What does a zoo mean to an animal? Is it a place where life is safe and easy? Or a situation of imposed captivity and a loss of freedom?
Animals are free to roam across the land in the wild. They can do whatever they want – the essence of freedom. That also means fending for oneself. The search for food, water and shelter therefore becomes essential for a free animal. It also means facing the vagaries of nature and avoiding the claws of predators (that range from other animals to the most dreadful one – the man).
Man, the predator, also runs zoological parks (aka zoo). Initially Zoos were a display of animals as a 'wonder' to be looked at. Then they justified their existence as places that help in 'studying and understanding animals'. Now we feel even more benevolent and justify a zoo as a place to 'preserve' other species. However, 'What or who is responsible for bringing certain species to the brink of extinction that justifies their capture, confinement and even forced mating in zoos?', will bring us back to square one situation. We devastate their habitat, interfere with their freedom and then capture and put them in cages to prevent them from getting extinct. Unfortunately, even this act of valor reeks of our selfishness. We try to save them because they may be or actually are of some use to us, somehow.
Coming back to the zoos, animals are mostly treated 'reasonably' well in a zoo nowadays. They get food, water (implying that they don't have to hunt or search and risk their life) and shelter. Even their health is taken care of by the veterinary doctors at the zoo. Heaters and coolers are provided in their cages as per seasons, to maintain a comfortable temperature for them. It is a reasonably luxurious life that many third world citizens may even be envious of and may never achieve in their lifetimes. Still, would an animal want to live in a zoo? What will you choose, luxury or your freedom, if you are in place of that animal? Whatever your answer, the fact remains that almost all of us are actually living a caged existence already. The only difference between us and the animals is that they realize they are caged but, we mostly do not.
We see the animals confined within their cages and infer that we are free because we are apparently ‘outside’. But, if someone watches us from beyond the earth, would they not find us equally confined by actual boundaries, fences, gates and grills as well as the abstract and conceptual notions like race, religion, class etc. etc.? What makes it most difficult for us to understand our own captivity is the paradox of finding comfort (that comes from familiarity and charted paths) in a confined space. The sense of comfort and ease that we get from the social structures (both physical and conceptual) is exactly the same that we use to justify the confinement of animals, especially those that are born in a zoo or captivity. For example, what will you do to quench thirst within the confines of say, your home or school or workplace? The ease of knowing these space guides us to the nearest refrigerator, water cooler or a tap, without thinking twice. We don't even have to worry about where it is coming from and it's drink-worthiness, because that is the 'given comfort' - a part of the structural confinement (both cognitive and physical) by the society that we accept in lieu of our freedom.
In contrast, a wanderer in a forest will have to think, deduce and figure out where water is most likely to be and then work his way to the source. The risk of failure being way bigger, the wanderer however has his freedom to rejoice and explore 'life' itself. An animal born in a zoo can never know what freedom is unless it steps out and manages to escape the brutality of the civilized structures, the numerous cages and the people who justify and control it.
(This is the unedited piece that was written originally for my weekly column 'Sacred Bull' in Financial Chronicle Newspaper. Edited version was published on Oct 17, 2013)