There's a popular article from The Onion that I see floating around now and then among zookeepers. It's called "Progressive Zoo Houses Animals In Natural Destroyed Habitats"; it was actually one of the first pieces of Zoo Satire I shared on the blog. “Ensuring each animal is as miserable as it would be in the wild is our ultimate goal," the fictitious zoo officials are quoted as saying the article, cheerfully describing how their tigers are forced to fight viciously for a tiny allotment of meat, thus emulating the severe, human-induced prey shortages that they would face in the wild.
It's a fairly depressing article... but also pretty funny. It's especially funny if you've ever had to have a conversation with an angry or upset zoo visitor about "The Wild."
"The Wild," as I've been given to understand, is some magical paradise where animals frolic happily, away from the tyrannical fist of man. There is plenty to eat, plenty of room to roam, and everyone is happy as can be, spending their days running and playing and swimming in family groups.
"The Wild," first things first, is a pretty miserable, brutal place. Yes, animals survive, but it's not like they were given a say in the matter. Given a choice, I'm sure an addax would like to live somewhere with more standing water, an emperor penguin somewhere a little warmer, and maybe a bullfrog in a pond with fewer herons or snapping turtles. There's a reason we have so many geriatric animals in zoos, animals that live for far longer than wild counterparts. Animals in the wild face disease, starvation, and predation; if they are freed from some of those constraints, they may choose to behave differently. As evidence, consider how many solitary animals, like tigers and orangutans, will happily live in groups if provided with enough resources in a zoo.
That's also not to undersell the greatest threat or stressor to a free-living wild animal - its own kind. Sometimes even its own family - in many birds, for instance, larger, stronger older siblings will kill their weaker brothers and sisters, sometimes by hogging all the food, sometimes directly, a practice known as Cainism.
A less gruesome example occurred recently at my own zoo, when a female bear decided she'd had enough of her year-and-a-half-old cub and ran her off (or at least as well as she could in a zoo enclosure), forcing us to separate them. Visitors who had been accustomed to seeing mom and cub all lovey-dovey were upset that they weren't together anymore. We had to repeatedly remind people that this is what occurs in the wild - mom chases off her kids when they are old enough so she can breed again. What also often happens in the wild is that many of these inexperienced cubs go off and die, from starvation, from injury, or from misadventure ("Hey, a farmer's orchard! That's a great place to find food!")
None of this is meant to suggest, of course, that there is anything wrong with wild animals living naturally - it's their ideal state. It's just that I get very irate by this whole mysticism that "The Wild" is some perfect place, and that all we need to do is back off and animals will be fine. That's the mentally the leads people to obsess over the perceived plight of a few orcas at SeaWorld, but ignore the conditions that are harming thousands of wild orcas - armchair activists can tell themselves that "The Wild" is fine, and only pick small-scale fights with small-scale consequences.
The real wild is beautiful, but mostly from a distance - up close it's brutal, ugly, and most animals survive on the narrowest of margins. What can push them over that edge, of course, is us.