• Diego Plaza Casanova

Is it time to transform zoos?

When we take a child to a zoo, we are not only showing him animals outside of their habitat living in confined spaces, but we are also normalizing a discourse of discrimination based solely and exclusively on considerations of species. A discourse that sounds much less retrograde than it is.

Zoos are defined as "enclosures with adequate facilities to conserve, care for and raise different species of animals, especially wild and exotic ones, which can be visited by the public". They have been present in our cities for a long time, and constitute a "cultural attraction" that seems to imply an educational experience for its visitors. Family groups usually visit zoos with young children, where they can observe a variety of non-human animal species proceeding from all around the world in a situation of confinement, which is culturally normalized and even valued.

Nevertheless, in recent times several voices have been raised in favor of the ban or transformation of these enclosures, not only because they do not meet the elements contained in their own definition (adequate facilities, due care of the species), but also because the concept of the zoo itself seems to be outdated regarding the cultural evolution that societies have experienced.

However, the objects of exhibition in these establishments have not always been non-human animals: In ancient Rome, human persons brought from conquered territories were already exhibited, and these were tied up and even caged by the victorious generals. Centuries later, Cardinal Hippolytus de Medici (16th century) had a "collection" of people of different ethnic groups: Moors, Tartars, Indians, Turks, and Africans. Nevertheless, it was in modern times that the most extreme variants of human exhibitions in the West were developed, reaching perhaps their peak in October 1889 when the anniversary of the French Revolution was celebrated in Paris with a "Universal Exhibition".

On that occasion, eleven Selknam people who were kidnapped by Maurice Maître from the San Felipe Bay (an entire family) were transported to France and exhibited, tied up in chains. Of the eleven, two died on the trip. They were presented as "cannibals", had raw horse meat thrown at them and were kept dirty so that they would look like savages, in order to maximize commercial benefits. Given the inhuman conditions of the exhibition, the S.A. Missionary Society demanded the release and return of this family to Tierra del Fuego, which forced Maître to cancel the tour of England, going to Belgium. After the tour, the Selknam people were finally returned to Tierra del Fuego but only six of them arrived alive.

Before the arrival of the Selknam, in June 1883, two Mapuche families arrived in Paris to be exhibited in grueling tours that started in Paris at the "Jardin d'Acclimatation", and then continued in other cities of the continent. One of the most assiduous visitors of these families was Prince Roland Bonaparte, Napoleon's great-nephew, who combined his love of photography with the study of the "natural sciences". After Paris, the tour continued at the Berlin Zoo, at a Christmas fair in Hamburg, and at La Moneda Palace in Chile. These exhibitions, which today we consider to be a cultural atrocity and a severe violation of the human dignity, took place due to the colonialist and Eurocentric conceptions that predominated in the leading discourses of that time. In those days, doubts about the nature of the members of these pre-Columbian peoples, and the conceptualization of them as things or beings similar to humans in certain aspects, but not humans, allowed to carry out questionable acts like these "shows". And not only that, but it also enabled to generate a speech of cultural and biological supremacy that would allow the society of that time to be ordered in a certain way, and to exalt the European peoples who were considered (or considered themselves) as the apex of civilization. Today, after centuries of philosophical, ethical, and dogmatic progress, it is difficult to find absolute elements that would allow us to justify solidly and coherently the way we relate to non-human animals or the way we abuse and discriminate them. We know that the only thing all humans have in common is neither race, gender, religion, rationality, nor physical ability, but the fact that we represent an individual interest, an end in itself. This idea prevents us from considering each other as means or objects. However, if we project this reasoning onto animals, we will find that the only thing that distinguishes us from them is the species to which we zoologically belong.

Thus, there will always be animals that will have better physical condition, vision, smell, hearing, and even intelligence than some humans, depending on their age, physical or psychic fitness, but there will also be others whose capacities will be inferior to ours. However, if we see each other, we will also find humans with greater and lesser capabilities than ours, which does not seem to be an argument to ignore the interest we represent, or to suppress our condition as an end in itself. Is not discrimination based on the species ethically reprehensible? Is it not analogous to racism, sexism, and heterosexism?

