Q&A: Richard Leakey on Endangered Gorillas

On July 14, Jeff Tierney, a zookeeper at the San Antonio, Texas, zoo was attacked and mauled by a five-year-old male Sumatran tiger named Berani who had been at the zoo for three years. In the slow summer news cycle, this story was briefly reported and then the focus of the media returned to important stories like what is Paris Hilton up to. But I am still thinking about Jeff and Berani.

My grandpa, Leo Gellman, was a zookeeper at the Milwaukee zoo. My childhood was filled with happy days feeding giraffes and monkeys. I wanted to feed Sampson the gorilla and Tony and Cleo the hippopotamuses, but Grandpa Lepa never let me get close to them. He loved animals, but he also understood what it means to be wild. He would patiently explain to me that they did not want to be in their cages but that we put them there so that little boys like me could see up close what they look like, how they move and what sounds they make. Grandpa explained to me that this was a deal we humans made with the wild animals of the world. We capture and display some of them so that people would feel something for them and protect the wild animals that were not in cages. I asked grandpa if he thought the deal was fair. He thought and said, "It's a good deal for us, and not such a good deal for them." I still think grandpa was right.

The zoo deal needs to be reconsidered. I just finished watching the Discovery Channel's "Planet Earth" in all its high-definition spectacularness. It does more to show animals in their natural environment, behaving as they really behave in the wild than any zoo ever could. True, you cannot smell them, and true, there is an unforgettable size and savor to elephant dung, but in these new breathtaking images, we humans can see animals without imprisoning them. Now I can already hear the pro-zoo defenders objecting that if we can eat animals, we can certainly trap and display them. But animals do not have the rights of people. The philosopher Peter Singer would call this pro-human arrogance "species-ism"—just another form of bigotry.

The tigers I saw spent all day pacing in their cages, and it was clear that they were not happy cats. The attack on Jeff Tierney ought to remind us that these are wild animals that we foolishly expect to behave like house pets so that we can ogle them. They were not built to be displayed. They were built, I would say created, to run free and be wild in the few wild parts that remain here on planet earth. We changed that for the tiger we named Berani, and his attack was not just an attack on the man bringing horsemeat for lunch. This was an attack on everything we do to wild animals for our convenience, for our expansion and for our enjoyment. The deal my Grandpa Lepa explained to me is a hard deal for the animals, and I am not sure how much longer we ought to defend it.

The animals in zoos do not behave like their wild cousins. They mostly mope around, and some of them, like the bears I remember, have even learned to sit up and beg for treats. Look, I don't want to appear to be a zoo Scrooge here, but the enjoyment of kids at the zoo, an enjoyment that once included me every weekend, is not a reason to imprison animals. Do zoos increase environmental consciousness and thus help to protect the habitats of other wild animals? I don't think so. As far as I can tell, the people deforesting the Amazon or killing elephants in Africa for their ivory have not been deterred by outraged kids and their families who just visited the zoo. I love what domesticated animals like dogs and cats do for us: they teach us the joy and responsibility of truly caring for a living being who depends upon you and who loves you in return. However, it is simplistic and wrong to imagine that our love for Fido is the same as our love for lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!

I am of course pleased that the zoos of today are not the cement and steel prisons I remember from the old Milwaukee zoo (the new one is beautiful). The cages have become displays, and every effort is made to recreate natural settings. In some new zoos, the people actually travel safari-like through the animal habitats. Zoos have also helped to save endangered species and reintroduce them into the wild. However, not all zoos are new zoos. Many thousands of wild animals are trapped in horrible conditions. I remember traveling in a country tormented by war, and I saw emaciated lions panting in the heat as a rotten chicken carcass became food for the flies. It was the Jerusalem zoo after the Six Day War, and it made me remember that every time I visited the zoo with grandpa, I hatched some fantasy to free all the animals from their cages. Once I told grandpa of my plans and he said that Milwaukee was not really a good place for hippopotamuses to live.

I have no desire to lead an anti-zoo crusade, but a part of me sees zoos as an act of human domination over wild animals. There is a cute little polar bear cub in the Berlin zoo named Knut who is a huge attraction. The zoo recently announced that the little show in which Knut frolics with a zookeeper would be stopped because Knut was becoming too big and too aggressive. In time the crowds will go away, but Knut will still be there in his cage, his wildness, his very essence, now a public-relations liability.

We must learn to know Knut as just a polar bear without a name and Berani as just a tiger yearning to be free. William Blake understood all this. He wrote what I precisely and passionately believe:

The Tiger

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