Okay, confession time. I took Waits to the zoo.
Once. It happened one time. Because, see, I grew up going to the zoo each and every single Friday, and I can’t help but partially attribute my love of animals to that experience. So unlike many vegans who were clear about their anti-zooness from the start, I was not. I was conflicted.
Which is why, when my Dad asked to take us to the zoo, I said okay. It was April of 2012 and we were visiting Santa Barbara, so it was the very zoo I grew up visiting. And I thought “Okay then, we’ll give this a try and see how it feels.”
Can I just stop and tell you a story? Sorry, it’s going to be a lot of text. Here, I’ll break it up with an adorable picture from that day. Wee Mr. Waits feeding a giraffe:
Okay so story time. I grew up in California in the 80s, which means I grew up learning about THE CONDORS. Maybe if you’re not a California 80s baby you won’t be familiar with this story, but basically this incredible bird with like, a 10-foot wingspan, was seriously endangered due to human poaching and pollution. And by endangered I mean, they were literally extinct in the wild. There were less than 50 alive, all in captivity. It was horrible and tragic and as we grew up, we all followed along with the recovery process. We were all so invested in seeing this species survive!
And they did survive, and in the early 90s the condors were released back into the wild, and with careful management they have been steadily growing in numbers ever since (though they’re still on the endangered species list).
So anyway, I was walking around this zoo with my father and my son, and generally feeling a lot of mixed emotions (nostalgia! . . . I love the pretty animals! . . . that pretty animal looks bored out of his mind!) and then all of a sudden, I found myself standing in front of a condor enclosure. Right there in front of me, for the first time in my life, I was seeing a real live California condor. And I have to tell you, I got choked up.
And I stood there in awe, thinking about how close they had come to extinction and how it’s sort of a miracle that now there was this enormous gorgeous raptor sitting right there in front of me, alive and not at all extinct, and yes I am a sap, and yes I let a few tears slip out. It was pretty overwhelming.
And then that giant bird took off. She leapt from her perch, and spread those mighty wings, and flapped once, twice, aaaaand three times got her to the other side of the enclosure. Three flaps and that was the complete extent of her ability to fly – this birds of prey that were she free would soar in lazy sweeping circles hundreds of feet above the canyons.
And my heart broke for her, and then more tears came, and that was the end of my zoo patronage right then and there.
So I know, you may be getting ready to tell me that there are some zoos out there that are good. It was, in fact, the San Diego Wild Animal Park, in partnership with the LA Zoo, that facilitated the program to bring the condors back from the brink of extinction.
And I concede, that it’s possible there are animal parks out there doing good work. Sure. But then I have to ask, what’s really the point of breeding condors just to spend their lives in tiny cages? Cages which deprive them of their basic rights to act on their natural instincts and urges (such as soaring, and hunting)? That day at the zoo I also came across a big beautiful lion trapped in a small cement box. I saw a crocodile floating in a pool not much bigger than my bathtub. I saw instance after instance of animals looking sad, wilted, clipped, or crazed. And wouldn’t you be, too?
So no, no zoos for us anymore. That became clear. But luckily, there are alternatives!
A Natural History Museum is just exactly what it sounds like – a museum which focuses on the natural world. This includes zoology, botany, paleontology, ecology, and much more. There are generally no living animals on display at Natural History Museums. Instead they use replicas, models, and taxidermied specimens.
Yes, it’s taxidermy. And I can see how this would bother some vegans on a purely visceral level. However, it helps me to remember that Natural History Museums – at least the one here in Santa Barbara – do NOT actively kill animals for use in their displays.
The animals are donated after they’ve died. I interned at the museum during college, and I’ve literally seen people bring in road kill, or call when something unusual washes up on shore. There’s an incredible, enormous, complete blue whale skeleton that sits in front of the museum, and it came from a whale which was found beached and deceased back in 1980.
This sets museums apart from zoos. Zoos participate in an active machine of animal oppression: capture and confinement. In contrast, museums provide a passive vehicle for education. Natural History Museums familiarize children with the biological world by allowing them to view representations of animals in their natural habitats, to interact with zoological artifacts, and to begin their exploration of the Earth sciences.
Waits and I visit the Natural History Museum pretty regularly in the fall and winter. He adores it, and always finds something new to discover. And I love watching him there. The way he studies the animals. The way he delights in the interactive displays. His questions!
At the Natural History Museum, Waits is learning to tune into the biological world, to notice the sweeping landscapes of the macro scale: the climates, the community, the ecology. He’s also able to conceptualize the much more detailed micro level: the way a shell looks when cut in cross section, or the size of a giant squid’s eye in relationship to its body, or “Mommy, why is that egg so big and that other egg is soooo small?”
I do not believe that children need zoos in order to fall in love with the animal kingdom. Because I watch my own child do it right here, each time we visit.
There are a couple other places we go to appreciate animals, places which offer great alternatives for vegan children to learn. I’ll be sharing some of our very favorites soon, so stay tuned!
My decision to avoid zoos is a personal one, and I do not begrudge anyone who has made a different decision for their family. It is never my intention to make anyone feel judged. Bonzai Aphrodite has and always will be a place for education as well as conversation, which means everyone is welcome here! Love and respect. ~s