[H]ow can we justify keeping animals in zoos? Wallace-Wells asks. His conclusion is that we can’t, and that we won’t continue to try for much longer. I’m not sure I agree. But there are certainly bits and pieces of zoos that could be handed over to technology. The educational aspect of zoos would be relatively easy to make virtual. And since zoo animals don’t really act as they would in nature (even when they’re not psychotic), it’s hard to argue that zoos can convey much about the animals other than how they look. And while many zoos attempt to share a lot of material about conservation, it’s not clear how much of that is getting through to visitors. Certainly, technology that connects people to animals in the wild could reveal far more about the animals’s actual behaviors as well as the need for conservation. If kids just want to see an animal up close, they can go to a farm or get a pet.
But we do lose something, if we lose physical zoos.
The world’s best zoos go to great lengths to help save threatened species. Some animals—like the northern bald ibis—are safe from looming extinction precisely because zoos have developed captive breeding programs. It seems to me that we should at least let the good zoos keep on with that good work (and encourage them to do it better); then we could see some wild animals close up from time to time. The rest of the wild kingdom we could keep in contact with on our devices. Bye-bye, sweet guilty feeling.
Yet I wonder: Even if a nearly zoo-less world would satisfy me ethically, would it satisfy me emotionally? What about that desire to feel something? Could I really make a connection through a GPS tracker or a live cam? Certainly my friends and I have gotten mesmerized by video feeds of animals (think panda cam), but my heart melts extra when I make eye contact with the monkeys at the zoo.
(Photo: A newborn baboon cuddles a plush monkey presented by Fatma Sahin, the mayor of Gaziantep, a southeastern city in Turkey, on November 23, 2014. The newborn baboon was rejected by its biological mother. By Kerem Kocalar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)