describe the unnatural behaviour of animals in captivity. Often characterised by loneliness, endless pacing back and forth, laziness, and repetitive behaviour, zoos sometimes administer antidepressants and antipsychotics to treat these symptoms. Marine animals at SeaWorld have been observed swimming in circles in their small tanks, while bears, gorillas and other mammals tend to pace back and forth due to a lack of mental and physical stimulation. By visiting and supporting these attractions we are normalising the idea that animals were put on this Earth to be entertainment and implying that their lives hold no inherent value.

Zoos do not show us the beautiful way in which animals interact with each other, how they sacrifice their lives to protect their young, or in what different ways they tactfully hunt their prey. Instead, they present to us weak and miserable animals who have the sole purpose of remaining in confinement and occupy our interest for a few moments.

Circuses are especially guilty of this. The price that circus animals pay is much higher, as they are constantly being transported, whipped, tranquillised and forced to perform. It is no doubt easy to see the appeal of circuses: exotics tigers jumping through hoops and incredibly large animals, such as elephants, performing tricks on two legs.

An hour of such bland entertainment, however, is not worth the lifelong confinement of any animal. The only thing that keeps these cruel industries in business is us – as long as there is a demand for zoos and circuses, there will always be a supply.

Books, documentaries and stepping out into nature are all much better ways of learning about your favourite animals. Watching animals inside a small enclosure does not teach us about the reality of their fascinating behaviours, and instead reinforces the idea that animals are simply a commodity.

The solution? Refuse to give a dime to any business that puts animals on display for human entertainment.