Kathleen Stachowski Other Nations
“The animals in this zoo walk in circles.”
The boy, about eight years old, made this observation as he stood inches from a compulsively-circling grizzly, a thick wall of plexiglass between bear and child. He repeated it–now more question than statement–but neither parent responded. “The bear’s gone crazy from captivity,” I ventured in his direction. His mom agreed. “Yes, it’s so sad,” she said. “I feel sorry for them.” Meanwhile, the bear circled and circled while her sister paced a linear route back and forth, back and forth. Meanwhile, a lump was forming in my throat.
Here’s why I went to the zoo: I wanted to see for myself what happens to Montana grizzlies when robbed of their lives in the wild. Flashback to 2005. A small story appeared in our local western Montana newspaper about a grizzly sow–a so-called “problem bear” who broke into garbage bins then graduated to sheds. Captured and relocated several times, the magnetic pull of what she’d learned from humans–that we harbor tasty, easily-accessible meals–was too great. “The fact that she started breaking into structures kind of sealed her fate,” said the bear management specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP), the state management agency.
Sadly, there’s no Attractive Nuisance Doctrine that protects bears from negligent landowners or–more accurately–that obligates humans to protect and accommodate their wild neighbors. Animals–especially when inconvenient and particularly when deemed a threat–are ultimately disposable, even those protected by the Endangered Species Act, as grizzlies are. Even those like Mama Griz, who found trouble just beyond the edge of refuge–in this case, outside of Glacier National Park and the Great Bear Wilderness. Just ask Yellowstone’s wild bison about the Montana reception they get when they step outside of their designated space…equal opportunity oppression across species.
So Mama Griz was killed in her prime by FWP for her human-induced habituation (let’s be clear about that–she was killed by the state, not euthanized) and her two female cubs–their brief, wild lives now history–were slated for a “bear facility” at a zoo in Indiana. And lo and behold, I knew this zoo as a historic fixture in my hometown for over 85 years. A tiny, lakeside attraction (15 acres in its entirety), it began in 1925 as one man’s menagerie and grew to feature Works Progress Administration architecture that loomed large and cavernous in my 1950s childhood. In those dark days, little was known of animals’ inner lives, and visitors gawked and laughed at the primates who “entertained” us by screaming while compulsively–violently–hurling their bodies from wall to wall in their small, sterile, iron-barred cages, automatons of psychosis.
I e-mailed the bear management specialist (he was not without compassion for the cubs) and told him what I knew. “There IS no bear facility. It’s a cement-and-iron-barred cage.” And so it was in 2005 when the cubs arrived. In 2006 the zoo began construction of a North American Carnivore Exhibit which now houses the bears on one side and mountain lions on the other, the display areas separated by a wall and a waterfall. According to the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project, the average home range throughout North America for an adult female grizzly bear is about 70 square miles, something no zoo can provide. These bears have something less than the space of a basketball court–a cement and plexiglass habitat 1600 miles from home. The result? Zoochotic behavior:
Despite a zoo’s best efforts, its animals often are deprived of privacy, confined to inadequate spaces and unable to engage in natural hunting and mating activities. Forced to live in artificial constructs, many animals succumb to what some people refer to as zoochosis, the display of obsessive, repetitive behaviors. ~Animal Planet: Zoo Cons
In Bristol Zoo in the UK, two polar bears called Nina and Misha have been confined in a tiny concrete enclosure for 28 years. They are described as being in a psychotic state. Zoocheck, an organisation founded by Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna (Born Free) discovered that more than 60% of polar bears in British zoos are mentally deranged and cubs born in zoos are twice as likely to die as those in the wild.
~Animal Liberation Queensland
Preventing natural behaviour patterns in animals can give rise to stress and frustration and impair the development of brain regions that are involved in behavioural sequencing, thereby reducing the animal’s ability to behave flexibly and appropriately. ~Captivity effects on wide-ranging carnivores
The video we shot shows Circling Bear making three complete revolutions in 15 seconds (the camera stopped, but the bear kept going). Elsewhere, the once-cavernous monkey house now seemed small–you know how adulthood has a way of shrinking long-remembered places. “Gone are the bars and tile cages and they are being replaced with glass fronted more realistic exhibits” reads the zoo’s website about a renovation started in 2008. (Monkeys were still behind bars in 2008!) A zebra stood listlessly on barren soil. A kangaroo desperately traversed the short section of fence between his cage and the neighboring wallaby’s cage, log sections strategically placed along his futile path. Parrots clung to chain link cages; tigers–three of them in an enclosure perhaps 50 feet by 30 feet–paced the perimeter.
It would be easy to go all maudlin at this point, to describe how I watched the animals watching me, how I desperately wanted to convey to them, “I’m not here to gawk, not here to exploit your misery for my own entertainment,” hoping they could feel the vibes of my tearful distress. It would be easy, because that is truthfully the way it played out.
It would be easy to lay blame at the doorstep of a 15-acre zoo that houses over 200 animals from mega-fauna like grizzlies and tigers to primates to parakeets; a zoo whose animals, despite their “enrichment,” circle and pace and seem listless or crazy. Ultimately, it would be easy to condemn Montana FWP for sentencing bear cubs to the living death of zoo incarceration, a stir-crazy future of years (maybe decades) stretching out before them, devoid of everything that makes a grizzly bear a grizzly: the vast, open spaces of Big Sky Country with its sun and huckleberries, its meadows and mountains; the chase for prey, snug winter dens, and families of their own; the freedom to know both ease and hardship, life and death–in the wild.
But at the root, we are all to blame, because speciesism is to blame, and we humans alone must own that. No one zoo is culpable when our species, based on our privilege as humans, has constructed a world where it’s acceptable–normal, even–to incarcerate or enslave other, “lower” animals for our amusement. Speciesism might be the last great social justice battle we’ve yet to fight, but the depressing truth is this: animal oppression and exploitation are so thoroughly integrated into the status quo, so tightly woven into the very fabric of everyday life, that the battle is yet to even be recognized by most. And when it is, it’s often met with sneering belittlement: Speciesism–you’re kidding, right? Why don’t you put your energy into something that matters, like working for hungry people?
Speciesism is reinforced by religion, by government, by capitalism (oh, especially by capitalism!), by parents and teachers. Human desires trump animal needs: we have every right to keep chickens (and bird feeders, fruit trees, dog food on the back porch, etc.) in bear country. Counties approve subdivisions in wildlife habitat and travel corridors; residents then complain about intrusive animals and call for their removal. (Why, they’re eating my landscaping! They’re a threat to my children! I can’t even let my dog out unattended!) And the beat goes on and on and on.
The large-brained species has come up with but two solutions for the orphaned cubs of grizzly moms whose luck has run out: Living death in zoos–lives measured in circles turned and pounds of omnivore chow consumed, or death–the real, final thing. Just two. Anything else would require something more of us.