Let's talk about the future. The place we're all heading to. I think it's fair to say that for most zoos, we share a dream of a collective future where society is much more understanding of our orientation. But what exactly does that look like? When a goal is so far away, it can feel pointless to ask questions. It's like asking where we're going to start building the first resort on Mars. But, at the same time, I think it's interesting. What does a perfect zooey future look like? Not just when it comes to things like the legalization of human animal relationships, but as a whole. If we as the zoo community could recreate society and all its accompanying social norms, what would we do? What would we change, and what things might we keep the same?
I want to be upfront here. This article is going to ask some hard questions. I'm going to do my best to keep things philosophical y goal here is to open the questions up to the community at large rather than just give an answerut I've never been the best at I may something you disagree with. I may even pose a question that you don't like the phrasing of in the first place, much less the actual answer. Some of these questions may even come off as "anti zoo" I just want you to know that that disagreement is absolutely valid, if not the whole point. I want to know how people feel, even if it goes against how I feel. I always ask for engagement, but for this article as much as ever, I'd love to hear how the community feels.
Let's start with an easy one. I think by and large we agree that animals should have autonomy. But to what extent? As much as our control over their autonomy is restrictive, it also serves a purpose. For example, leashes. Objectively, leashes are extremely against autonomy. They server to limit the amount of movement that an animal has to go away from the human that they're bound to. Especially given that most dogs are only allowed outside every so often, a leash is another restricter of even the experience of leaving the house. But what's the alternative? There's a lot of dangers in this human-centric world that a dog simply isn't able to understand. As a simple example, cars. An off leash dog may just simply not understand the dangers of the road, and run in front of a distracted driver or a driver going too fast to stop in time. And even outside of dangers, what about other people? If you have a young and energetic dog eager to say hi to all the strangers with their strange smells walking down the street, in a perfect zooey world is that something people would just have to come to put up with, even if they don't particularly feel like it? And what about other dogs? Not all dogs get along. Should the expectation be that they should just hash it out then and there? What about cases where one dog is much bigger than the other?
And all of that isn't even considering the possibility that your dog may just simply leave. Run off chasing a squirrel and not come back. In a zooey world, is it respecting the autonomy of the animal to just be allowed to simply leave whenever they choose to do so? This is a question that could be expanded to other animals too. Is putting up horse fencing and keeping them in one ranch disrespectful of their autonomy? Horses tend to be roamers, restricting their ability to roam is absolutely forcing a human focused burden on them, but is the alternative to legally disallow fencing, and possibly just have a ton of wild horses roaming the countryside?
There have been so many studies about how wild cats are destroying local ecosytems by acting as predators for small wildlife. According to the American Bird Conservatory
"Outdoor domestic cats are a recognized threat to global biodiversity. Cats have contributed to the extinction of 63 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles in the wild and continue to adversely impact a wide variety of other species."
The issue is so bad that the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists domestic cats as one of the world’s worst non-native invasive species. So, for all the feline lovers out there, what's the solution? Do we respect the autonomy of the animals in our lives, and allow them to wreak havo on the natural species that exist, or do we restrict their autonomy and confine them to existence only in our home, taking away their ability to see the outside world? What if we expanded this idea even futher. Say that someone had a wolf as a partner, and they wanted to live in the suburbs and allow their partner to free roam. What if that wolf then started to eat dogs that were other people's partners, because in the wild those dogs would be prey? That's "natural" but also clearly isn't an ideal situation. Assuming free roam, is the solution that you can only have animals that are native to the area? And even then, just because an animal is native to an area doesn't mean it doesn't have any natural predators.
Let's look at another aspect of this. If a child runs away, the typically accepted response is that the police will find the child, bring them back to the home, and so long as the conditions are deemed acceptable will return the child to the care of said parents. Theoretically the same could occur with animals as well. However, this happens because children are, in a lot of ways, the property of their parents. If a fully grown adult animal runs away, what do we do? Assuming conditions are acceptable, do we just return them to their owners, or do we take their leaving as a clear communication that they don't want to be there anymore, with the expectation that if they wanted to return they would? If we go with the latter, what does that look like? If it ends up that a lot of animals would prefer to not live in houses actually, do we start letting large packs of dogs start roaming around the large urban populations that they exist in?
