Caged Jungle

Melbourne Zoo, Victoria.

35mm on Pentax K1000.


Since visiting this zoo, I happened to read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi; a thought-provoking reflection on religion, life, doubt, fear and … zoos. Before I read this novel, I would have held the views of what I assume would be the majority of people’s (albeit perhaps unspoken) opinions – that zoos are cruel places, designed purely for the entertainment and viewing pleasure of humans. I assumed the animals would be unhappy in their captive state. Unable to run free and live out their natural patterns.


This assumption, however, has been greatly altered by what I’ve read in Life of Pi. I will not go into detail explaining this for I believe the following excerpt from the novel soundly covers all that I have discovered…

“Well-meaning but misinformed people think animals in the wild are “happy” because they are “free”. These people usually have a large, handsome predator in mind…The life of the wild animal is simple, noble and meaningful, they imagine. Then it is captured by wicked men and thrown into tiny jails. Its “happiness” is dashed. It yearns mightily for “freedom” and does all it can to escape. Being denied its “freedom” for too long, the animal becomes a shadow of itself, its spirit broken. So some people imagine.

This is not the way it is.”



“Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food is low and where territory must constantly be defended and parasites forever endured…The smallest changes can upset them. They want things to be just so, day after day, month after month. Surprises are highly disagreeable to them…In the wild, animals stick to the same paths for the same pressing reasons, season after season. In a zoo, if an animal is not in its normal place in its regular posture at the usual hour, it means something…a reason to inspect the dung, to cross-examine the keeper, to summon the vet. All this because a stork is not standing where it usually stands!”


“But let me pursue for a moment only one aspect of the question.

If you went to a home, kicked down the front door, chased the people who lived there out into the street and said, “Go! You are free! Free as a bird! Go! Go!”-do you think they would shout and dance for joy? They wouldn’t. Birds are not free. The people you’ve just evicted would sputter, “With what right do you throw us out? This is our home. We own it. We have lived here for years. We’re calling the police, you scoundrel.”


“…Animals are territorial. That is the key to their minds. Only a familiar territory will allow them to fulfill the two relentless imperatives of the wild: the avoidance of enemies and the getting of food and water. A biologically sound zoo enclosure-whether cage, pit, moated island, corral, terrarium, aviary or aquarium- is just another territory, peculiar only in its size and in its proximity to human territory…Territories in the wild are large not as a matter of taste but of necessity. In a zoo, we do for animals what we have done for ourselves with houses: we bring together in a small space what in the wild is spread out. Whereas before for us the cave was here, the river over there, the hunting grounds a mile that way, the lookout next to it, the berries somewhere else- all of them infested with lions, snakes, ants, leeches and poison ivy- now the river flows through taps at hand’s reach and we can wash next to where we sleep, we can eat where we have cooked, and we can surround the whole with a protective wall and keep it clean and warm.”



“A house is a compressed territory where our basic needs can be fulfilled close by and safely. A sound zoo enclosure is the equivalent for an animal…Finding within it all places it needs- a lookout, a place for resting, for eating and drinking, for bathing, for grooming, etc.- and finding that there is no need to go hunting, food preparing six days a week…an animal will take possession of its zoo space in the same way it would lay claim to a new space in the wild, exploring it and marking it out in the normal ways of its species, with sprays of urine perhaps. Once this moving-in ritual is done and the animal has settled, it will not feel like a nervous tenant, and even less like a prisoner, but rather like a landholder…defending tooth and nail should it be invaded. Such an enclosure is subjectively neither better nor worse for an animal than its condition in the wild; so long as it fulfills the animals needs, a territory, natural or constructed…One might even argue that if an animal could choose with intelligence, it would opt for living in a zoo, since the major differences between a zoo and the wild is the absence of parasites and enemies and the abundance of food in the first, and their respective abundance and scarcity in the second. Think about it yourself. Would you rather be put up at the Ritz with free room service and unlimited access to a doctor or be homeless without a soul to care for you?…Within the limits of their nature, they[animals] make do with what they have.


“But I don’t insist. I don’t mean to defend zoos. Close them all down if you want (and let us hope that what wildlife remains can survive in what is left of the natural world). I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.”


Alick’s face above roughly captures the expression on my own face after reading this passage. I had never in my life considered any sort of factual or sound reasoning behind the lives of animals held within zoos, despite my never having actually witnessed any cruel behaviour towards animals within zoos nor really actually sat down and thought a great deal about it. I suppose I just made up my mind one day that animals in cages (though enclosure is more the word I am looking for – no zoo animal I have ever seen exists inside a small cage) is cruel and unjust and so why are zoos still allowed to operate?

Though I am not deeming the views found in this work of fiction to be accurate or true, they have certainly altered the way I consider the “cruelty” of zoos. I am sure there are zoos throughout the world that do not treat animals with the respect or the understanding needed to provide them with the life they require; however I don’t find them nearly as bad as I once did. I’m not here to support zoos or any sense of cruelty found in the captivity of animals…I am simply marvelling at my own ignorance towards this topic. This entire novel is packed with revelations that either finally make sense of random, unformed ideas that I’ve had in my head or completely throw my own ideas and views upside down and I’ve loved it. Writing that makes you reconsider the way you view the world and the many practices that exist within it is truly priceless. I encourage you to read as much of it as possible.


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