04 February 2010

Against Zoos: Figuring out Being A Vegetarian Dad

I knew we would have a problem when I saw the Tiger. Several families scuttled around the 2 inch Plexiglas, the surface of which was badly smudged by sniffing noses and slapping hands. Four, maybe five toddlers were in front of me and Moses, my six-month-old son. He was in my chest carrier, and I was hovering behind the gawkers in my wheelchair. The tiger was growling –“oh can you believe it, can you believe our luck!?” The mother screamed this as she hoisted her plump two-year-old onto her shoulder.

I wanted to yell, “Yes, I believe it you nimrod!” But I didn’t. I’m a new dad, can’t do that stuff now. But I still wanted to yell at this woman, these children. Of course the Tiger is growling, he’s scared, ticked off, hungry. And when he looks up he sees you idiots, not birds or trees, or anything that mimics where he should be. His growl is not one of triumph; it is one of sorrow and confusion.

Or so I have begun to believe.

Over the past year and a half, thanks to some persistent friends, I have stopped eating meat (sans a little fish now and then for dietary purposes, but even that is getting less frequent as I find natural substitutes). I have begun to put into practice what I have felt since I was a kid, namely that animals are amazing creatures that show love, pain, and the like. They are my companions; they are co-conspirators in the way that I make meaning for my family and myself. And as such, they deserve my respect and protection. I’m trying now to work against systems that don’t respect or protect them, namely the factory farm, fast food establishments, and obvious animal cruelty. A bunch of my friends are vegans and vegetarians, and I am completely aware of the posh nature of being such in this day and age; people now adorn themselves with ideology rather than the skins of animals. The latter is certainly less stinky, but nonetheless a wearing of some kind.

I guess it all starts with my dog Glenn, who died about five years ago. Up to my time with Glenn, I had always loved animals of all types; dogs, cats, hamsters, though not birds or snakes. Sure, these last two are blessed, beautiful creatures, just not my favorite types. But dogs, wonderful sloppy dogs, those are my favorite. And Glenn was the saint of all dogs. Glenn joined my life via an organization called Canine Companions for Independence, a not-for-profit group that matches service dogs with people with disabilities. Glenn was an enormous English Labrador, about 140 pounds at his biggest. And he was amazing.

One Glenn anecdote is about all I can bear without tearing up. Here goes. I was home with the flu, alone. My wife was teaching a class at the University of Iowa, and my daughter and I were holding down the fort. At one point in our afternoon of watching television, I coughed super hard and fell forward in my wheelchair, unable to reach my arm back up to my controller. Screwed. Or so I thought. After about three minutes of showing Glenn what I needed, he (by the grace of almighty God, and by the tender mercy of the Holy Ghost) placed his head under my hand, lifted that beautiful head just enough so that my hand found purchase on my controller once more. I cried, he licked my face.

Glenn was with me for 12 years before he died of old age and a rare skin disease nobody could figure out how to cure. And when I put him to sleep (I had waited way too long to do this) I laid to rest one of my best friends. And honestly, I mean that. I’m a firm believer that God offers animals to us as conduits of his admiration for his creation. I know that we named them in the beginning, but in the end they seem to do most of the naming of us: friend, master, pal. That Glenn was a service dog actually clarified some of my feelings about animals. I’ve come to believe, thanks to people like Jon Katz, that dogs serve all of us in very particular ways, and that our actions towards them must equal that love and devotion. In his book The New Work of Dogs, Katz shares the stories of people and their dogs, and points out that dogs are in fact our new surrogates. That they are attached to us comes as no surprise, as he suggests, because they manufacture and put forth our own lives in front of us.

So, I began to ask myself how I was able to honor dogs but not other animals like chickens, cows, pigs, etc.? Some argued that the idea of service, IE that animals are designed to serve humans, transferred into the sacrifices made by these farm animals. When they die we live, that’s their service to us. But certainly, isn’t this also a form of slavery? Isn’t this a sort of moral equation in which we, the human animal, come out way better than they, the food-animal?

I have a close friend who talked to me about his conversion to veganism as a sort of spiritual awakening. His theological understanding of food, at first, seemed a bit over the edge for me, a bit too extreme. However, he did talk to me about rethinking the idea of “dominion.” Yes, God gives us dominion over the animals, but does that mean that we are to eat them vis-à-vis domination? I’ve come to think not. Rather, I choose to think about Dominion through the memory of my old dog Glenn. I fed him, took care of him when I could, loved him, and in the end (hopefully) showed him a great deal of respect. And I suppose that “respect” transcends our normal, politically correct definition of the word. Here, I speak of respect in the Levinasian sense (although he was speaking specifically about human relationships). Levinas sought respect as a product of dialogue, out of companionship, out of reciprocity and responsibility. All of these things blend into a pretty heavy concoction of love.

