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John Riceburg: In defence of Berlin’s marvelous zoos

John is a grown man who loves the zoo. Naturally, he has to defend himself against myriad zoo haters.

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Photo by John Riceburg

Every time I go to the zoo, I discover a new favorite animal. This time, it was a Kleiner Ameisenbär (a collared anteater or tamandua): a white-ish furry mammal from South America, shaped like a housecat, but with a rat’s tail and very long nose. In its cage at the Tierpark, the critter was standing on its hind legs to lick resin from a tree.

I go to the zoo at least twice a week. Is that a weird hobby for a man in his thirties? For many years, I’ve been fighting with depression. A long walk in one of Berlin’s two zoos (or its one aquarium) is by far the most relaxing activity I’ve ever discovered in this grey city. I inevitably find at least one thing – like a small white anteater – that makes me laugh with joy.

An hour in the monkey house can be as pleasant as an hour of psychotherapy. Is this an example of regression? The hopeless search for the long-lost bliss and wonder of childhood? Probably. So what? I’m not sure why it works. My theory: I know that monkeys have rich emotional lives based on complex social structures. But their psychological problems are much different than ours. Interacting with them through a piece of glass puts human problems in perspective: Just eat a carrot, strut around a bit, and you’ve basically already fulfilled your social obligations.

But you know who doesn’t like zoos? Lots of people on Facebook. Or at least all of my Ökohippy friends on Facebook. All those poor animals trapped and put on display for human pleasure! I admit, I would also have a problem if someone liked to treat depression by taking walks through a prison and looking at human beings in cages. But my firm conviction is that animals are not people. I do, after all, eat meat.

Virtually all zoo animals today were born in captivity. These are animals that can’t survive in nature anyway. Freeing them from the zoo would be tantamount to killing them. And that’s not all: The Davidshirsch, a deer from China, only exists today because some were trapped in zoos. Or take the gorilla Fatou from Berlin’s Zoologischer Garten: She’s in her sixties, making her decades older than gorillas live in the wild. Is that cruel?

Sure, you could say it’s evil to make primates live in cities, trapped inside buildings, unable to wander for miles, living far longer than they naturally would. But: I am a primate living in those exact conditions! At least let me look at other primates to help deal with it.

One thing I’ve noticed is that many zoo haters themselves have house pets. This seems totally unfair to me. We can debate about how the zoo treats its Polarwölfe (Arctic wolves). But one of my friends who morally objects keeps a husky dog in a six-bedroom WG in Berlin. That’s basically just an Arctic wolf that has been held in captivity so long it’s suffered lots of mutations. And that poor animal has to eat vegan dog food – at least the zoo provides meat!

I’ve seen one kind of animal that suffers a lot at zoos. You see, in East Berlin’s Tierpark (animal park), visitors can bring their dogs. And there you see bulldogs – animals that are bred so they basically can’t walk or breathe or even exist without clearly feeling misery. The New York Times quoted one vet saying: “100 percent of the bulldogs I have seen suffer respiratory distress.” Breeding an animal like that, to me, seems infinitely crueller.

So if we’re worried about freeing animals from miserable lives, let’s set all the house pets free. After all the cats and dogs are put back in the wild where they belong, then we can talk about zoo animals.