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Zoos Enrich Our Lives but Cost Animals Their Dignity, Says Bill Nye

Responding to the shooting of a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, Bill Nye says the treatment of animals in zoos is plainly unethical. Yet zoos do have a role in maintaining the health of ecosystems.

Bill Nye:  So recently a four-year-old kid got into a gorilla enclosure in a zoo and the zoo officials decided in the safety of the kid they had to kill the gorilla. So here was an animal that was in his natural habitat in Africa doing his gorillatical thing. And he got captured and ended up in a zoo. And then the guy got shot because some kid crawled into his enclosure. It’s just – there’s no good thing about this. With that said my life was certainly enriched by going to zoos. I learned that even a giraffe could exist was an amazing thing to me. And the smell of the zoo was or is something I’ll never forget. It reminds me of farms, there’s animal excrement that has to be dealt with. And you see how much you have in common with these creatures. Is it ethical? I think we all agree it would be better no if we didn’t have zoos. If we had a way to interact with animals without causing them such hardship. Now the example from my personal experience which really affects me and affects my judgment on this. There was a guy named Ivan who was a gorilla brought to the United States in the 1960s. My recollection is 1962.

And he lived with a family in Tacoma, Washington. And they hung out. The gorilla was at the dinner table and they did gorilla-human interaction things, played games, did stuff. But the guy eventually got to be the 400 pound gorilla in the room and they had to put him in an enclosure in a cage that was concrete. And you could visit him in the B&I Department Store in Tacoma, Washington. And this is in the Pacific Northwest and this guy was a character, a feature, a tourist attraction. And I don’t know – I’m not a primate expert but I looked at Ivan. I looked him in the eye. We had a little meeting behind the glass and the guy wasn’t angry to me so much as bored. Like this sucks, you know, I got a rubber swing. Humans are interesting but it’s really not my deal. He got transferred to the Atlanta zoo and I visited him in the Atlanta zoo and he had it going on man. He had a big enclosure. He had girl gorillas. And you could just tell by the way he was walking around this does not suck. This is cool. That was my interpretation of Ivan’s emotions. I may be completely wrong about this but Ivan grew up with humans. He accepted humans. Humans were as much his pets as he was our pet. And so there was some crossover there that I found really compelling as a human.

Now there’ s another guy who’s in the Seattle zoo, the Woodland Park zoo and his name is Vip, very important person, Vip. And when you look at Vip he’s looking at you okay human, this kind of sucks. You are a skinny nothing and I could reach in there and I could strangle you and I could break you over my knee right now. And you know what else? I’m a vegetarian. Yet I want to mess you up because he can just tell that something went wrong. His people are huge. They’re living in a forest. They had it going on and now they’re stuck in this glass enclosure. There’s a lot of room I guess. There’s a waterfall or whatever but this is not what I had in mind growing up. So there’s these two gorillas have had a deep effect on my perception. If we had a way to interact with these creatures without causing them hardship it would be cool. And I will say as a kid my life was enriched by visiting zoos. So people have got to think this through and I say right now thinking about it it seems like humane enclosures where the animals don’t have to face predators, don’t have to have their offspring eaten literally by lions or dogs.

That’s not bad. But causing them hardship and shooting this guy, this is really troubling. Should the parents be sued? My brother who has raised four children just rails all the time about parents who are not attentive, parents who leave their kids unattended. So there’s something to that. Should that parent and that child pay the ultimate price for this transgression of the zoo enclosure not being four-year-old proof? Man, there’s not a clear cut answer. But I hope we all learn from this. Make the enclosures robust, the enclosures that exist now. Let us all rethink about the ethics of confining these primates that we’re so close to and let us promote diversity. One of the great things that may come from modern zoos is the ability to reintroduce these animals in the ecosystem. And another example that’s on my mind for everybody, for you to think about before we move away from this topic. Apparently using satellite imagery and park rangers experience walking around on the ground in Yellowstone, park service rangers and officials noticed that there were very few young trees growing along the banks of streams in Yellowstone.

And then wolves were reintroduced from a humane standpoint. Wolves are part of the ecosystem. Why should we always be shooting wolves or catching wolves and killing them and making wolf rugs or whatever we would do. And when the wolves were reintroduced young trees appeared again because the wolves were eating the elk that would eat the young shoots of the trees when the trees would grow along the banks of the streams. You would not think right way if you want more trees, bring in wolves. But that is apparently what happened. Ecosystems are very complicated. So the more diversity we can induce or reintroduce into ecosystems the better. So it is reasonable to me that zoos have a role in reintroducing megafauna, big animals. That’s very reasonable. But the kids getting in the enclosure and shooting the gorilla that is a lose-lose negotiation. I hope we all feel bad about that.

Recent spectacle surrounded a young boy, three years old, who climbed into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo only to be grabbed by a 450-pound male gorilla. Working against time, and the gorilla’s temperament — the crowd’s panic spurred the gorilla on — the zoo’s animal felt the only way to keep the young boy safe was to shoot the gorilla.


"There’s no good thing about this." Says Bill Nye. "With that said, my life was certainly enriched by going to zoos."

Nye debates what is ethical about zoos. He describes Ivan, a famous gorilla that was first raised with a family in Tacoma, Washington, and "hung out" at the dinner table until he got too big. From there, he was transferred to a concrete enclosure in a mall, which wasn’t a healthy environment for him. After his transfer to the Atlanta Zoo, it was visible how much happier the great ape seemed.

"He had it going on. He had a big enclosure, he had girl gorillas. And you could just tell by the way he was walking around, this does not suck. This is cool. That was my interpretations of Ivan’s emotions," Nye describes.

Perhaps it was because Ivan was raised in a human environment. As a result, he was more accepting of humans, being around humans, and coexisting with humans. By comparison, other gorillas, like Vip of the Woodland Park Zoo, weren’t raised this way. They might consider the enclosures as being ‘stuck.’

"If we had a way to interact with these creatures without causing them hardship, it would be cool. And I will say as a kid, my life was enriched by visiting zoos. People have got to think this through."

Nye is for humane enclosures, where we as people could interact with the animals, and the risk of predatory attacks are low to none. We can learn so much from zoos, and they help educate children. Nye hopes everyone can learn from an incident like this, about how to make the enclosures, and the ethics of the enclosures themselves.

Zoos are important, both in helping preserve the endangered animals, and hopefully, getting them back to their deserved ecosystems. One day gorillas such as Vip could go back to their habitats, or the future offspring, if we play the cards right, and could educate us about their lives there.

Nye also describes the most useful role of zoos regarding the environment: repopulating static ecosystems to make them more diverse. Rangers at Yellowstone Park, for example, once noticed there were no saplings growing along the banks. After reintroducing wolves to the area, the young trees began to grow again because the wolves hunted the elk that were eating the saplings.

"It is reasonable to me that zoos have a role in reintroducing megafauna," says Nye.

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