I’ve never particularly enjoyed the experiences I’ve had at zoos. As a child, I was selfishly disappointed that animals didn’t come closer to the window for my viewing pleasure and, alternately, tinged with a sense of discomfort upon witnessing so many magnificent creatures looking tired and bored in their cages. My few and far between trips to zoos growing up always left me in a confused state of guilt, mild amusement, and disappointment. As an adult, I’ve managed to mostly view animals in their natural habitats—happening upon all types of mammals and bird species while visiting national parks in America’s southwest, spotting goats galore while weaving through the mountainous regions of Morocco, traveling from ger to ger on a combination of horseback and camel-back in Mongolia, or even lounging with well-attended to house cats in a cafe in Seoul. Unfortunately, all it took was a trip to a Chinese zoo to remind me of how easily we humans can take advantage of our position in the food chain.
Last March the second grade team took our students on a field trip to a local zoo in Xiamen to examine the impact humans have on animals, both positive and negative, for our IB unit of inquiry focusing on the theme Sharing the Planet. I didn’t expect the experience to be pleasant, however I had no idea just how severely we would expose our students to how humans affect animals. Our shocking adventure began in a barren open area, roughly the size of a football field, with a stone walkway, partial grassy patches, and a man-made lake hardly-filled with muddy water. In this space, a variety of animals—including skittish emus, an ostrich with half of its left wing feathers missing, friendly goats, and a couple of skinny cows—roamed freely with no particular appealing destination in sight. Halfway down the walkway were a couple of cages, each roughly the size of a parking space, with one containing a nervous wolf pacing back and forth, its grey tail curled between its hind legs. My students crowded around this cage, watching the wolf back away into a corner, and asked me why the animal’s cage was so small; why did it look so afraid; why was the wolf’s tail between its legs? They had been taught to ask questions, to be inquirers, but on this field trip the answers they found were hardly satisfying.
Employees of the zoo hustled our hefty school group along to their animal show—an appalling atrocity none of us anticipated. We sat on the tiered amphitheater steps, curving around the rusting, metal-barred cage with its bare, interior stage–a sad suggestion that a show most certainly will go on. Men, with bright polyester costumes thrown over their everyday attire, paraded monkeys out onto the stage to peddle bicycles in circles and walk along metal tight-ropes, much to the audience’s delight. After the monkeys departed back to their quarters, two slobbering tigers were made to perform tricks at center-stage. Students were in awe at the sight of these magical, beastly creatures acting on command—standing on their hind legs, jumping through hoops, and even pulling a cart carrying the two costumed employees—all while somehow refraining from devouring the humans demanding actions from them. Within moments of the tiger’s appearance on-stage, numerous students noticed their seemingly unusual behavior and surprising details—why are they slobbering that much; why don’t the tigers have a full set of teeth; how can the tigers eat without their teeth; why are they so fat? Informing a bunch of eight-year-old children that these endangered species were likely slobbering because they were drugged or sedated, that their teeth were removed to make it easier for a human head to fit inside their mouth without being hurt, that humans provided them with food so they didn’t need to hunt, and that, more likely than not, these tigers spent a significant amount of time in a cage, unable and without need to sculpt a lean physical form, was, once again, providing students with answers they didn’t want to hear and that I certainly didn’t want to deliver.
The treatment of animals at this zoo was, with no exaggeration, barbaric. Furthermore, the show I described above is not all that uncommon in China and despite this sort of mistreatment of animals being explicitly banned, there appears to be little to no enforcement of these laws (sound familiar?). It’s horrifying to think too that for some children this savage experience is the norm when partaking in an outing at the zoo. At least the zoos that I took discomfort in visiting as a child were on beautifully manicured properties, ran by highly trained and dedicated caretakers.
Though some of our students were remiss in recognizing animal mistreatment, distracted instead by the plentifully offered amusements, the majority of students left the zoo that day expressing to varying extents that what they saw was wrong. I remain partially conflicted about exposing students to this disturbing reality—simultaneously wanting to maintain their innocence like some type of Ms. Holden Caulfield, but also burdened with the sense that these young minds are tasked, along with us, to make this world a better place. It’s hard to tell where the balance is sometimes. One student summed up her field trip succinctly, “I think it was fun, but I don’t think it was right.” Too often today, that’s entertainment.