The Painful Side of Zoos

Last Friday, Nina the gorilla died after spending 47 years at the Woodland Park Zoo.

I grew up in Seattle, and as a young girl in the 60s, I went to the Zoo just like any other American kid.

At Woodland Park, the “Ape House” was always my favorite. Those amazing animals with their goofy expressions and silly antics were more fun than a morning cartoon. The other Houses were boring—all the animals did was pace back and forth or slump in the back of their little cages—but the Ape House was always lively.

One zoo visit stands out in my memory. I can still remember the feeling of my kid-fingers on that grimy iron railing in front of the gorilla cage. Behind me, the crowd was howling with laughter at the group of apes, swinging or scratching or making funny faces. My attention was drawn to a lone female gorilla who stood to the side, wrapping her long fingers around the bars and peering out at the crowd. For just a moment, she looked straight into my eyes. Her gaze was innocent and gentle and a little bit sad as she quickly looked away. Her expression looked so familiar, like a new kid at school who stands shyly in front of the class. What was she thinking about, how was she feeling, standing there in her cage?

Suddenly, the crowd’s laughter didn’t sound fun at all. It seemed mean. Why were they laughing at her—didn’t they see the look in her eyes? Didn’t they know how it feels to be laughed at? Now I could see—the Ape House was not a cartoon. For the first time, I understood the painful side of zoos.

Now, many decades later, I’m glad that we’ve improved our zoos and made them better places for the animals. But, I think we have a long way to go. I look forward to the day when we no longer keep wild animals captive for our own entertainment, use them as subjects for scientific experimentation, or—probably worst of all—as pets. I know some of these things have been useful in the past, but I look forward to the day when we can put all that stuff behind us. I hope that as we evolve as human beings and learn to treat each other better, that we learn to treat animals better too. I hope we can let wild animals live their own lives, in the wild. Most of all, I hope we will preserve and protect the wild areas they depend upon.

Goodbye, Nina. You would have been a tiny baby gorilla that day long ago when I learned my life lesson. It’s hard for me to imagine spending 47 years in a cage in the Ape House. But, still…I hope you had a good life.

-Denise Dahn

Like all kids, I loved the zoo when I was little.
Like all kids, I loved the zoo when I was little.

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