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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Chimps Should Be Chimps

While I was browsing the Lincoln Park Zoo's website the other day, refreshing my memory for the review I was writing, I stumbled across this online storybook which the zoo was involved in producing.  I'd seen it before a few years ago and thought it was pretty cool, so decided to share it.

In "Chimps Should Be Chimps", zoo chimpanzee Poe regales his granddaughter, Lulu, with the story of his younger life, before he came to the zoo, when he worked in the entertainment industry.  He contrasts it with his life now, when he has a more natural habitat, a dedicated staff, and, above all, other chimpanzees to socialize with.

For some people, the idea of a zoo producing a featurette called "Chimps Should Be Chimps" would sound ironic.  After all, they reason, a chimp being a chimp would have to be in Africa... not Chicago.

Still, I think that there is a worthwhile lesson here.  A lot of people lump zoos, circuses, and any other organization housing exotic animals all in one group (except sanctuaries, which for some reason float on their own cloud of specialness).  What isn't addressed there is that they are not the same.  There are differences in philosophy, in mission, and, perhaps most importantly, in what the role of the animals in the collection is. No less an authority on chimpanzees than Jane Goodall has spoken of the role of zoos in safeguarding a future for chimpanzees.  Poe's story isn't that different from that of the polar bear Barle and the rest of the Suarez Seven.

So what's the moral?  Just like in the wild, a captive animal has a niche - a role to fulfill.  That role can be to entertain people with silly tricks (and it wasn't too long ago that zoos had tea parties with trained apes).  Or it can be to educate and inspire a new generation to care about wildlife, while the zoo in return offers the best possible life to its animals.

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