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Letter From the Editor: The End of Captivity

Introducing the November/December 2016 issue of Pacific Standard.
Nicholas Jackson.

Nicholas Jackson.

Lions, tigers, and bears. You can find them all — and about 450 other species — just 45 minutes west of downtown Chicago at the Brookfield Zoo, not far from where I grew up. While there’s some debate over whether zoos actually educate visitors — an oft-cited 2014 study in Conservation Biology found that unguided tours only result in conservation-related learning for about one out of every three school-age visitors — I can’t recall picking up on the difference between the dromedary and the Bactrian camel anywhere else.

Growing up in the Midwest, the only wild animals I had any exposure to fell into one of two categories: birds or bugs. Vacations involved visits to theme parks, not national parks; to see distant family, not flora and fauna. Without the Brookfield Zoo, I might not have learned how to separate crocodiles from alligators.

But zoos may be in more danger of extinction than the animals they display.

Animal-rights advocates have clinched several recent high-profile victories. In May, the company responsible for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus retired its traveling elephants to a conservation center it maintains in Florida. Later the same month, SeaWorld ended its orca-breeding program. In 2013, the National Institutes of Health began phasing out chimpanzee research. And now, activists are focusing on what could be the most meaningful battle yet. In this issue, as part of a collection of stories concerning our treatment of others, we detail the efforts that led to the closure of the Buenos Aires Zoo and the declaration of Sandra, one of the zoo’s resident orangutans, as a “non-human person,” a legal entity entitled to certain rights. Her case could serve as a blueprint for many more to come.

The pressure for reform has been especially strong with regard to great apes like Sandra, the charismatic megafauna we feel — and are, at least genetically — closest to. Consider the case of Harambe. This past May, when Cincinnati zookeepers shot and killed the gorilla to save a three-year-old boy who fell into its exhibit, outrage was directed primarily at the mother and the marksman.

The news of Harambe’s death reminded me of Binti Jua, the western lowland gorilla I grew up visiting. The year that I turned nine years old, and Binti eight, a small child tumbled into the Tropic World exhibit at Brookfield Zoo and was knocked unconscious. Binti became something of a local celebrity after rescuing the boy and carrying him to her handlers. Primatologist Frans de Waal and others have used her story as an example of animals’ ability to demonstrate what we consider human-like empathy.

Harambe may have shared that empathy. We’ll never know how he would have treated the boy who fell into his exhibit had the two been given more time to interact. But we can imagine a world where all gorillas live in the wild, far from human development.