Does Environmentalism Justify Animal Captivity?

I stepped from the cool, gray weather of San Francisco into a humid rainforest. Dense with the smells of leaf mold, animal, insect; pulsating with the papery beat of bird wings, butterflies, and water currents; colored by hundreds of butterflies, frogs, and flowers amidst the dense greenery. Entering this fecund landscape — even manufactured, the tiniest fraction of a real rainforest — was moving in a way that is almost beyond words.

Most of us amateur environmentalists fight for animals, plants, and ecosystems we will never experience in person. The rainforest dome at the Cal Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park may be the closest I will ever come to a rainforest. From the chameleon, climbing with slow, mechanical intensity limb over limb, to the jewel-bright frogs a few handspans away, and above all the smell of rainforest and biodiversity, it was a powerful and tangible reminder of why I give a damn, why we should all give a damn every day. 

That gut-level validation is, I think, worth a lot. But while on the living roof, Kevin and I looked at each other with the same thought on our minds: is it worth the captivity of the many live species housed within the Cal Academy?

Although neither of us is a PETA-type activist, we’re both a little troubled about the ethics of capturing and displaying wild animals. True, each exhibit at the Cal Academy emphasized the fragility of these animals and their environment. Each provided what looked like an adequate and humane habitat where the animals had places to hide. And yet, there seems something fundamentally wrong about taking these animals from their habitats and transporting them here for little kids and their parents (and the odd childfree-er) to gawk at.

As I’ve said before, sustainability comes before animal rights in my moral universe. So the question as to whether animal captivity is justifiable in this instance depends on whether enough people who see this exhibit are sufficiently moved to make or renew a commitment to making better decisions to preserve the planet and its marvels. I certainly left with a greater appreciation of the need to boycott products that contain palm oil, which is grown at the cost of these rainforests. But do many other people make that connection? I don’t know. I’m inclined to doubt it.

In order to really justify keeping wild animals in a manmade environment, I think the Cal Academy would have to push it up a notch. Or several. The realistic environments and their real animals give it a prime opportunity to not only educate and amaze but also to impact emotionally. And since facts have failed to sway the masses, environmentalists should take a page from the right-wing nutjobbers’ book and start focusing on emotion. Cal Academy, if you’re listening, these are my suggestions for you.

1) In order to exit your rainforest dome, visitors should pass through one final area: a rainforest after it has been slashed and burned. The difference between the living greenery and the dead, silent stumps should be felt on a visceral level. In that final, ghastly exhibit, tell us how our everyday actions are directly contributing to the problem, and what we can do to help.

2) Same thing with your aquarium. Next to your vibrant, fish-filled coral reef tank, have a tank with a bleached coral skeleton and tell us about ocean acidification and how our carbon emissions and pollutants are contributing to an ocean in which coral reefs are increasingly endangered. Depressing? Absolutely. Tough. It’s time we stopped sticking our heads in the sand. 

3) Don’t let us leave the museum without having been impressed with the wonders of the Earth, but also how fragile our daily actions and decisions leave them, and how we can protect them. (P.S. Your climate change display really needs to be in an area the visitors have to pass through on their way out of the fun stuff.)

The message should be unmistakable: our planet is amazing, but we are destroying it. And we can stop, we must stop, if we value life on this small blue and green planet.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by seitei on 10/17/2010 at 21:48

    I found it interesting how, aside from having a nice variety of local, vegan-/veg-friendly, and organic meal options, half the crap they were selling in their gift shops was made in china. And as awe-inspiring as the museum is, I, too, cannot help feeling bad for a number of the animals on display.

    Keep up the thoughtful posts!


  2. I would love if the Cal Academy had that. I doubt they are interested in fearmongering though, and creating bad PR. For fear of losing precious benefactors, which I admit are important. It would be nice if they could incorporate some more environmental exhibits, such as plastic bag pollution.


    • Yeah, I know there are politics and funds at work here in keeping things upbeat and cheerful! At some point, we’re going to have to realize that there is nothing particularly political about oceans that just aren’t teeming with life anymore.


  3. Posted by Mary on 10/18/2010 at 17:28

    Very thoughtful post. You really get to the heart of the matter. And so many of us struggle with the same thing. To hold captive or not? I happen to teach children about keeping wild turtles where they belong…. in the wild…. but I implement my program with my co-educators in tow… 3 (adopted, rescued) turtles, tortoises, who, if I had my way, would still be wild. But, of course, they can’t be, because they were plucked and ended up in pet stores where they were purchased by folks who thought that turtles would make splendid pets.


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