A giraffe who freaks out about men with large cameras, a brown bear whose cage door is the subject of his obsessive compulsive disorder, a 5,000-pound killer whale who shows her trainer who is boss by dragging him underwater for just about as long as he can live, before letting him go — these episodes seem like something more complicated than simple errors of confinement. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in some way the animals understand that the world around them is an artificial one, that these phobias and psychotic episodes represent reactions to that artifice, or subversions of it. Which means that the central illusion of the zoo is no longer holding. The animals know.
All of which makes [veterinarian] Vint Virga’s project — sustaining that illusion, by incremental changes in how the animals are treated — seem more than a little quixotic. Last August, the Costa Rican government announced it was closing all its zoos. The new policy, the government declared, was “no cages.” (A court ruling has so far kept the zoos open.) I think we’re moving slowly toward the same sensibility. In 25 years, there will likely still be some way for Americans to see exotic animals. But I will be pretty surprised if those places have cages, mirrors, smoke machines, and conference-room tanks for 12,000-pound whales. There may be nature preserves. But it seems to me that we’re pretty rapidly reaching the end of the era of the modern urban zoo.
Relatedly, Laurel Braitman reports on the giving of psychiatric drugs to zoo animals. Here’s the story of the Central Park Zoo’s polar bear Gus:
[T]he zoo staff didn’t want Gus to scare children or their parents, so they put up barriers to keep visitors farther away from the window. Gus soon started to swim in endless figure eights.
Hoping to curb the neurotic behavior, the zoo hired Tim Desmond, an animal trainer who had trained the orca who played Willy in the film Free Willy. Desmond was able to reduce Gus’s compulsions by giving him new things to do, such as bear food puzzles or snacks that took him longer to eat: mackerel frozen in blocks of ice or chicken wrapped in rawhide.
The zoo redesigned his exhibit and installed a play area stocked with rubber trash cans and traffic cones that Gus could pretend-maul. They also put him on Prozac. I do not know how long he was on the drug, or even if it was as effective as his new exhibit and entertainment schedule, but eventually Gus’s compulsive swimming tapered off, though it never went away entirely.