This weekend The New York Times Magazine published a moving, beguiling portrait of a veterinarian named Vint Virga, who helps zoos to improve the psychological lives of their animals. I say “beguiling” in part because the writer, Alex Halberstadt, isn’t all that explicit about what I take to be his true topic: whether there is a good reason for zoos to exist at all.
I realize that to even raise this issue makes you sound like some kind of sour, rule-bound vegetarian, so let me make clear my position up front: I love zoos. My daughter is not quite 2, and the zoo brings out all of her best and least complicated emotions — awe, delight, empathy. You go into parenthood figuring zoo trips are going to be a kind of live-action survey of the cast of The Lion King (elephants, lions, the safari greatest hits tour), but a kid who is not yet three feet tall tends to gravitate toward otters and foxes, purely as a matter of physical scale, and those animals turn out to be really great and interesting too. We mostly go to the National Zoo in Washington, which is a pretty progressive place, all things considered: Orangutans swing over the walkways on ropes, without cages or nets. Panda visitation is managed to minimize panda stress. Care, basically, is taken.
Despite zookeeping precautions like these, there has been a case against zoos for a long time (the zoo eradicationists tend to cite a somewhat melodramatic Rilke poem about a panther caged in a Paris zoo: “It seems to him there are / a thousand bars; and beyond the bars no world”), but the cause has picked up a little bit of scientific support during the past three decades or so. One long-term 1983 study of animal mortality at the San Diego Zoo found cannibalism and infanticide, widespread malnutrition, and frequent deaths from tranquilizer use. (An online summary is included in the essay here.) Problems seem particularly acute, other biologists have found, among animals who have the greatest roaming ranges in the wild. For instance, polar bears in nature cover one million times the territory that they do in captivity, and zoo polar bears suffer all kinds of pathologies and maladies. But there are advantages to being in zoos, from the animal’s perspective — safety, mostly, and access to medical care, and the presence of a team of trained professionals who work very hard to entertain and engage you — and the disadvantages of being an animal in a place like the National Zoo have not always seemed to outweigh the security. In retrospect, you can see a form of anti-zoo sentiment building, reflected in films like Madagascar and Planet of the Apes, but in the real world, this was a minority movement, confined mainly to overworried celebrities. Zoos vexed Morrissey, and they vexed Joanna Lumley, but they basically didn’t vex anyone else.
But the whole animal captivity picture began to look decidedly more grim and less defensible (to me, and also to lawmaking bodies) in 2013, with the release of the sublime documentary Blackfish. That film’s subject is Tillikum, a 12,000-pound male killer whale who had been for years a star attraction at Sea World, a celebrated run that ended when he attacked and killed his trainer immediately following a live show. It soon transpired that Tillikum had been involved in two other human deaths. The documentary made the pretty convincing case that the circumstances of Tillikum’s confinement (SeaWorld seems to have kept him, nearly all the time, alone in a tank that measured twenty feet across) had contributed to the violence, and the deaths. “If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don’t you think you’d get a little psychotic?” one talking head exclaimed, and she had a point.
Soon, state legislators in California and New York introduced bills making it illegal to keep orcas in captivity. SeaWorld’s profits took a hit; CNN and the Times started musing about its long-term viability as a business; protests mounted. But the case against SeaWorld always seemed a little narrowly construed. If it was an abomination to keep a killer whale in a tiny cage, then why was it okay to keep a polar bear in a similarly restrictive enclosure? Sure, SeaWorld’s marketing is particularly crass, but if the basic problem is that intelligent, social animals are being kept in inhumane conditions that may be driving them insane, then shouldn’t that same principle apply to other species, too? It’s hard to think that SeaWorld should be put out of business and not have complicated thoughts about the National Zoo. You can’t just stop at the orca; you’ve got to consider the orangutan.
One of the interesting things about this Sunday’s Times Magazine story — and this marks it as a decidedly post-Tillikum piece — is that zoo directors directly confront the eradicationist case. “Zoos have changed incredibly in the past thirty years,” a second-generation zoo director named Mark Reed tells Halberstadt. “These days, moats and glass have replaced cages; there are education departments and conservation initiatives. And full-time vets, antibiotics and better diets have doubled and in some cases tripled animals’ life spans in captivity.” Zoo advocates tend to argue that exhibiting animals leads to a stronger conservation movement, though whether that actually happens still seems a little unclear to me — but this was a more modest case, that zoos are doing much less harm to animals than they once did, that they deserve credit for being re-conceived from the zoo animal’s point of view. As for what the zoo animal’s point of view is, that’s the province of Vint Virga, the behaviorist subject of the Times Magazine piece.
