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Why Animals Loathe Zoos

Photo source Mark Baylor | CC BY 2.0

In July, a 3-year-old male jaguar, Valerio, at New Orleans’ Audubon Zoo escaped and fatally mauled four trapped alpacas, one emu and one fox who were held in other displays. Valerio bit a hole in steel fencing and zoo officials vowed to install stronger materials.

The fact is, according to Fear of the Animal Plant: the Hidden History of Animal Resistance by Jason Hribal (CounterPunch/AK Press), such animal escapes occur regularly and are always dismissed by the zoo industry as “animals will be animals.” For example, between 1995 and 2000 there were 35 escapes at the Los Angeles Zoo reporters discovered, few publicized. Reasons given for the escapes, when they do hit the news are fabricated and insult the public’s intelligence. For example, Audubon Zoo officials blamed “territorial disputes” for the escape. Never do zoo officials admit the animals do not want to be prisoners.

Compared to other zoo and circus captives, Valerio the jaguar was “lucky.” Had he killed humans he could have met the fate of Topsy the elephant who was electrocuted in front of 1,500 ebullient onlookers for the crime of killing three handlers, one of whom was sadistic.

Dumb animals don’t mind being captives the zoo and animal entertainment industries tell us despite years of clearly premeditated escapes. Siabu, Sara and Busar, orangutans at the Chafee Zoo in Fresno “spent weeks, maybe months, unraveling a small section of the nylon netting that surrounded their enclosure” until “one of them was finally able to push his body through the hole and make it outside,” writes Hribal.

Kumang, an orangutan at the San Diego Zoo learned how to ground a hot wire to escape. “She’ll take sticks and piece of wood and lean them up against the wire so that it is grounded,” explained a trainer. “Then she pulls herself up by using the porcelain insulators on the wire as hand-holds. Before mastering electricity, Kumang had enlisted another animal to hold a broom handle to support her while she climbed a wall. In another example, a gorilla transverses a huge moat to escape.

The first blow to the “dumb animals don’t mind being captives” is the passion and ingenuity they display to escape incarceration such as the primate who learns to pick locksand orangutans who employ a crowbar and screwdriver to escape. But the second blow to the “dumb animal” theory is the specificity with which incarcerated animals target their abusers. Who, for example, can forget that Tatiana, a tiger at the San Francisco Zoo, ignored other people and other animals trapped in cages to attack the very three people who admitted they were harassingthe animal in 2011?

Time and time again Fear of the Animal Plant recounts elephants specifically retaliating against abusive trainers, sparing everyone else around them. “Significantly, zoos and circuses will on occasion admit to this fact: that the relations between animal handlers and elephants are primarily antagonistic, coercive and, often, violent,” Hribal writes. In fact one elephant actually grabs the bull hook, the training stick “meant to inflict pain and submission,” by trainers and used it in an attack.

Zoos are not alone in this abuse writes Hribal who also exposes the suppliers/poachers of animals from the wild for city zoos, roadside zoos, events and movies. For example, Buddha, an orangutan who starred in Clint Eastwood’s “Any Which Way You Can” was beaten to death with a cane and an ax by a trainer for eating a donut.

Even animal advocates may be shocked at the clear resistance and volition with which animals respond to incarceration detailed in Hribal’s book. But a riveting introduction by CounterPunch editor Jeffery St. Clair shows that as late as the 1700s, animals were indeed thought capable of free will and premeditation. When they were involved in misdeeds, they were given trials, lawyers and allowed to have character witnesses testify on their behalf.

As for Valerio, zoo officials hope by now you have forgotten about his “territorial” inspired escape––until the next one happens.

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Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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