Wild animals spark our imagination. They orient us to a world that’s bigger, more beautiful, and far more terrifying than most of us can grasp, especially as children. For some of us, that fascination never leaves. It’s why working at a zoo in my early 20s seemed like the best possible scenario.
I was vegan. Or so I thought.
I’d stopped eating animals several years earlier but I’d grown up going to the zoo. It was a regular and much-loved activity. I knew the winding terrain of the zoo pathways off by heart. The smell of elephant dung, the chill of the aquarium, the shrieking calls of the primates, I lived for all of it.
This collection of creatures from around the world staring back at me with the same wonder I felt made sense in ways I still struggle to articulate. It’s the weird wildness of having a body that looks nothing like a polar bear, a lion, or a giraffe, but fully understanding that we see each other. In that, I suppose, we see a whole lot of ourselves, too.
So it was a natural aspiration to immerse myself in that environment as I entered the workforce.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend their days alongside these animals?
My work started as an intern in the children’s zoo area. It was a petting zoo by all definitions, even though the zoo wouldn’t call it that. It aimed for a more sophisticated alternative to the roadside attractions.
But behind the fancy gates and uniforms, there was little that separated the two. The team of teens and young adults I managed would rotate shifts through a goat and sheep yard, a kangaroo yard, a deer yard, and two animal-free play areas. The throngs of children would keep coming during peak season, from open to close, poking, prodding and more often than not, screaming and crying.
The animals had little escape save for far corners of the yard, if they were lucky.
Most just learned to endure, disappearing behind glazed eyes as they waited for closing time.
And as harsh as a day full of demanding children was on the animals, I recognized the intentions of the children as authentic; the love and awe they felt for the animals was real.
I’d felt it myself, too, after all.
But this innocence is preyed upon by an elaborate prison system designed to strip wild animals of their own innocence and make them totems—it turns them into somethings, not someones.
It does the same to us, too, the spectator expected to support these institutions that prop themselves up behind promises of conservation and education.
There’s a rush that comes from being surrounded by wild(-ish) animals all day.
It’s a wholly unpredictable environment even despite the bars and plexiglass keeping them in their enclosures. After all, animals are curious, aware creatures capable of anything at any time. And there would be new behaviors to observe all the time.
My work in the children’s zoo opened me up to an opportunity to intern in the “big” zoo. It was a thrill I couldn’t put into words. I’d be shadowing a keeper who looked after big cats, rhinoceroses, and bears.
The two black rhinoceroses I’d look after were babies. In the wild, they’d both still be with their mothers. But here, they fended for themselves with the aid of giant bottles filled with not-quite-mommy’s rhinoceros milk.
The sugary, watered down cow milk made them sick with diarrhea. I’d spend half my shift cleaning the piles and piles of baby rhino poo. The other half of my shift was spent babysitting them—feeding them those giant bottles, coaxing them out into the yard, and playing with them as best I could at less than a fifth of their size. It was absolutely surreal getting to spend time with these fascinating creatures who are now functionally extinct in the wild.
The keeper I trailed, like most everyone who worked with the animals there, loved them like her own children. Most keepers found their way to the work out of a deep respect for our fellow earthlings, that same childhood wonder I never outgrew.
Working at a zoo, though, is a bit like working in a prison where you know all of the inmates are innocent; they’re held captive for merely existing.
The keepers may have come to the zoo in earnest, but that they stay on knowing animals are exploited for profit makes them complicit in the crimes against these most noble creatures.
Baby rhino tummy troubles paled in comparison to the other issues I’d become privy to behind the scenes. My first day as an intern, I assisted in putting a tiger down. Her belly was filled with tumors, something that rarely happens in the wild. Her adult children, born at the zoo, looked on from nearby cages as we flipped their mom onto her back to reveal her destiny.
A sea lion, a flamingo, a monkey—animals would die or suffer some unheard of ailment daily. The alpha male lion was stripped of his scent and ability to mark his territory every single day. Every morning as he’d go into his exhibit yard, we’d go into his indoor enclosure and wipe away the thick black marks he’d leave on the walls with his mane. And every night he’d go back in there and mark it again.
Even the baby rhinos would fall victim to the harsh realities of captivity. One of them, just a few years after I left, would catch a fatal infection from the rats that frequented their enclosures. Too big to move out whole, her corpse was carved into pieces for disposal.
Animal cruelty isn’t subjective.
And while the conditions for farmed animals slaughtered every year by the tens of billions for food is indefensibly egregious, we cannot dismiss the horrors of captivity—even if it can seem like these are well-cared for ambassadors, spokescreatures for conservation.
Zoos and aquariums feign public interest when most are for-profit entities driven solely by ticket sales. This is done at the expense of care and space. One need only compare the size of SeaWorld’s parking lot to the size of the orca tank to understand this. Zoos and aquariums are exploitive by nature. Full stop.
So, what’s an animal lover to do?
This was my conundrum, especially as I became a mother and wanted to share the magic and mystery of animals with my daughter. But African safaris aren’t exactly feasible last-minute Sunday afternoon excursions from Los Angeles.
We’ve found several local farm animal sanctuaries that allow contact with animals. They also help connect you to the animals in a way that forces respect. They do this by sharing his or her unique rescue story. And many also educate visitors about the atrocities of factory farming, animal testing, and animal captivity.
There are of course many great films and books that illuminate animal stories, too. And when my daughter’s a bit older, we’re planning to take one of those African safaris or something similar.
That type of experience is worth a thousand zoo visits. The thrill of meeting them where they belong, understanding the ecosystem that makes them whole, that’s an incalculable experience for a child to experience.
But more than that, we’re finding the fascination in the ordinary—a squirrel or hummingbird in our backyard.
Butterflies. Dragonflies. Finches.
Even just watching our house cats can be as powerful as observing lionesses when looked at through the hopeful eyes of a child. The true magic really lies in our perception and letting our imagination run wild. Captivity only constricts that process.
Most certainly for the animals, but for all of us, too.***
Jill Ettinger is an LA-based writer and editor focused on vegan and cruelty-free living.