This gap that prevents the fair and dignified treatment of non-human animals seems to be becoming blurred at the cultural level, as people acquire consciousness, change their eating habits, and modify their speeches. However, this change in the cultural appreciation of the issue has met with resistance from one of the most reactionary discursive control mechanisms in our societies: the laws and the judiciary. In general, in countries where there has been strategic litigation aimed at obtaining direct or indirect recognition of animal rights, the courts have pointed out that animals are not people and that only people can be rights holders. They have also ruled that the laws specifically invoked have not been designed to be invoked on behalf of animals, thus avoiding a judgment on whether or not animals have personhood. This situation has generated astonishment in some sectors of the population since legal abstractions such as a limited liability company are "persons" according to our laws. Still, a chimpanzee, for example, that shares more than 99% of its genome with humans, that is self-conscious, that uses tools, that live in society, that obeys cultural codes and that is capable of suffering physically and psychologically, is not.

Under these conceptions, lawyers in New York requested the release of "Happy", an elephant exhibited at the Bronx Zoo that seemed to live in misery and showed behaviors denoting learned helplessness. The lawyers pointed out that Happy was a person, who had the right to freedom and was being illegally held at the zoo. However, a few days ago, the court noted in its ruling that it "agrees that Happy is more than a thing or property (...) he is an intelligent and autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity, and who may have the right to freedom. However, we are bound by jurisprudence to find that Happy is not a 'person' and is not being illegally imprisoned". There have been a number of courts that have ruled similarly in various legal systems.

Notwithstanding the above, there have been some successful court cases. For example, the chimpanzee Cecilia was released from a zoo in Mendoza through a habeas corpus and transferred to a sanctuary in Brazil. Another example is the orangutan Sandra, who was released in Argentina in the same way and moved to a sanctuary in Florida (U.S.). However, some sectors have proposed a different route to confront the problem of animal confinement in these kinds of establishments: Putting an end to zoos, at least as we know them today.

Thus, in February of this year, the board of directors of the Santa Fe Zoo in Medellín (Colombia) announced that the enclosure will no longer be a place of confinement for animals and that it will begin a process of transforming it into a conservation center. From that space, they said, citizens can expect a much more diverse offering, because the park will have an interactive museum, a research and science center, auditoriums and a space dedicated to environmental education. However, this is not the only similar experience in South America. The former Mendoza Zoo, famous for cases of abuse and neglect, e.g., Arturo, the Polar Bear, was closed in 2016 intending to be transformed into an Eco-Park where the animals that used to live there will no longer be exhibited. It is a new concept where the animal will not live in function of the human being, will not be part of a show, and will even have the possibility to hide if it does not want to be seen. As of February 2020, more than 800 animals have already been relocated to various sanctuaries in Argentina and South America.

What's going on in Chile? Our country has not been left behind in what seems to be the future of these exhibition and confinement spaces. The animal organization "Colectivo Alza tu Voz", in a proposal framed in the international project ZOOXXI, is working on the reconversion project of the Santiago Metropolitan Zoo that proposes to transform it into a sanctuary or rehabilitation center focused on endemic species. The plan contemplates the transfer of exotic species to sanctuaries located abroad that are appropriate to their needs. In addition, it contemplates the generation of a space that allows a virtual experience with the species in their habitats.

Will Chile succeed in transforming its zoos? Only time will tell. However, everything seems to indicate that this will happen sooner or later because the only foundation of its existence, that is, the speciesist discourse, constitutes one of the last bastions of cultural discrimination still standing. In this sense, it seems logical that speciesism should suffer the same fate as its predecessors, which are today culturally reproached and regulated by the legal system: nationalism, racism, sexism and discrimination based on religion, gender and sexual orientation. More information:


©2020 by Center for Chilean Animal Law Studies. 

This site was designed with the
website builder. Create your website today.
Start Now