Costa Rica’s Radical Plan

Did you hear? The government of Costa Rica has declared they want “no animals in captivity” in their country.

Already known as a leader in biodiversity preservation and eco-tourism, this incredible move by Costa Rica had lame coverage from CNN, which basically focused their report on how impossible this would be.

The article makes no mention of possible benefits, especially for the animals, who would be released into the wild if possible. If not, they will be taken to animal sanctuaries.

This follows other Costa Rican bans on sport hunting and using animals in the circus.

I’m thrilled by this news! I have been envisioning the end of the era of zoos for a while now. Could this be something we evolve toward soon?

At the Aquarium

I won’t lie. I was excited to visit the New England Aquarium.

Little did I know what a transformative experience it would be.

Though I felt joy to see the penguins feeding and touch the sharks and rays, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. The whole place had a feeling of gloom hanging over it.

This was a few years ago before I started my journey with animal communication. But I didn’t need to tune-in to know what was happening.

Anyone with a tiny bit of empathy would know that being on display in tanks was not what many of these animals most desired.

I sealed my fate when I exited through the gift shop.

While the aquarium’s displays talk about reducing consumption and buying locally, the gift shop items were a huge disappointment. As someone who spent years immersed in the anti-sweatshop and eco-made movements, I immediately recognized the disconnect between the New England Aquarium’s mission and their actions.

In emails I exchanged with their marketing department, it became clear the organization had some work to do. Enough said.

Solitary Confinement

Just as I experienced at the aquarium, no matter the best intentions of an organization that is keeping animals- there are going to be massive shortfalls.

This high-profile example shows how Happy the elephant has lived alone at the Bronx Zoo for nearly a decade. Elephants are incredibly social by nature, but Happy isn’t allowed to be.

Other animals, including many I witnessed at the New England Aquarium, live in spaces much smaller than their natural habitat would be. Imagine if the ocean is in your genes to explore, but instead you have a tank.

In the prison-industrial system, we are familiar with solitary confinement as a form of punishment.

For animals all over the world, are zoos so different?

Animal Interaction is a Privilege

As I write, I’m very aware of what this call would mean for human / animal interaction in urban spaces.

For many families in cities, zoos are more accessible than going to a national park or visiting a farm. They can be reached via public transportation, and might even be free with a library pass.

I know this is true in Worcester. My best guess would say that the majority of kids in our city don’t have a ton of exposure to animals beyond the city sparrows or family pets, (though I have personally witnessed foxes, woodchucks, herons, hawks, and many songbirds here in my little backyard).

On the other hand, class privilege can buy visits to the Amazon or Africa for eco-tours, or simply horseback riding on the weekends.

I’m not saying everyone who rides horses or lives in the country is wealthy- I certainly wasn’t growing up- but there is a privilege of place that often coincides with class & ethnicity when getting to experience wildlife. 

So it’s an important question: what would closing down zoos mean for folks who can’t access live animals any other way?

Racism, Classism… & Speciesism

But if we are considering the privilege of animal interaction, then we must look at how the animals don’t have any say in their captivity – not that they aren’t speaking their truth, but simply that those in charge aren’t listening.

The truth is, people have the ultimate privilege over other species. We decide if an animal lives or dies. We choose what animals to keep in cages. We pick when to protect a forest habitat, and when to clear-cut it.

We do all these things without stopping to listen to what an animal would have to say about their life.

I care deeply about children growing up feeling the deep power of animal medicine. I care deeply about accessibility to nature.

But when I stop and listen to this question about zoos, the message I hear from animals is loud and clear:

“Shut Them Down.”

So I will stand here, relaying this message. Maybe the rest of the world can take a hint from Costa Rica?

Photo credit: Aria Everts – A beautiful python in captivity