I think most all of us have been to a zoo or game preserve (e.g. the Trexler Nature Preserve, formerly the Trexler-Lehigh County Game Preserve, in Schnecksville, PA) at one time or another in our lives, particularly when we were children. We love seeing, hearing, and smelling the animals there. It brings to reality the animals we've seen pictures of and heard about via various media. For anyone who's become a veterinarian, biologist, zoologist, or has specialized further in regards to any animal life, visits to the zoo will have played a large role in triggering those interests. Likewise, going to the aquarium (e.g. Baltimore Aquarium, Camden Aquarium, et al) would have similar effects when it comes to sea life. Even circuses and theme parks like SeaWorld also allow us to be closer to animals we would otherwise never likely have the opportunity to experience. Zoos and aquariums have also played a role in helping some species avoid extinction through captive mating programs and protecting them from poachers.
The dark side of zoos, aquariums, etc., is that in order to populate them we're taking living, sentient beings from their natural habitats, separating them from their families (quite often at exceptionally young ages and pretty much violently regardless of their age), and imprisoning them in artificial enclosures. And in the best of circumstances, the staffs do everything in their power, barring releasing the animals, to make certain that they're well cared for and treated with dignity. Unfortunately quite often the animals are held in enclosures that are far too small and otherwise overcrowded considering how spread apart individuals in a population typically live; and in the case of circuses like Ringling Brothers and theme parks like SeaWorld, the animals are treated horrifically out of sight of the general public in order to get them to perform for us. (For a better understanding, you can watch the movie "Blackfish", or read Beneath The Surface by John Hargrove or the recent articles in the news over the last couple of years.) That's the dark side, the sad stark reality that we must face and accept.
I do my best to try to see both sides of things. I realize that zoos, aquariums, et al., are far from perfect on oh so many levels. And while we can learn about wildlife, whether aquatic, avian, or terrestrial, from books, or the internet, or by watching various documentaries, the other stark reality is that there is no substitute for being able to see an elephant in person and experience firsthand just how large, powerful, and magnificent they are. Even through the bars of a zoo, we can experience the big cats in person (and in safety to us at least) through more of our senses than a book or a screen could ever allow.
The vast majority of us simply don't have the resources to be able to travel the world and experience the animals in their native habitats. Monetary wealth shouldn't be the only deciding factor on who gets to experience wildlife in person when both finances and transportation can be limiting factors to the intelligent when intelligence itself isn't borne of money. And while books, movies, and the internet can still inspire us, nothing can instill the awe and wonder of seeing these magnificent creatures live the way, even vastly imperfectly, that zoos and aquariums allow.
There needs to be a better way. My conundrum is that finding it currently eludes me.
by Rev. J.T. Smith