Caged: Kids, Zoos & Animal Cruelty in Southeast Asia

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An Ostrich in KL Bird Park — An Epic Education

We hadn’t been in the park for 30 minutes before I realized we should leave, but then a stork shat on my arm, and that sealed the deal. It shouldn’t have taken a warm torrent of bird splatter to know it was time to go, but I know a cue when I see one. We were at the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park, and to be honest, it’s a pretty good zoo, as zoos go, with levels of space and cleanliness not found in many places that call themselves “animal sanctuaries.” There is some spectacular animal cruelty in Southeast Asia, and Kuala Lumpur Bird Park is not like that at all: by global zoo standards, it is a penthouse suite at a luxury resort.

However, it’s still a zoo. The animals are still contained in spaces far, far smaller than their natural habitat, and the walkways and lush hillsides are crowded with hundreds of species, many of them natural rivals. Birds of prey have it the worst, living in cramped, screened-in corridors lest they feed on their neighbors, and all birds there endure the constant containment of a net overhead. We saw both children and adults occasionally jeer the animals, sometimes so they could take a picture, and sometimes just for the hell of it, apparently. Even when the birds were not being hassled — admittedly, the behavior of zoo patrons varies widely — any bird residing there lives with the constant feeling of being watched.

I won’t continue giving money to some of these institutions just so my kids can gawk at a giraffe. And you know what? The kids are fine with that.

We shouldn’t be here, I thought. I looked at Keiko and the kids and could tell that they agreed — we had already seen too many unhappy-looking birds, and Felicia was near tears looking at some owls in small wire boxes. We were considering walking through one more exhibit when a particular stork’s foul (fowl?) defecation made its mark. We strode for the exit.

Fi at Chiang Mai zoo — An Epic EducationOk listen: I’m not about to take some moral high ground about animal rights and whatnot. I certainly have no right to. I’ve taken my kids to zoos and aquariums, and I’ve even recommended a few in blog posts and eBooks. I’ve made a point of avoiding the worst of them, but I think we may just stop going to them altogether, or at least become much more discerning about where we spend our money. I’ve been no savior to the animal kingdom. I’ve let my daughter feed a jaguar through a fence. I’ve paid for my kids to ride elephants in Thailand and “train” dolphins in Okinawa. I regret it now, but I won’t hide it from you, either. And hey, I still eat meat — not as much as I used to, perhaps, but a lot. At almost every meal, I dine on creatures from the sea and the farm, and often many that weren’t raised in either. So I can’t really jump on some soapbox or read off PETA talking points, even though I sympathize with them now more than any other time in my life. What I can do, however, is say that I won’t continue giving money to some of these institutions just so my kids can gawk at a giraffe. And you know what? The kids are fine with that. I thought I might have to explain how I felt in more detail to them, but they weren’t happy seeing animals in these kind of conditions any more than I was.

A clean prison is still a prison, even if there is good landscaping, fresh paint, and inmates that are fascinating to look at.

I used to give aquariums a pass, basically because I have a bias towards mammals and birds: cruelty to elephants and eagles seems so much worse to me than to tuna and crabs. The problem is that most aquariums have dolphins, seals, penguins and other creatures, too.

And when you’re talking about animal cruelty in Southeast Asia specifically, you don’t have to go to a roadside zoo to see it. There are caged animals everywhere: dogs, monkeys, civet cats and others. I’ve been in homes where there is a different caged bird in every single room of the house. Every room. To be honest, it’s probably not that different in the West: less birds in rooms, of course, but the cruelty is still there, lurking behind the walls of factory farms.

There are some atrocious zoos out there, but those are easy to steer clear of. What the world is filled with, however, is “middle-of-the-road” zoos: not a pristine nature preserve, but also not some medieval torture chamber, either. This mid-range option often has clean walkways and larger pens. But a clean prison is still a prison, even if there is good landscaping, fresh paint, and inmates that are fascinating to look at.

Let’s not forget my hypocrisy: I’ll enjoy my plate of ribs, thank you very much, but please set the dolphins free…

I realize how this sounds: there are millions of kids around the world who want to — and deserve to — have the experience of seeing living animals at a safe distance. Zoos do that, and they often inspire a handful of those kids to go into careers related to conservation and the environment. I get that. I also realize how pompous it sounds to disparage keeping orangutans in captivity if you have the opportunity to see them in the wild. Not everyone can do that. And let’s not forget my hypocrisy: I’ll enjoy my plate of ribs, thank you very much, but please set the dolphins free. The global consumption of burgers, bacon and chicken wings alone causes more animal suffering and environmental damage than a thousand zoos and Seaworlds put together, so what exactly am I advocating here?

I don’t know. I really don’t know what I’m trying to say, exactly. I’m not exactly sure how I feel, what I want to do about it, or if I’m trying to convince you of anything. I just felt like I needed to write it. There is animal cruelty in Southeast Asia, and damn near everywhere else. It’s a fact, and I will not sugarcoat it. I can’t stop it — and if I’m honest with myself, it’s not something I want to throw my life into stopping — but I won’t hide it from my kids, either. I’m certainly not on a mission to save every living thing, and I’m fully aware that my family’s embargo of animal attractions won’t change a thing. What it will do, I hope, is help me and my kids better understand empathy, and perhaps motivate us to see animals in the wild more often. Awareness alone can help you make different choices — personal, individual choices. I know we eat more vegetables now because of some of those choices. So perhaps that’s what I’m trying to say: be aware of the choices you make, and discuss their impact. My plan is to make this a regular part of our education.

Perhaps a bird turd on my shirt started this post, but I truly hope that it leads to something more consequential.

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