Monthly Archives: May 2015

Please Stop Going to Zoos

I loved going to zoos as a child — the smells of the damp, humid aviary, leopards lounging in the trees, realizing for the first time that monkeys had hands on their feet. Sometimes the trips were a bit overshadowed by my dad complaining that you couldn’t see some of the animals at times — after all, this was the Asheboro, NC zoo, which has recently expanded from 550 acres to 1,371 — huge, excessive even compared to your average zoo — most animals are lucky to get over 100 acres total.

When we went to the National Zoo in Washington DC a few8472524 years ago (163 acres but with almost twice as many represented species than the NC zoo), my dad was happy to be able to see elephants up close and typically nocturnal animals awake and active, but all I could see was a stark contrast to what I had grown up with: these animals were cramped, bothered, unhappy. The wolves, given an enclosure maybe the size of my two-bedroom house, circled constantly. Bears paced. Elephants swung their heads back and forth. This was not where they were supposed to be, how they were supposed to be, and they knew that.

Zoos used to be a power symbol, starting with Egyptian Pharaohs, continuing through the age of exploration — Capitol cities would put exotic animals on display to show their wealth and status. The enclosures, you can imagine, were barely adequate, and there was certainly no research on the care and keeping of these huge animals — so at least we can say we’ve come a little further than that.

Still, most zoos today are doing a pretty bad job at what they would like us to think is conservation at its best. Not only are they providing inadequate space, housing, and environment for the animals themselves, they also do not fully and truly educate the public about animals and their welfare, and honestly I do not think we should be financially and morally supporting them when there are much better alternatives out there, everywhere that do a better job of helping animals and so badly need that support we lavish on zoos.

First, let’s talk about the problem.

Zoos as a whole do not provide adequate environments for the animals they house. One way to detect that the environment is not suitable to the animals is if the breeding program they may be involved in is not going as well as planned. Pandas, for instance, are absurdly difficult to breed in captivity. Engber from Slate cites several reasons, including lack of sufficient privacy from zoo-goers, lack of activities such as trees to climb to keep them busy, and an insufficient-for-pandas social life.

If a baby animal is successfully born into captivity, then what? Zoos not only take captive animals directly from the wild but also breed those animals and hold their children captive for life — babies that are still born with all the instincts they would have had in the wild, with nowhere to put them. They are not magically domesticated simply because they are born in captivity. Alternatively, says Dell’Amore from National Geographic, if the plan is to release an endangered species back into the wild, why isn’t any money being put towards improving the environment the animal was originally from, which is largely why they became endangered in the first place?

Stereotypic behavior is another strong indicator of a captive animal’s general lack of well-being. Writes Nora Philbin,“Stereotypic behaviour has been defined as a repetitive, invariant behaviour pattern with no obvious goal or function.” Stereotypic behavior is commonly displayed by zoo animals and other wild animals in a captivity situation that does not meet their basic needs — for example, an enclosure that is too small, an insufficient diet, and/or a general environment that does not cater enough to how they are used to living in the wild. Eilam says we know these are abnormal behaviors because they are not exhibited in the wild — they are compulsive, neurotic behaviors indicative of psychological imbalance.

Philibin continues:

A good example of stereotyped behaviour is pacing. This term is used to describe an animal walking in a distinct, unchanging pattern within its cage. The walking can range in speed from slow and deliberate to very quick trotting. It may involve only a few circuits or it may be prolonged, lasting several minutes. The locomotion may be combined with other actions, such as a head toss at the corners of the cage, or the animal rearing onto its hind feet at some point in the circuit.

The Born Free Foundation expounds upon other stereotypic behaviors observed across many different species, including overgrooming, self-mutilation, rocking back and forth, biting at the bars of the cage, head-bobbing and weaving, excessive regurgitation, and eating and playing with excrement (click here for a video of a Sloth bear pacing at the National Zoo).

Psychological reasons aside, it may be argued that zoos are necessary for educating both children and the general public about animals they might not otherwise encounter — but is this completely true?

When we are studying animals, whether as amateurs or professionals, we deserve, because the animals deserve, the whole picture. The public, especially children, are often disillusioned into thinking animals are used to and perhaps even enjoy captivity, and do not learn the whole picture of true animal behavior, or how to properly interact with and treat the animals.

As recorded in an article by CAPS director Liz Tyson, zoos will often try to market that stereotypies, such as the head-swaying found in elephants at the Chester Zoo in the UK is normal behavior for that animal. How can we be educated if we are being fed false information?

