A week ago, I took my children to the zoo. A long-time vegetarian, I had always avoided zoos because I assumed that they were cruel to animals. I imagined tiny cages with bars, the kind you see in picture books from fifty years ago. My children were insistent, however. They wanted to see a zoo first-hand, and several trusted friends insisted that this zoo was a good one. I am always willing to change my mind about moral judgments based on good evidence. So we went.

The zoo (which I won’t name) was a very large, well-endowed zoo. Many of the exhibits are very large, with lots of space for the animals to move around, and enclosures that more closely-resemble their natural habitats. Not all of the animals, however, benefitted from new enclosures. Though many of the big cats had been moved, several tigers, pumas, and snow leopards were still in tiny concrete enclosures, pacing. My children, without any prompting from me, noted that the tigers especially “looked sad.” The worst, though, were the apes. Oranguatans, chimps, and gorillas were kept in tiny spaces, with concrete floors and a few rubber tire swings. We watched them morosely, their face pressed to the glass. The silverbacks, like the tigers, seemed restless, pacing back and forth. When a few schoolboys banged on the glass, one gorilla banged the glass back, very aggressively. My friend told me that once when this happened, the glass shattered at the massive strength of the silverback.

It is obviously sad to see such magnificent creatures so far from their natural environment. Morally, we might say that the purpose, the telos of the animal is not being fulfilled. And there is something so obviously cruel about such large creatures, who in the wild have such wide ranges, confined to such tiny enclosures, unable to do anything that nature has hardwired it to do. The creature, which has its own unique dignity, is being treated as an object, a thing to be gaped at, to satisfy only the pleasures of the human spectators.

A friend asked if I would feel differently if all the enclosures were built larger and designed to more closely simulate the natural environment. My response is that, while better enclosures solve some problems, they certainly don’t solve others, the largest among them being that the creatures, for the most part, are still enclosed purely for the pleasure of looking at them and presumably for making a profit. Obviously there are exceptions, such as animals that are handicapped or are being rehabilitated. But we kid ourselves if we think zoos only have such animals. And this is my biggest problem with zoos –that they are largely (though not purely) self-serving. They encourage us to want to come to zoos, not to protect threatened habitats, not to develop awe and reverence for creatures that we would never otherwise see, like the snow leopard.

I watched the reaction of my own family as well as the other adults and children around me as I went through the zoo. While there were certainly some ooohs and aaaahs, I failed to see how habits of conservation and reverance were being developed in the zoo attendees. Though several signs mentioned that some habitats (e.g. the oranguatan’s) were so threatened that within a few decades, these animals might exist only in zoos, the implied message is that we need not really worry. After all, why should we care if they exist in the wild if we can see them in the zoo?

Children would hold out food for some of the animals, bang on their cages, and shout at them. I watched tired parents and children give barely a cursory glance at a tiger, or a bobcat, or a monkey. I saw children complaining because animals were too far away or “not doing anything.” Nothing in the structure of the zoo teaches children that these are wild animals who have a purpose other than our pleasure.

Does this mean I am categorically-opposed to zoos? Obviously, there is a lot of necessary work that zoos do like breeding endangered animals, vital research, and rehabilitation. These good purposes ought to be put in more of a central place in a zoo’s mission. Zoos ought to do more to consciously habituate (note I did not say merely “educate”) people in conservationism. Telling people that conservation is important is not enough. Habituating people is key. Seeing firsthand the effects of deforestation in Sumatra, or demonstrating the effect of climate change on the arctic might be a start, with clear demonstrations of how our activity (burning fossil fuels or buying certain furniture) plays a role in the damage. The number of exhibits should be reduced with a set-up to encourage longer and more reverential viewing of animals, with more active participation among the staff to educate onlookers about the animals’ natural behavior. And obviously, only animals that cannot continue to exist in the wild should be kept on permanent display.

Zoos are such a huge part of our culture and of childhood experiences in our country. Nevertheless, we ought to be clear-sighted about the harm they may do, and how they may cause us to fail in our duty to protect the environment and all of her creatures.