When I was a child . . . about 10 years old . . . I wanted to grow up to be a zoo keeper. Not a famous naturalist, you understand, or the director of an internationally-acclaimed zoo, but a man in wellington boots, a peaked hat, and brown overalls, who collected dung in buckets and hosed down cages that smelt of fear.
In those days, tigers paced up and down, up and down, and polar bears sweated and begged, on bare concrete.
Zoos were horrible, and I should have been ashamed of myself.
But, they seem to have changed while I was looking the other way, and my relationship with the best of them has got a lot more complicated.
Take Chester Zoo, which we visited a couple of days ago.
Clearly, a lot more thought goes into the appropriateness of the environments. There is real nectar to drink, straw to throw around, grass to hide in, trees to climb. Unlike in the past, it is now sometimes difficult to see the animals.
It is, of course, still a prison, albeit with burrows. In The Life of Pi, the main character makes the point that it is anthropomorphic nonsence to talk about the freedom of the wild. Most animals are fiercely territorial and live a life of constant stress, fear and hunger. No wild animal dies in its bed.
In a good zoo, however, animals are healthy, well-fed, and relatively chilled out. They don’t even have to work very hard to find a mate. The zoo will fly one in from the other side of the world, if necessary.
The zoos seem to have abandoned the exotic spectacle side of their work. They can’t, after all, compete with television. Their main role now seems to be breeding, an activity they spend a fortune on, especially if the animal is rare or endangered.
In the cases of endangered species, we have no right to complain about the work of the zoos, for it is us who have destroyed their habitats and us who have screwed up their planet. They don’t have the option to escape to Mars.