Now, back to the visit at the zoo.

With this newfound vegetarian worldview, I began to see zoos as something filled with disrespect for animals. For at least the following three reasons, my taste for zookeeping had changed: first, I found myself wondering about the construction of façades, these fake (yet so convincingly real) habitats constructed to make the animals feel at home. This is not there “home.” Instead, artificial habitats are manufactured memory meant to trick, and by extension taunt, the animal into feeling pleasure. Notice, the irony. It is believed that artificial façades will make the animals feel as if they are in their own habitat. However, we are so quick to say that animals don’t actually have feelings! Well, we can’t have it both ways. These façades do nothing but confuse the animals; trickery is only profitable for those who play the tricks. In short, these enclosures lead only to the insanity of animals, or so the California Supreme Court has concluded.

Second, it dawned on me that the Genesis of zoos is wrapped up in an aggressive process of capture. A logical definition of capturing boils down to a violent dismissal of context, a brutal erasure of comfort, and separation from community. Looking at the monkeys, in particular, I was struck that while there is an appearance of “family” being shared between these creatures, that it is probably the case that none of them came from the same jungle or natural habitat. Instead, each was brought to the zoo through a variety of channels, some legal, and certainly some illegal (depending on the zoo, of course). Again, slavery comes to mind, in particular the destruction of families initiated by a systematic ignorance of family itself. No, these zoo “families” are actually manufactured communities. These monkeys had real community that they were ripped from.

Third, and finally, what convinced me most in my decision to work against the zoo’s project had to do with the manner in which these creatures were turned into spectacle. It has been argued that the American freak show of the late 19th and early 20th century held some of the darkest moments for people with disabilities. Alternately, others and I would argue that some of these folks knew exactly what they were doing standing on stage, displaying their bodies. They were taking advantage of the rubes in the audience, the idiots willing to pay money, good money, to look at difference. However, it’s the first argument about freak shows that I tend to agree with regards to zoo freaks. These animals have no choice but to parade in front of passersby, they have no real agency, and they are reliant upon those who feed them in order to survive. But they are at least being fed, you say. To which I remind us to remember the power of the feeder. The created essence of animals, their instinctual innards push them towards finding food through their own volition. When we take that away, we take away so much more. The zoo seems to be a systematic manner of spectacularizing and slavery fueled by an animal’s taught ignorance of self.

Here’s the problem. My son loved the zoo. He delighted in the animals, even at six months. I’m not at all surprised that he has a penchant for animals. I mean, for crying out loud, his favorite three bedtime books involve hippopotamuses, monkeys, a patchwork elephant named Elmer, and beavers. And wouldn’t you know it! His all-time favorite book is the brilliant Goodnight Gorilla, a story about a stinking zookeeper! Serves me right. I bought the damn thing.

Inflating the problem are my own good memories of being at the zoo with my family (Lincoln Park and Brookfield in Chicago), along with my wife’s consistent dream to walk through the Detroit zoo with our new son (a dream she had long before he came into being). So what to do?

When people find out that my wife and I are vegetarians, they ask right away if we will be raising Moses to be a vegetarian? Our answer is usually something like “we will let him decide, once he is old enough.” Translation: until he is old enough to decide, we will decide for him not to eat meat. I think this is a fine parental plan. There are no indications that a vegetarian diet fails to provide the necessary nutrition of a newborn, toddler, or little dude (3 to 7 years old). Furthermore, while my wife loves the fact that being vegetarian makes me eat healthier, my real reasons are wrapped up in politics and ideology. So, in essence, I am passing on (forcefully?) a worldview to my son when I decide he won’t eat meat. This certainly is not any different than teaching him my faith tradition, my positions on racism, sexism, or any other ism.

But, he takes some joy in seeing animals at the zoo. I’m a new father; I know at least not to take away joy when it doesn’t harm him.

But even at this early stage of his life, I need to be careful about what gives him joy. The other day he was closing and opening the crate that one of my new dogs sleeps in (note, I don’t ever shut them in there!). He loves the way the metal makes a squeaky sound. However, he does not love the way it pinches his fingers at the pivot point of the door. So, while he gets joy from the squeak, I must point out to him that this joy isn’t actually worth it. It just hurts too much.

