How to Teach Your Kids About Zoos

We owe our children honest answers about the morality of animal captivity

On September 6, National Geographic Kids posted a Family Field Guide, “How to Answer Challenging Questions About Animals at the Zoo,” by Laura Goertzel, digital director for the magazine. Goertzel was forced to consider the problem of animal captivity when a bobcat called Ollie escaped from her cage at the National Zoo in Washington, DC in January. Goertzel’s kids began asking questions about how Ollie escaped and why Ollie would want to do so. 

photo of lions at national zooPhoto by Steve Sarro, Smithsonian’s National ZooIn January, a female bobcat known as Ollie escaped her cage at the National Zoo. She was returned to her enclosure after being recaptured. A recent post in National Geographic dodges challenging questions about the morality of keeping wild animals like Ollie captive.

“Our visits to the zoo haven’t been the same since,” Goertzel writes. “My kids continue to inquire about the lives of captive animals, and those questions are often difficult to answer. (My answer to the above question: Just like Curious George, Ollie wanted to learn about what was going on outside the zoo and found a hole in her cage to squeeze through.)”

These are teachable moments, says Goertzel, and she offers some of her favorite questions from kids and tips on how to answer them:

Question 1: Where are all the elephants?

Explain to children that just as they do, animals enjoy time by themselves. That’s why modern parks give animals a space away from visitors to rest.

Question 2: Why does that lion look so bored?

The animals probably aren’t bored — they’re just resting. Many wild animals, including lions, do spend most of their day chilling out…. (In fact, the king of the beasts is considered the laziest of the big cats, spending 16 to 20 hours a day sleeping or resting.) A zoo environment is not much different.

Question 3: Is that panda happy living in a cage?

Let’s face it. No matter how innovative the spaces are, seeing animals in enclosures can be hard for children. So I use that question to teach my kids that many of the animals at the zoo are endangered or threatened, and that zoos can keep them safe from poachers, habitat destruction, and other threats.

And so goes the advice of Laura Goertzel. She has chosen to answer the pure, perceptive, empathetic questions of her children with bullshit and rationalization. She suggests that we all do the same.   

We are, as it happens, in the middle of a revolution in public thinking on zoos and the morality of animal captivity. Ringling Bros Circus just went out of business, done in by just the sort of questions asked by Laura Goertzel’s kids. A campaign against Sea World, led by Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project, is driving customers and investors away from that company and sending its stock into a nose dive. We are witnessing a sea change. This is the teachable moment, and Laura Goertzel would rather dodge it. 

Here, then, is an alternative family guide on the subject. We could call it, “How to TRUTHFULLY Answer Challenging Questions at the Zoo,” or better, “Why Not Try Learning Something from Your Kids?”

Question 1: Why would Ollie want to escape from her cage?

Ollie was desperate to escape her cage, like any wild animal in lockup. A wolf will sometimes gnaw off her own foot to escape a leghold trap. A captive tuna will swim resolutely against the glass until she develops a condition called “puffy nose” and dies. A captive killer whale will gnaw his teeth down to nubbins against the gate to his tank. These are difficult subjects, kids, but some subjects are just plain difficult. Not everything can be made simple and easy and nice. 

Ollie is nothing like Curious George, a fictional monkey. Ollie is an actual bobcat. Like all wildcats, she is a master of concealment. Glimpsed in the wild, she has the power to vanish into thin air. This magical power deserts her in a zoo. Caged, she’s just like The Hobbit’s Frodo when he loses the magic ring. Vanishing is no longer an option. At the National Zoo, to which Ollie was returned after being recaptured, she is confined again not just by bars, but hemmed in by the gaze of thousands of eyes in the throngs of humans ceaselessly passing by and looking in. In the wild, a female bobcat like Ollie has an average range of six square miles to vanish in. A male bobcat has a range of 60. Everything in Ollie’s nature compelled her to try escaping the confines of her cage.

Ollie’s name, by the way, is not Ollie. Her name, if she has one, is whatever call her mother made to fetch her as a kitten, and whatever cry her own kittens make when hungry for her milk.

Question 2: Where are all the elephants?

Same thing as with Ollie. Most captive wild animals are stressed by being observed by people. Some zoos recognize this and provide places for the elephants and others to get away. The animals don’t retreat to these places to rest, so much, or because they enjoy time by themselves. They retreat, kids, to escape the scrutiny of beings like you.      

Question 3: Why does that lion look so bored?

That lion isn’t bored. The word “bored” does not begin to convey the anomie experienced by that lion. Like Ollie, he is a predator, programmed to wander. He is not designed for sedentary life in a cage. Predators are intelligent, with minds built for quick solutions to new problems while sprinting full speed. They are not creatures adapted to the same old thing 

If that lion is pacing a beaten path along the bars, turning always at the same spot and pacing back the other way, only to turn and pace again, hour upon hour, then he is demonstrating ritualized behavior, a very common pathology in big cats in zoos. Captivity has made that lion neurotic or has driven him insane.

And, kids, no one should ever call a lion lazy until she has walked a hundred miles in that lion’s paws, and caught a few hooves of fleeing antelope in her face, and fought off packs of hyenas over kills. And the African savannah does not in any way resemble the environment in a zoo.

Question 4:  Is that panda happy living in a cage? 

Would YOU be happy living in a cage? Let’s face it, no matter how innovative the spaces are, seeing wild animals in enclosures can be hard for children, and just imagine how much harder for the animals themselves. 

We are, boys and girls, in the middle of the Sixth Extinction. We are losing wild species at a rate unprecedented since the dinosaurs died out. Saving a handful of endangered specimens from poachers by poaching them for zoos will have no effect on the catastrophe facing us.  Rescuing a few threatened creatures from habitat destruction by removing them from that habitat — subtraction from the ecosystem for addition to zoos — is a zero-sum game. It may even be a negative, if it offers the illusion that this is any help against ecocide. Answering difficult questions with nonsense and pablum does nobody any good, neither kids nor wildlife.” 

So this concludes the difficult answers suggested by this alternative family guide. This guide would only propose, in closing, that roles be reversed in the Goertzel family. Mom seems stuck at an early stage of thought about wildlife. (“Cute video and photo alert: Bei Bei the panda at the zoo!” she wrote at one point.) The Goertzel kids really should take the lead on this one. Laura, for her part, might consider trying to summon up again, in herself, that clear-eyed attentiveness of children to what is fair and right.

It is true that zoos inspire many to care about wild animals, and zoos do motivate some people to work for wildlife preservation. But zoos also teach another lesson: that these caged creatures are ours, that we hold dominion, that these beings are here for our entertainment. When, in my imagination, I try to turn the tables, taking the Ollie-eye view of zoo crowds, I’m afraid I know which lesson is dominant.    

For as long as we still have zoos, maybe a plaque should be required above each entrance.  It would quote a passage from Henry Beston’s book, The Outermost House, as a reminder to all those who enter of a few things about the inmates:

In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses that we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.

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