Why My Daughter Won't Be Going To The Zoo

We're going to the zoo, zoo, zoo.
You can come too, too, too.
Except we're not because as a vegan Mum, zoos don't really feature in the way I want my daughter to understand the world.
There's a distinction to be made straight away between my two children. Seb was already five when I finally became vegan. In his first five years he'd regularly visited zoos as a fun, dare I say, "educational" day out. He's been to zoos and farm parks with me, with friends, and on school trips since he was in pre-school.
After the Easter holidays his class are taking another trip to a local wildlife park and I've decided not to keep him off of the trip. It's somewhere he's visited before, he went on the school trip last year which was to an alternative wildlife park, and he's already aware that the trip has been proposed (and that his friends are attending).
Seb isn't being raised vegan. He splits his time between me and his non-vegan Father and has lived an entirely non-vegan life up until I became vegan.
Quinn, on the other hand, has never been to a zoo, at the moment she has no concept that zoos exist, and I shall never go to a zoo again in my life - so it stands to reason that as Quinn's being raised vegan, she too won't visit a zoo.
A few people probably think this is cruel, and that I'm depriving her of the opportunity to see incredible wild animals "up close" and in the flesh. I'd challenge anyone to tell me that her life really will be poorer if she doesn't see an elephant. Up until two years ago I'd never seen a panda (two years ago I saw the pandas in Edinburgh Zoo), I've still to this day never seen a polar bear, nor have I ever seen a blue whale. I was able to appreciate all of these animals, to learn about them, being amazed and fascinated by them, and I continue to campaign for their freedom and right to life, without seeing them up close. Quinn's experiences will be the same, unless she has the amazing opportunity to see animals uninterrupted in their natural habitat.
I could go on all day listing the animals and birds I've never seen in person. As could most people I'd imagine, and yet we're all very much aware that these animals exist, and you know - we're surviving from one day to the next without feeling as though we've been totally hard done by because we've never been within spitting distance of a platypus.
There was recently a parenting bloggers event taking place at SeaLife Centre (I'm grouping aquariums with zoos here as they're pretty much the same thing) and when I expressed my utter sadness at sharks being kept in tanks, one parent responded by agreeing with me that it was cruel, but it was a great opportunity for her children to learn about them.
I'll be honest, I wasn't even able to respond to her because going full preachy vegan isn't my thing, but can you honestly tell me that children can't learn about sharks unless they observe them, displaying completely unnatural behaviour, confined to a tiny tank. Can we even conceive the size of a shark's natural habitat, the miles and miles of ocean that they'll cover in a day. We're still learning about sharks, and the only way we'll have the facts to educate our children about these incredible creatures is by leaving them alone, not imprisoning them like the poor victims of the Victorian freak show industry.
I love my daughter, goodness, I love her beyond any measure, but the moment of pleasure that she may take from viewing a monkey, sadly staring back at her from behind prison bars, is not worth that monkey's whole lifetime of being offered only a "reproduction" of his or her natural lifestyle. Some branches slung together with rope and tyres to swing on instead of the vast open rainforest (which we're decimating, incidentally) isn't an appropriate lifetime for him so that my daughter can look at him for a fleeting moment.
And that's what brings me on to my next point, conservation. One way in which zoo visitors make themselves feel better about the fact they're no different from the people who once paid to take tours of mental asylums, is to comfort themselves in the knowledge that zoos partake in conservation and research.
Again, this is one of those statements that suggest an alternative isn't possible. Can we not conserve wild animals without removing them from their natural habitats and putting them on display? Everything about a British zoo, the sounds, the smells, the weather, is completely wrong for most of the animals living there. A field on the outskirts of Leister is not Africa, however much dust you throw down. We can protect animals, we can save them from extinction, through protecting habitats, creating natural reserves, coming down hard on poachers and hunters. It's unnecessary to force animals into cages; why are we not forcing our fellow humans to change the way that they live in order to stop these species from being wiped off of the face of the Earth?
Zoo's aren't the most ethical solution to animal conservation; they're the easiest. They allow the desecration of natural habitat to go on across the globe whilst a few numbers of each animal are kept in cages and forced into breeding programmes not because the Earth needs these creatures roaming free across it's plains, but because humans need them, to look at.
There are lots of animal conservation charities that could benefit from the money people spend on visiting zoos, to carry out conservation work on the ground, without needing to capture or force into breeding, a single animal. If people donated £10pp to these charities, instead of paying to visit a zoo (and I realise that some zoo's also have charity bodies doing conservation work with wild populations, but the captive animal part of their business is still unnecessary) we could make a real difference.
If all of the elephants in the world exist only in zoos are we actually conserving anything? At least for any purpose other than our own entertainment? What are we keeping the species alive for if they're only behind bars?
Would I rather see species extinct than existing purely in captivity. Yes and no. I think where our only options are to breed from captive animals, where reintroducing those species to the wild is never going to be an option, then yes, let that species die out, better that than to exist only for human entertainment. If captive breeding can be used to repopulate wild communities then maybe it serves a purpose, but at what cost?
My daughter won't go to a zoo because she'll be busy studying the bugs in the garden, visiting charities that rescue and rehabilitate native wildlife, and learning about the wild animals on her doorstep, feeding garden birds, listening out for foxes. We'll also use books, television, the Internet, all wonderful resources, to learn about wild animals elsewhere in the world that we might one day be lucky enough to travel and see for ourselves, just like we see woodlice in our garden.
Is it cruel not to take my daughter to the zoo? Not as cruel as it is to lock a giraffe in a barn over night. Will she be deprived of a proper childhood as a result? No more deprived than I am having never seen a real life wolverine.
I want my daughter to learn about the varied life on our planet, not the varied, artificial lives created and maintained in zoos. I want her to learn compassion, not dominance. I want her to respect animals, not observe them.
Seb's Dad will always take him to zoos, I have to accept that. He's grown up on being able to list "Zoo Animals" not "Wild Animals", because that's what we title children's books. I don't know how to undo the social conditioning he's already been party to without upsetting him, but Quinn is a very different story, and she won't be going to a zoo unless she's old enough to take herself (and I hope she never makes that choice).

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