In my previous blog posts about Ringling Brothers’ announcement to remove elephant acts and Sea World’s orcas, I briefly outlined my beliefs about captivity. I have gone through a change over the last couple years in terms of my opinions on captivity, brought on by recent trips to zoos. There was one trip, however, that made me certain of these new feelings I have been experiencing, and it wasn’t a trip to a zoo.
My boyfriend James and I love animals. If you read my first blog, you can see our “family photo” of the two of us and our eight pets. We have been to several zoos together, including Busch Gardens, the Phoenix Zoo, and the Roger Williams Zoo. During one of these trips, we visited the primate section, which included a gibbon exhibit.
Gibbons are highly social, and are the only species of primate that mates for life (humans are a matter of some debate). However, in this exhibit, there was only one gibbon. One lonely gibbon, in an enclosure the size of most two bedroom apartments. While the size of the enclosure is alarming, the fact that this gibbon was alone is even more alarming. We were at the exhibit for about a half hour, and for that time we saw the gibbon sitting alone is a corner of the cage for the most part. Right towards the end of our visit, he or she moved over to a mirror, and began just staring into it, sometimes touching it. I couldn’t stand to watch this, and I asked James if we could leave. Gibbons are more closely related to us than monkeys, are considered apes. Therefore, their intelligence is certainly supreme, and I believe this gibbon was experiencing true loneliness.
We didn’t stay at the zoo much longer, and I even told James I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to any more zoos. During my time as an undergrad at the University of New Hampshire, I developed an interest, and even a soft spot for primates. I have read all of the books by Leaky’s angels, and I hope to work with primates someday. To see this animal so lonely made my heart break. I can’t understand the need for such a place to exist, a zoo. Most zoos say that their mission is to teach, educate, help conserve. But is this worth the cost of the animals’ freedom? Isn’t there a better way?
I would get my answer a little over a year later. James and I decided to go to Grand Cayman for our anniversary last year. What drew us there were the huge southern sting rays. James’ brother went to Grand Cayman a few years earlier with his wife, and had a picture of them with a giant sting ray. James and I love sting rays; it was always our favorite part of Sea World (while we were still going there).
The part of the island where the sting rays are is a sand bar, and is appropriately named Sting Ray City. There are several companies that offer tours, which also include snorkeling. When we arrived at the sandbar, I was truly awestruck. They were HUGE. And there were tons of them, at least thirty, probably more. They were so beautiful!
When we got in the water, we were surrounded. They know they’re about to be fed. Something tells me they don’t mind being touched either. They feel like wet mushrooms; giant, wet mushrooms. We were given the opportunity to have our pictures taken with them. The guides gently lift one out of the water and slide her on top of your arms so you can hold her (well, not really, they float on their own for the most part). I say her, because all of the photo ops are done with females, who are much larger. Males are only the size of the cow nose rays you see at aquariums. The rest of our tour consisted of two snorkeling spots. They were both amazing, and chock full of beautiful fish. Admittedly, this part of the tour was not as exciting, but still amazing.
During the rest of our trip, we went snorkeling right outside our hotel room. This is actually voted one of the best spots on the island to snorkel. We had a guide of all the fish in the area, and we were able to see almost all of them right there at the hotel, including the peacock flounder, which is hard to spot. We also visited a turtle farm, which serves as both a conservation effort for the endangered turtles, and a place to learn about the island.
We were able to see turtles from egg to adult, and the breeding pool, where the females are able to lay eggs just as they would in the wild. The hatchlings grow up in the safety of the turtle farm, and are then released into the wild. The turtle farm also has other local species, including green iguanas (roaming free), and the greatly endangered Cayman parrot, which is also in a successful breeding program.
Our trip to Grand Cayman allowed me to see first-hand the benefits of ecotourism. While this trip did cost us more than any other, it was the best one we have ever taken. I was able to see animals on their own terms, in their own environment. These animals had not been flown in from thousands of miles away, this was their home. What better way is there to raise awareness then to visit the animals where they live?
Ecotourism has benefits for the local people as well. Rather than all the money going to some outside corporations (as in Anheuser Busch for Sea World and Busch Gardens), the money stays local, and helps the local community. The World Wildlife Fund and National Geographic have both shown that ecotourism is far more profitable for a country than slashing down trees for agriculture (like the palm oil plantations in Indonesia or the Amazon Rainforest). Ecotourism can go on forever, whereas a piece of land is only valuable for a brief period of time for agriculture, and then takes thousands of years to return to its initial state. In addition, I can tell you first hand that visiting an animal on their own turf is way more exciting than seeing them in a zoo.
One positive thing I can say, is in regard to the Phoenix Zoo. While this zoo was full of exotics, there was one section that was for local wildlife. What if this is what zoos could be about instead? What if zoos could team up with local fish and game, and display injured, orphaned, and rehabilitating animals to the public? These animals would not have travel thousands of miles in poor conditions, and it would allow residents of the area to learn more about their local wildlife, and maybe even see some of the damage caused by humans. This is also a great opportunity for visitors to learn about the local wildlife, if they happen to stumble upon them.
In the future, I’m not sure if James and I will return to a zoo. They have become too depressing for me. I think our next big trip may be to Europe, but I know I want to explore ecotourism possibilities in the future. The World Wildlife Fund offers guided tours of places like the Galapagos and Borneo, which would be incredible. Much more incredible than seeing a tortoise or orangutan at a zoo.
Nicole is currently employed at a university, caring for lab animals. She has always been an animal lover, and more recently an animal activist.