The gorillas and chimpanzees, in particular, are housed in such well-designed pens that I find myself moved and astonished by them as has not occurred in other zoo experiences. The floors are elevated so the monkeys eyes are level with mine and the high-quality non-distorting glass allows a 1" distance between my skin and theirs. I can see subtle changes in facial expression, lines in the soles of their feet, and individual hairs between the fingers of grooming chimps.
|A chimp comforting another after she was refused food by a male.|
|I watched this chimp make a nest of burlap sacks, try it out several times, readjust the burlap then roll over and suck her toes.|
And yet, there is some considerable benefit to animals in zoos from a conservation perspective. Zoos create opportunities for the development of strong affection of humans for animals, making us care about their continued presence on earth. We are more likely to push for the conservation of chimpanzee habitat after experiencing reverence for them in a zoo. In the worst case scenario, zoos have been the last refuge for species that are almost extinct. The black-footed ferret once existed solely in zoos and has been reintroduced into wild land. Zoos also provide the means for maintenance of genetic biodiversity, by shipping sperm or arranging for matings, so that a species has a wider variety of genetic combinations, reducing the likelihood of extinction.
If it were up to me to decide to free all the animals in zoos or keep them, I would be strongly conflicted. Clearly it unethical to keep socially complex animals in tiny, uninteresting enclosures. As zoos expand and enrich their animals' habitats, the balance shifts more toward the value of zoos, especially since humans will apparently destroy all natural habitats without education and enforcement of the alternative. Zoos are an imperfect solution, but it seems that at least some zoos are necessary in our current world. I know I'm going to spend a lot of time in the ape house at our zoo while I'm in Chicago, but my amazement will always be tinged with pity.