Zoos as Confidence Crisis

I knew through some sixth sense that that tiger in San Francisco was taunted before it hopped loose, rampaged, and was rampaged upon. Now, in reporting on a different kind of stomach-turner — a German zoo allowed a polar bear to devour her children — the BBC asks: what are zoos for, exactly?

This question will only get harder to answer for people who style themselves as having an obligation to think it through. And the number of people in that position will likely rise. I’m not talking about the navel-gazing kind of publicly expressed meta-guilt that substitutes nowadays for the reckoning that triggers (and is informed by!) real guilt. I’m talking about the practical questions. What’s the best way to keep wild animals? Who are we keeping them for? What duty is there to the public to provide viewing opportunities? Is the ‘interactive’ zoo a dumb idea? Even if we have no public duty to keep zoos, are there goods zoos provide that we want or like anyway? And what exactly are they? And how are they best served without institutionalizing contradictions about our attitude toward the stewardship of nature and animals?

On one level, it’s embarrassing that the mere question of capturing wild creatures triggers another typical late-modern/postmodern crisis of cultural confidence. But on another level, I think we all know that zoos no longer mean just ‘capturing wild animals’, and as human life has gone on, we’ve imported as many problems inherent to human nature into the zoo question as we have into the question of all our other human-made institutions that interact with the natural world.