Friday, February 20, 2004

Zookeeper for a while, Cynic for life.

It's funny; I feel like I'm perpetrating a sham when I say I once was a "zookeeper". The problem is, I didn't work at a zoo, and my title wasn't "zookeeper", it was "Primate Technician".

Straight out of college, I landed a job at a local University that happened to have a most unique biological and anthropological facility; a "Primate Center". The Center existed as a harbor for endangered primates called lemurs, providing a one-of-a-kind opportunity for fostering and observing these rare and fascinating creatures. For some reason that only HR can unveil, those of us responsible for the care of those prosimian primates were called “Primate Technicians”. It almost makes you wonder if some disgruntled employees came up with the title to see if anyone would notice. Were they sitting at their desk debating? “...Monkey Keeper...” “Nah, how about, “Lemur Husbandry Specialist...” “giggle- Hey, I got it! Primate Technician!!” I assume major Yucks ensued as the official title was bestowed on those who fed, cleaned up poop after, and cared as best we could for these magnificent creatures.

The majority of us had at least four-year degrees in biology, anthropology, or zoology; several were pursuing graduate degrees as well. Many of us came with an interest in animal behavior, an appreciation of observational research, or simply a love of animals. It’s ironic, however, that after investing physical and emotional time in what seems to be a noble cause, it’s possible to get to a point where you can’t stand to see a wild animal in captivity, whether it’s endangered or not. My loathing of zoos, circuses, “dolphin encounters” and petting zoos didn’t evolve from any personal or overheard scenarios of animal neglect. I simply came to a place where the cleanest, biggest cage full of natural trees and “enrichment puzzles” was not good enough. The animals were still behind wire, glass, or Plexiglas, and that became intolerable to me. Granted, at the Center, a large proportion of the animals roamed freely in huge wooded enclosures—perhaps that’s what spoiled it for me. Maybe I came to expect all wild animals in captivity to live as such.

I know my breaking point was the afternoon some of us went to a nearby zoo to check out a new chimpanzee exhibit; the amount of hooting, armpit scratching, and screeching nauseated me. Of the human visitors, that is, who were banging on the glass observation panels and making general horses’ asses of themselves. I looked at the chimps, lolling in the grass of the “natural” cement enclosure that had one synthetic disease-proof fiberglass tree, and thought to myself, this is not worth whatever educational value someone thinks they are imparting at the expense of these animals’ dignity. No animal needs to be subjected to the forced observation of sweating, overweight and sun burnt tourists, no matter how endangered their natural habitat. They’d probably be better off given a suite at the Sheraton or Hilton; at least there they could shut their doors and put up a “do not disturb” sign when they weren’t in the mood to watch the natural habitat of humankind.