Why do we go to the zoo? To see animals we’d never imagine coming across in our day-to-day lives wander about, eating, rolling around, and looking cute for our amazement. At least that’s what I get out of it.
As a child, I wanted to hear the trumpets of elephants, the roars of lions and tigers, the chatter of monkeys. I wanted to watch a giraffe walk elegantly about, its long neck stretching high and far for food. I wanted to marvel at the incredible array of colours on the seemingly endless species of birds. What a beautiful thing to be able to see so many animals from all over the world in my hometown.
But long before I understood the downsides of many zoos, I wondered if the animals were happy. Maybe it was because I’d seen Free Willy too many times, or maybe it was because I had this innate feeling that being locked up was wrong, and couldn’t possibly be a part of happiness.
Even today, sometimes I stare at my cat and wonder if she is happy. I’ve given her an accessible ‘cat door’ to wander in and out of my house between the hours of 8am and whenever nightfall hits. But she mostly sleeps. It’s often in the middle of the night that she is more exuberant, chasing bugs as a part of her nocturnal behaviour and perhaps as a way to make up for being caged in from her desire to hunt in the outdoors. But I’m scared. I don’t want her to get eaten by coyotes, and so my protective, motherly instinct keeps my cat from being free in a way that is most important to her nature.
As an adult, when I think of zoos, I imagine caged and humiliated animals meant to serve as entertainment for humans. Zoos claim to be more than just this, however, but do we really need them? The issue is controversial, with one side believing keeping animals in captivity promotes conservation and education, and the other arguing it simply supports animal cruelty.
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One thing seems clear, however: no matter how you slice it, keeping any creature, endangered or not, behind a cage is inhumane. So what is the alternative? One zoo in China found an interesting way to bring people closer to the wildlife without actually caging animals. Their tactic? Put the visitors in cages instead.
The Lehe Ledu Wildlife Zoo allows normally caged creatures like big cats and other wildlife species, such as bears, roam free, while visitors remain in a cage. This allows people to get extremely close without subjecting the wild creatures to the inhumanity of being trapped in small cages, like most zoos throughout the world do.
“We wanted to give our visitors the thrill of being stalked and attacked by the big cats but with, of course, none of the risks,” Zoo spokeswoman Chan Llang explained.
Chunks of meat are tied to the outside of moving cages to attract animals for the visitors. Inside the vehicles, visitors are protected from being eaten. Small openings at the top allow them to offer food to the exotic beasts.
Chan Llang says all the visitors are warned “to keep their fingers and hands inside the cage at all times because a hungry tiger wouldn’t know the difference between them and breakfast.”
Lehe Ledu Wildlife Zoo was opened in 2015, and tickets were sold out for three months, proving people actually enjoyed the idea of allowing the animals to roam freely in their natural habitats while they remained behind cages themselves.
“It’s nothing like I’ve ever experienced in a zoo before,” explained visitor Tao Jen. “We’re not looking at them, they’re looking at us – and we’re lunch.”
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