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February 10, 2007


I have the same mixed feelings about it as you do, and no more information to add except that once, on a visit to Dublin Zoo, I saw a seriously psychologically disturbed polar bear, an image that I have never forgotten and that kept me away from zoos for years. At that time the Dublin Zoo was small and the polar bear enclosure consisted of a concrete "cave" and a small concrete pool. The polar bear swam back and forth, back and forth, in a hypnotically monotonous pattern, for hours and hours and hours. Apparently that's all he did. He really barely had room to swim, so he'd push off with his back feet, float to the other end, flip over, and push off again. I saw his eyes. I have never seen such a combination of torment and absolute numbness in any creature's eyes since then. He was clearly so deeply miserable that life had no meaning for him other than his pathological attempt to hypnotize himself into oblivion. In contrast, on a visit to China two years ago, I visited the Chengdu panda reservation and saw many apparently happy pandas in large enclosures filled with trees, plants, platforms and lots of bamboo shoots. They were playing with each other, eating calmly, and looking at us with as much curiosity as we looked at them. For the most part. In one area of one of the enclosures, one of the pandas was pacing. He looked frustrated and disturbed. I didn't find out if he had been brought there from the wild and knew that he was in captivity, though perhaps that was the reason for his grief.

Good post, Beth. I think you've captured the way many of us feel about zoos. Yes, many zoos do incredibly important conservation work, much of it now focused on preserving habitat. Few people, let alone the wildlife biologists working for zoos, are happy with the prospect of a world were the only large animals that survive are there because we have made a conscious decision to spare them. We're almost there, but not quite. There are still a some truly wild areas left.

Very interesting. Yes of course the environmental angle is the key but in some parts of the world (ok, Africa, which is the only area I really know even a little about) the struggle at the micro level is sometimes between humans surviving or animals surviving. And I have met conservationists who will voice the opinion that it is the humans that should not survive. Which smacks to me of inter-species eugenics. And is an opinion found on the lips of the foreign white "experts". Who do not for one moment envisage their own starvation, forced relocation, sterilization or other inconvenience. And this isn't just to "save" big or cuddly or cute creatures. I heard it voiced most recently in the context of small freshwater fish.

I too have seen a captive polar bear, in London zoo, many many years ago. It was entirely insane in the way tarakuanyin describes although in this case its self-comforting mechanism was to stand on its hind legs and sway back and forth. Polar bears are certainly extremely difficult to keep in captivity. And conserving them in the wild does not involve moving a specific group of people out of the way. It involves halting the global warming which is destroying their habitat. There is a very informative sequence in the recent BBC series "Planet Earth" which follows a single polar bear and watches him die as, exhausted by a mammoth swim necessitated by the shrinking of the polar ice, he is unable to catch any food.


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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.