Learning the importance of rehab and helping the animals rather than using them solely for our benefit is very important. When I worked at Piedmont Wildlife Center in Chapel Hill, NC, we would bring snakes, lizards, and owls to outreach events, teaching anyone from toddlers to adults about the difference between rehabilitated but non-releasable wild animals versus those that could be rehabilitated, either from captivity or from the wild, and then actually released. Educating ourselves about true animal behavior and respect for all creatures allows us to be further advocates and proponents of better welfare for animals in general, rather than essentially objectifying them from a distance for our own benefit.

And what research done through zoos could not be done through other existing means, and honestly better?

Researchers can learn just as much and more about animal biology and psychology through observation and involvement with rescue and rehabilitation centers — because, to properly treat the animals and hopefully prepare them to be released back into the wild, a great amount of work must go in to understanding how each species works in the first place, often through trial and error, as detailed extensively and entertainingly in a book you should all read, Becoming a Tiger by Susan McCarthy.

Animal Ethology, the study of animals in their natural wild habitats, is honestly the most ideal way to conduct studies on animals. Of course, you can’t control for factors as much as you could in a lab or a zoo, but that is where the skill of careful, patient observation comes in.

So you may be asking, do I seek to abolish zoos altogether? No, but I advocate that on a local level everyone does their part to seek out alternatives to zoos for education and entertainment.

Alternatives do exist, and they are far better. Sanctuaries, refuges, and parks are protected, safe places for animals to continue to exist and thrive within the ecosystem and space they were meant for — some examples just in my own state include Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and Genesis Wildlife Sanctuary.

Equally as important are rescue and rehabilitation organizations, museums, and other similar, nonprofit learning centers — again, locations just in my own home state include the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, CLAWS, Inc., Carolina Raptor Center, Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, Carolina Tiger Rescue — and the list goes on.

These places both help the animals around them and are generally open to the public (some you have to make an appointment to visit). They are committed to educating the community about the proper care and stewardship of the animals around us and around the world. These organizations are about making a difference, not making a profit. With more moral and financial support from us, they could do even bigger and better things for the animals, people, and the earth we share.

Captivity of wild animals in zoos is one of the least ideal ways to “keep” the animals. It does nothing but foster the animals with improper living conditions, small enclosures, a lack of enrichment, etc. Because of this, zoos end up providing insufficient education and awareness for the public, only to a continued ignorant attitude towards wild, captive, and domestic animals. And honestly, better alternatives exist that need your money and moral support.

Still think zoos are the best option?

Please think again. The next time you want to take your family or friends for a day at the zoo, maybe organize a field trip to the Carolina Tiger Rescue and support some awesome big cats and the people whose blood, sweat, and tears have gone into making a suitable place for these animals to live and thrive.

Avatar – The Movie: A Review

Every time I am forced to watch this movie (I have fun friends), which is to say every time I have watched this movie, I fall asleep. Perhaps multiple times. If I am not sleeping, my mind makes great attempts to drift off and think about things that it likes to think about, and when that fails I either fall asleep as previously stated, or I squirm around in my chair, feeling more exhausted and discontent by the second.

Avatar, the movie. Nominated for nine Academy Awards. It won three, those being Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Visual Effects.

Those three things are about all Avatar has going for it.

“If you can get a theater full of people in Kentucky to stand and applaud the defeat of their country in war, then you’ve got some amazing special effects,” Russell T. Moore said in a review in The Christian Post shortly after the film’s release. It is true: Avatar has stunning visuals, a scenic landscape with beauty comparable to New Zealand in the Lord of the Rings movies, except all imaginary. This beautiful scenery, especially in 3-D or perhaps after smoking a lot of pot or eating some psilocybin mushrooms, is always what gets praised. Visuals alone are what made this movie the highest-grossing movie of all time, proving that audiences worldwide are easily bought with pretty, shiny things and have no need to hold their entertainment up to any other standards – such standards as good pacing, unique execution of an over-familiar plot structure, politically correct social themes, or fact-checked, believable science in something that is supposed to be a science fiction film.

First of all, could this movie get any longer? Hollywood loves to make ninety-minute movies out of books with 400+ pages, and this movie is not even based on a book, yet it’s two minutes short of three hours.

Not only that, but take a look at what they fill those three hours with: exposition, cliché, exposition, cliché, exposition, cliché… and finally, a battle scene that essentially lasts for the entire final third of the movie, which is one of the parts during which I typically fall asleep. After all, I don’t seem to miss much.

