Monkeys, Polar Bears, and Ethical Quandaries

Did you know there was a zoo in San Francisco?  Last weekend, on a lazy Sunday day, I found myself with a few hours and an itch to take a drive, so I packed up my camera and, thanks to Google Maps and their “no highways” option, soon found myself standing in line with thirty other people to gain entrance.

San Francisco ZooMy first stop – the monkeys… out of all the animals at the zoo, they are the ones most likely to look like they are having a good time.  I love to watch them run up and down ropes, swing through the air, and play with each other.  I like to pretend every screech is a laugh, and perhaps at our expense.

It wasn’t a warm day but the sun was shining, a rarity for anyone who’s familiar with the Sunset area.  Everywhere parents and children put their faces to glass, and leaned over fences to get a better look at animals that for the most part, really didn’t care that we were there.  It made me wonder how the animals feel about their domestic homes: if the river otter knew the consistent current was artificially crafted, if the hippo slept so deeply out of boredom, and whether the polar bear dreamt of ice.

San Francisco ZooIt got me thinking about zoos and the arguments against them.  That keeping animals in captivity for a human’s entertainment, while it may extend their life, is not a guarantee of a higher quality of life.

The San Francisco Zoo was smaller than I anticipated, and the guests’ excitement perhaps a little dimmed by the afternoon naps so prevalent in the animals quarters.  The animals who were up and about seemed to take a perverse pleasure in walking away from peering eyes, an act I took as deliberate and potentially their only possible revenge.   Even as I angled for photographic opportunities, I applauded them in my heart.

San Francisco Zoo

Still, the presence of Zoos in our culture not only helps foster awareness and education of the animal kingdom and their growing needs, but also allows for conservation efforts.  Within the San Francisco Zoo, there were three birds with only one wing; as I watched them preening in the sunlight, it was obvious they were cared for and fed well.

San Francisco Zoo

I’ve been to more impressive Zoos, ones that seem to flaunt naturalization and focus on the animals more than the guests, but I would be distraught if Zoos disappeared altogether.  There is something magical that happens when you see a child seeing a tiger for the first time.  Or a gorilla, or a giraffe.  It’s a story book character coming to life.

San Francisco ZooAs I was leaving, I was still pondering: what is the right way for Zoos to balance the tension between the visitor’s desire to see animals they might not see any other way, and the well being of the animals themselves?  What do you think?


  1. Isabelle says:

    well-said! i really loved visiting zoos as a kid, but as i grew older, i felt sad for the animals because they always looked so bored/sad in the zoos! but you are absolutely right, it helps foster awareness and education of these lovely animals. great photos too. thanks cat!

  2. Cindy says:

    I think zoos only make sense when there is a research center to back it up and lots of quality behind-the-scenes conservation efforts taking place. The entry ticket fee might be higher, but well worth the money. I’ve been to good and horrible zoos, and when I get the sense that it is just another money making machine but at the expense of animals, that’s when I get really depressed.

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