And I guess that’s how I need to proceed with the zoo. It may be fun, but it hurts too much, too many.


  1. Chris, very insightful. Cathy has gone to an almost vegan diet (pizza is still too tempting). I have not gone completely away from meat, but it is getting easier and easier to make that choice. It helps with all the great recipes that are now available for vegans. I hope to see more of your writing soon.

    your cousin,

  2. Chris,

    Your heart's in the right place, but your impressions of where zoos get their animals is a bit out of date. Well-run, modern zoos rarely take animals out of the wild for display purposes.

    Take that tiger you mentioned. It would be much better off in the wild, right? Not necessarily. Every species of tiger in the world is highly endangered, because people have encroached onto their habitat, and hunt them for their fur, body parts for traditional medicines, etc. Many AZA member zoos participate in captive breeding programs to help highly endangered species like these survive. Almost certainly, the tiger you saw was a zoo-bred animal. You may not like to see tigers in zoos, but would you rather see them disappear forever?

    Zoos also act as sanctuaries for rescued animals that can not survive on their own. Two recent stories in the news illustrate this well. Pequot is a one-year-old harp seal who was recently found stranded off the MA coast, eating rocks. Because of congenital blindness, his chances of survival in the wild were very low. So, he was rescued and sent to the Detroit Zoo, where he'll join several other rescued seals. The Detroit Zoo is also participating in a different type of rescue. A TX court recently found that a company called U.S. Global Exotics was keeping thousands of exotic animals in inhumane conditions, and removed them. Keepers from the Detroit Zoo traveled to TX to help local SPCA officials care for the animals, and the zoo has agreed to take in many of these animals.

    Well-run zoos offer animals adequate space, the best medical care, good food, and they are always coming up with new enrichment activities to keep the animals engaged. Compare that to a life in the wild where there's a constant struggle to find enough food, avoid predators, and avoid succumbing to illness or injury, and you'll see why many zoo animals have longer lifespans in captivity than their counterparts in the wild.

    There are lots of bad zoos out there, and a lot of animals shows you'll want to avoid (circuses, for example, never adequately care for animals). However, rather than condemn them all outright, take some time to investigate the ethical stance of a particular zoo before you visit. You'll find that most will be glad to discuss what they're doing to help endangered species, to rescue animals, and to do basic research that can help threatened populations in the wild as well as improve the care of captive animals.

  3. Thanks for the comment.
    I tend to stay in the land of theory, but appreciate when somebody slaps me back into the land of reality. Principally, I still have a hard time with my experiences of zoos, but I will take some of your advice here. Thanks so much.

  4. Chris,

    The zoo experience is what you make it. Society's knowledge about and perception of exotic animals have changed tremendously in recent years, but there are still a lot of people who haven't got the memo yet. You don't have to go back too far to remember when zoos dressed baby chimps in kid's clothing and had them put on shows. Lots of people still think that the strange and unique animals in zoos are there to entertain them with their funny antics. It is always discouraging to go to a zoo and hear people expressing these attitudes, and worse still, passing them on to their kids.

    On the other hand, zoos can help change these attitudes, through educational programs and interpretation by staff and volunteers. The Detroit Zoo, for example, has an Animals After Dark Overnight Program where families or youth groups get a guided after-hours tour and learn about the zoo, wildlife, conservation and animal welfare.

    Zoos are great places to spread the animal welfare message to family and friends, because they contain living examples of the problems animals face, and the ways in which we can help these animals. For example, the Detroit Zoo has a polar bear that was rescued from a Mexican circus that traveled around South America and the Caribbean, keeping the animals in deplorable conditions and forcing them to perform in 100-degree+ heat. She was saved through the efforts of organizations that you can help with your support, such as the Humane Society of the US and PETA. The same polar bear in the zoo also raises the issue that polar bears in the wild are also threatened by changes to their habitat brought about by global climate change, which we can combat through our own actions.

    Finally, don't overlook the fact that zoos provide the only opportunity most people will ever have of experiencing the majestic beauty of creatures like lions, tigers, giraffes, and our cousins the apes, as well as the astonishing diversity of animal life from all over the globe. I know I wouldn't want my kids to miss that opportunity. Nor would I want to miss the opportunity of showing them what we'll all be missing unless we take more positive action.