Suddenly we have huge dog populations that need to eat. But, it's not like there's a lot of natural food in the urban jungle. So, do we also then consider it natural that some of those dogs start to starve? What about when they start fighting each other over territory, or the food sources there are? All living creatures turn to violence when it comes down to survival, don't think I'm just talking about dogs here. But is dog on dog violence in the streets something we're willing to accept when it comes to giving dogs the autonomy to leave their homes? And what about breeding? Should we also allow those populations to be self sustaining? Technically speaking, we could make it standard to perform vasectomies and tubal sterialization of all animals so that they can't reproduce if they decide they want to leave? Isn't that kind of fucked up in its own right? For a lot of people, the experience of having a child is one of the most special moments in their lives.
And while on the topic, what if two animals fall in love? Say that you have a dog and your neighbour has a dog and they want to spend all their time together. They form a relationship. Is it now the responsibility of one of the owners to just accept a second dog into their life? Say your dog prefers hanging out at the neighbours house with his new girlfriend. Are they just in general gone from your life? Do you have visitation rights if your neighbour doesn't like you? What about if they aren't sterilized and have puppies Puppies can be a huge financial burden. Are you suddenly expected to care for them? What if you can't? Would the expectation be that you hand them over to a shelter?
What does the pound look like in this world, assuming they exist at all? The human equivilant is a homeless shelter, and in a lot of places we can't even manage to do that right. We live in a society where survival is predicated on profit. You can't exist without the monetary means to do so. If you can't pay, someone else can, but soemtimes the pockets just aren't deep enough for everyone. Let's take a look at PETA for example. PETA operates on the idea that no animal is turned away. They accomplish this by having an extremely high euthanization rate. They argue that all those free roam issues are scary enough that it's better to give an animal a clean and peaceful death than it is to create a situation dangerous to both more animals and more humans. To quote PETA themselves
"Companion animals depend on us for their care and comfort. When the alternatives to euthanasia include leaving them to struggle to survive on the streets, languish in crates or cages for months or even years at so-called “no-kill” shelters, become the victims of animal abuse or neglect, or endure an unnecessarily prolonged death (such as when a guardian refuses to make that tough final decision), then providing them instead with a peaceful, dignified end is the least we can do."
And as tragic as this is, there is some logic to it as well. If the number of animals in a shelter exceeds the budget the shelter has to take care of them, what's the solution? If you're operating with a limited amount of resource, what's better? To have 50 animals that live in tiny cages on half the food they need, 25 animals with big cages where they have enough food, or 10 animals that can roam around a big facility with all the food they could ever want?
This whole thought experiment is a question with no perfect answer, and that's what's so hard about it. We want to make a perfect world where we can give our animal partners everything, but unfortunately when it comes to the world there's no way to make everyone happy. There will always need to be rules, there will always need to be social norms. As humans, even we don't have full freedom to do anything we want. Unfortunately, it's much easier to convey the social standards in place to a human than it is a horse.
What if the way that we're doing things now is actually the best way? What if, outside of a few issues surrounding animal sexuality, we already exist in the best possible version of society when it comes to the balance between animal autonomy and a functioning society Maybe leashes are the equivalent to the laws that allow us to exist with other humans. They serve as wiggle room, giving us the option to go where we please, under certain limits. Maybe there's no way to rewrite society into a place better than it already is.
Or maybe there is. That's what this is all about. I want to hear from you dear readers. What do you think about all this? Do you have solutions to these problems? Or even just thoughts on it? Feel free to reply here on Twitter, Bluesky, or Discord, wherever you found your way here from, and let me know what you think.
Thanks for reading.
Article written by Tarro (August 2023)