Sure, Jake Sully, the imposter Na’vi sent to “learn their ways” so he can subsequently “move them off of their giant tree so we can harvest an element that we can’t even call something more intelligent than ‘unobtainium’ since it’s not like we’re scientists with billions of dollars in lab equipment, we just need it to blow stuff up,” needs his journey with the Na’vi blue-people of Pandora to be well established, especially considering he is supposed to be falling in love with their ways, accidentally, so he can end up betraying everyone just in time for the EPIC BATTLE SCENE. However, brevity could have helped out this movie, not that brevity is one of James Cameron’s trademarks to any extent. At the most, all of Jake Sully’s learning-the-ways-of-the-Na’vi scenes could have been slightly more poignant, and slightly less Adventures in Training Your Dragon and Falling on Giant Leaves.

While watching the movie I was filled with the utter sense of dread that often accompanies the realization that I am watching a movie with the exact plot that I have seen countless times before. Especially this plot, the Redemption Plot. Don’t know what I am talking about? Let me tell you a little story: White Guy is kind of a selfish bastard. I mean, he’s alright, but he’s got his own problems to worry about. White Guy gets in with a group of indigenous people, in one way or another, with a stable amount of curiosity about them but mostly because of what they can do for him. He hides his ulterior motive, of course, because how is anybody supposed to get what they want when the people they are trying to take advantage of are already suspicious enough of the fact that he is simply a newcomer? Anyway, as he is trying to casually get in with these folks, White Guy starts actually liking them and rethinking his original ulterior motive eventually making the decision to stop being such a White Guy just about the time that the indigenous people grow suspicious, do some research or spying, and learn that he had an ulterior motive all along. So, they kick him out. Except he has changed! This is the sad part that gets me every time, especially since I know it’s coming. Every. Time. But then there is trouble, and the White Guy comes back to help, proves himself, and the people decide he’s alright since he essentially saved them single-handedly and so accept him into their tribe forever and ever.

Avatar follows this redemption plot exactly to form, simply imposing distractingly gorgeous visuals onto what I consider to be the worst overused plot in the history of storytelling. Which, by the way, most movies do better: ever seen Pocahontas? Dances with Wolves? Cars? Over The Hedge, for crying out loud?? I could go on.

Besides the terrible length and pacing, and the utterly painful predictability of the plot, there are several other aspects of this movie that have forever ruined my ability to just have a good time while watching it.

Colonialism and Imperialism run rampant in this film. I don’t think I have to say much more about it considering my rant earlier about how the White Guy saves the day; however, what I find most interesting about the use of Colonialism/Imperialism themes in this movie is that nobody seems to notice them. Everyone is paying attention to the new-age, hippie mantras of saving the trees and the planet and how bad the bad guys are for being so full of testosterone and obsessed with using brute force to take over planets; nobody notices that Jake Sully is still the savior of the blue people, thus becoming the most popular blue person who isn’t even really a blue person, all while bombarding his way in and around with, even at the end, a lack of a grasp on how entirely privileged he is.

However, perhaps the truly most annoying thing about this movie is the absolute lack of fact-checking behind what is supposed to be a science fiction film. Last time I checked, even science fiction (though “fiction”, I am aware), needs to have a believable accuracy and consistency in order to not break the spell of believability that movie-makers are attempting to cast over their audiences. Of course science fiction is supposed to stretch into the realm of imagination: but what universe are we dealing with here? Do we have different laws of physics, of chemistry? Not apparently, since this is just supposed to be set in the twenty-second century in our own universe. Did James Cameron want hard-core science fiction fans to come see this movie? Too bad; I don’t think any true lover of Asimov or Heinlein would touch this movie with a ten-foot pole.

How do we just shrug off the “Hallelujah Mountains”, mountains that float because of an unexplained chemical element and yet the waterfalls cascade back towards the ground? Or how there is no way you could just magically mix the DNA of a human and an alien humanoid, and then wire their brains together so that you can just -POOF!- jump into the other body by way of some kind of neurological hyperspace and run around while you sleep, or something? Or what about the way the other animals on Pandora have evolved, with the illogical six legs or their “chest nostrils”, for lack of a better term? And Pandora itself? It’s a huge planet-sized moon orbiting around an even larger gas giant called Polyphemus; which apparently James Cameron failed to take into consideration how that doesn’t work for habitability as far as natural disasters go; asteroids would constantly rain down, the planet would more than likely be “tidally locked”, meaning it rotates at the same rate that it orbits – therefore one side is always facing in, the other always facing out to space – leading to, among other things, all those natural disasters I mentioned.

Look. I think Avatar is definitely worth going to see at least once, because it is really pretty. Actually, I really don’t. Unless you are 100% okay with exposing yourself to three hours of pretty things that are accompanied by a terribly predictable plot, slightly subtle themes of racism and patriarchy, and runs rampant with scientific inaccuracies, do not waste your time.  After all, I’ve held on to a grudge against this movie for YEARS – I think I would have been a much less tense person without it.