On Zoos and Circuses

I’ve never taken my children to a circus, and we’ve only been to the San Francisco Zoo and the Oakland Zoo once each. I sometimes wonder if I’m depriving them of one of the requirements for a full and memorable childhood, but the recent news that a tiger got loose on Christmas day at the San Francisco Zoo and killed and injured people made me think about all that.

The tiger’s escape is unthinkable. I never had the impression that the San Francisco Zoo was unsafe. Furthermore, the zoo has some intriguing architectural charm, with some old art-deco like buildings like the tropical forest building, which recreates a rainforest atmosphere, and some new construction, like a deck you climb up to see lemur leaping around the tops of trees. Like most modern zoos, there are a variety of amusement rides, such as train and a playground.

In both our trips to major zoos, I was a bit disappointed that my children were far more interested in the rides, playgrounds, and activities (scooping up the poop in the petting area) than the animals. The one zoo we do go to with some regularity is San Jose’s Happy Hollow, but it’s just as much an old-fashioned  kiddie amusement park and playground as it is a zoo. And as a zoo, it’s very much hands-on, with mostly domestic animals (like zebu, goats, parrots, Vietnamese pigs, and miniature horses) to feed and otherwise interact with. The only possibly dangerous animal–a jaguar–is in a deep area behind thick plexiglass.

And personally I had to admit, I don’t find the animals at zoos all that compelling either. The animals may be beautiful, but I find beauty just as easily at an art museum or on a nature hike. I like watching the lively ones like lemurs and meerkats plays, but others I dislike seeing–particularly monkeys, who seem psychotic.

Circuses are just as odd. I feel that somehow my children should see people doing tricks on ponies, clowns falling out of a clown car, or elephants balancing on one another, but is it really worth the $25 a ticket Ringling Brothers charges for its shows these days? Isn’t it more fun to actually ride a horse than watch others doing so, and can’t we find clowns (in more personal venues) at parks and parties as well?

I’m not against zoos: the serve a valuable function as centers for preserving rare or endangered species, and displaying the animals in exchange for funds keeps them going. But I have to wonder if maybe zoos and animals circuses aren’t on their way out, as our children have more intriguing entertainments these days than caged animals.

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