Henry Doorly Zoo’s new elephant exhibit is part of African Grasslands, a $73 million project that spans 28 acres inside, the largest in the zoo’s history. Zoo CEO and Executive Director Dennis Pate has said in the media that in terms of visitors the zoo could eclipse the 2 million mark this year, thanks to the opening of new exhibits, the African Grasslands and Alaskan Adventure. The zoo boasts that African Grasslands features breathtaking panoramic views and long vistas of grasslands teeming with African wildlife. There is extensive use of grasses, acacia-like trees, kopjes and “minimal visual barriers.”
The trend of zoos moving toward “minimal visual barriers” and barless outdoor exhibits is all about enhancing the visitor’s experience and attracting more visitors and members just like any other commercial entity, not animal safety and conservation.
As society progresses and more and more people question the physical and mental well-being of animals in zoos, zoos have gotten busy revamping their image to create an experience for visitors that distracts them from thinking about the stress of animals in captivity. But as exhibits become more “beautiful” and natural looking and less like “cages,” especially for animals who are money makers, who will ultimately pay the price, human or non-human animals, or both?
A witch hunt unfolded on social media for the woman whose 4-year-old son plummeted 20 feet into the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla exhibit back in May—the public seemed adamant her alleged poor parenting caused the shooting death of a beloved, endangered ape named Harambe. They even called on child protective services to investigate her. Just as outspoken were the people slamming the overall existence of zoos and their endless exploitation of animals who are subjected to a life of imprisonment versus a life in the wild in their native habitats. But the unfortunate reality is that zoos do still exist. And this woman went to the zoo armed with a false sense of security that it was a safe place to be with her children.
The director of the Cincinnati Zoo addressed suggestions that the zoo was to blame for the fall since the barriers didn’t successfully keep the child out of the gorilla exhibit. He told reporters the facility is inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and that the enclosure barriers exceed recommendations. “You can lock your car, you can lock your house, but if someone really wants to, they can get in,” he said at the news conference. “Do you know any 4-year-olds? They can climb over anything.” What a disturbing sentiment.
A zoo’s priority is to attract and please tourists, and one would think keeping them safe goes hand in hand with that. What the tragedy has exposed is that not only did the Cincinnati Zoo manage to endanger and kill an already critically endangered species, the western lowland gorilla, but that the recommendations regarding what is safe and what is not in terms of zoo exhibits should be better scrutinized. Friends of Animals knows all too well the murderous process you have to go through to get a USDA exhibiting license as we are trying to secure one to allow limited educational visits at Primarily Primates, our sanctuary in San Antonio, Texas. How then is it possible that a person of any size or age is able to climb a three-foot barrier and through the bushes and reach the 15-foot drop into the water surrounding a gorilla enclosure, which USDA deemed safe?