Vint Virga, in Halberstadt’s hands, is a winning subject and an obvious credit to his species, a gentle soul with some weenie strains. (Discovering a snake in the act of devouring a frog in his driveway, he phones his wife to make sure she doesn’t run over either being when she comes home.) Called in by zoos to assess a psychologically troubled animal, he tries to understand the source of the stress and alter it. Some of the issues seem mostly to do with the animals themselves (“Libby can be kind of a jerk,” a zookeeper tells Virga, speaking of a quarrelsome sheep — no wonder other sheep have been fighting with her.) But most of the issues are hard to imagine arising in the wild. A brown bear develops a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, repeatedly, almost ritually, smashing his head into a metal door in his enclosure. A harbor seal is uneasy about being treated by the vet. A giraffe develops a compulsive fear of men with large cameras. Halberstadt writes, “Disorders like phobias, depression and OCD, documented at zoos, don’t appear to have analogues among animals living in the wild.”
Virga, confronting something like the problem of the killer whale in the bathtub, does what he can to make the bathtub more accommodating and less stressful, to show the animal that it is home: He spends time alone with the giraffe so she might grow comfortable with him, feeds her branches when visitors are around so she grows more comfortable with the scenario. He teaches zoo technicians how to medicate animals without freaking them out. Occasionally, for the most stubborn cases, he prescribes Prozac. Sometimes this work seems like it is helping to create a more modern form of zoo. Other times it is not clear that the more modern and humane zoo really solves the problem at all. Virga visits the panther enclosure of a zoo he basically admires with Halberstadt, and finds the animals laconic and cramped. “This is the worst thing I’ve seen in a long time,” Virga says.
A couple of years ago, the essayist David Samuels published a long piece in Harper’s on the Bronx Zoo. It got attention mostly for a discovery Samuels made, in the archives, that the leading figure in the early history of the Bronx Zoo was a eugenicist propagandist named Madison Grant who corresponded with Hitler, and saw his work at the Zoo in the same vein, as rescuing the perfect form of a species before it declined. (Grant once exhibited a human pygmy named Ota Benga at the Zoo; crowds of 40,000 greeted Ota Benga by jeering and poking him; eventually, he committed suicide.) The Grant story caught on in part because it highlighted what is anachronistic about zoos. For a very long post-Enlightenment period, human beings asked themselves what made them different from the apes, and fixed on logic and reason as the highest human characteristics; zoos were a way to engage that question while emphasizing that there was a great distinction indeed. Now we understand that animal cognition and social behavior is for many species pretty sophisticated, and there is a new form of intelligence to define ourselves against: Not what makes us different than a chimpanzee, but what makes us different than Siri? Perhaps this is pushing us toward a closer identification with the animals and helping to shape some of the discomfort with zoos.
But I found something else about the Harper’s piece even more interesting. In the course of his time at the Bronx Zoo, Samuels also visits the set designers who fabricate the present-day exhibit spaces, and learns about the tricks they employ to make the enclosures seem more realistic: smoke machines, “half-slivered” mirrors, native American trees that kind of resemble those in postcard versions of the Congo.
I think these fabrications comprise a great deal of what zoos depend upon, and what has begun to fail: a kind of double illusion, in which the people are convinced that they are seeing animals in something like their natural state and the animals, most of whom have never lived in the wild, are convinced that they are at home. Even as zoos grow more expansive and progressive, it is growing a bit more difficult to maintain the human part of that illusion, simply because technology allows us a much more direct view of the wild: In the first two years of her life, my daughter has seen more of the savannah, via National Geographic’s website, than I did in the 30-plus years before she was born.
But the more important breakdown of the illusion may be on the animal side. A giraffe who freaks out about men with large cameras, a brown bear whose cage door is the subject of his obsessive compulsive disorder, a 5,000-pound killer whale who shows her trainer who is boss by dragging him underwater for just about as long as he can live, before letting him go — these episodes seem like something more complicated than simple errors of confinement. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in some way the animals understand that the world around them is an artificial one, that these phobias and psychotic episodes represent reactions to that artifice, or subversions of it. Which means that the central illusion of the zoo is no longer holding. The animals know.
All of which makes Vint Virga’s project — sustaining that illusion, by incremental changes in how the animals are treated — seem more than a little quixotic. Last August, the Costa Rican government announced it was closing all its zoos. The new policy, the government declared, was “no cages.” (A court ruling has so far kept the zoos open.) I think we’re moving slowly toward the same sensibility. In 25 years, there will likely still be some way for Americans to see exotic animals. But I will be pretty surprised if those places have cages, mirrors, smoke machines, and conference-room tanks for 12,000-pound whales. There may be nature preserves. But it seems to me that we’re pretty rapidly reaching the end of the era of the modern urban zoo.