I don’t like zoos but my little son wants to go and see the animals, what do I do?

I am a daughter of the Barcelona of the Floquet de Neu (Snowflake), emblem of the Barcelona Zoo and even, for years, of the city. The Floquet was an albino gorilla from Equatorial Guinea that was captured by a hunter from the Essamangon people who, after killing his entire family because they were destroying his crops, realized that on the mother’s back there was a live albino baby. Floquet was taken to the Centre for Adaptation and Zoological Experimentation that the Barcelona City Council had in Ikunde and sold it to the primatologist Jordi Sabater Pi, who took it to Barcelona in 1966.

When I was a tadpole I thought that Floquet was my friend. From the Carmel neighbourhood (high up in Barcelona) I used to look out of the window where I thought Floquet was and send him kisses. I remember going to see him several times, running up to the glass partition where a thousand children were huddled together and opening my eyes like planets. When I became a teenager I came to my senses and came to the conclusion that I didn’t like zoos, that I wouldn’t go there anymore, that I would prefer a thousand times not to have seen Floquet and that elephants should be in their own land, hippies in their own pond and birds in the sky.

Juan Fernández is my boy’s name and he is 19 months old, and I would say that what fascinates him the most are animals. I repeat myself: I don’t like zoos, I don’t like that some beings are locked up so that other beings (that we consider ourselves superior, that is to say, that we are speciesists) can contemplate them for a while and check things seen with our own eyes. My boy (Juan’s father) is in favour of taking him to the zoo because he doesn’t want to deprive him of that experience. So I say to myself and contradict myself: no and no to zoos, but what if I say yes for a little while for Juan?

We arrive in Fuengirola and my family is waiting for us with all kinds of animal figurines for Juan. “Roci, take the boy to the zoo”. And someone tells him that there is a place nearby where, just as he sees puppies and cats or chickens or horses, there are dangerous and very big animals like tigers, crocodiles and gorillas. The boy’s eyes glaze over, but who knows what he has understood, and in my mind it echoes: “God, no gorillas”. Fuengirola is full of posters with the faces of tigers and the child with his little finger and his mouth says, “there, there, zoo”.


At night, When he falls asleep, I establish a dialogue full of contradictions: What if I am pragmatic and take him? What if I put my opinions aside and make him happy for a while? Can our not going to the zoo put an end to zoos? Do animals live so badly in zoos? What if I take him only to sanctuaries that guarantee me that the animals are well cared for and not kidnapped?

I do two things. One, I ask for help in the mothers’ group: “Hi girls, I need your help, should I take Juan to the zoo? I’m against it but I have a lot of buts”. And two, I call my friend Fernanda Tomala. She is from Galapagos (Ecuador), she worked for years at the Charles Darwin Foundation (researches and protects native species) and for the last eight years she has been an educator at the Madrid Zoo. She loves animals with all her being. “In zoos they are cared for even though they are in captivity and, despite the limitations they have, they are treated with dignity. They are offered spaces that are as adequate as possible, with facilities that have environmental enrichment. For example, the capuchin monkeys are given vines and trees so they can play; or the gorillas are given false termite mounds so they can explore and not get stressed”.

Fernanda Tomala says that she also has these contradictions in mind, and that more investment would be needed for the animals to live better in the zoos. For example, a more adequate and bigger space for the felines. She tells me that progress has also been made: “For the last ten years you can’t kidnap wild animals to bring them to zoos. Now there is an international network of zoos and there are exchanges between them. The animals you see are the offspring of zoo animals”. Tomala says that they no longer put on shows, but rather hold training workshops for the public, and that “if the zoos were closed, it would be very difficult for these animals to return to the wild because they are used to being fed and having their needs met”.

I call Ruth Toledano, animal rights activist, editor of ‘El caballo de Nietzsche’ (with Concha Lopez), a blog within this newspaper reference in the anti-speciesist struggle: “Zoos are places of captivity, sadness and loneliness. The animals are out of their place and maddened by the lack of freedom, exposure and by not developing their normal behaviours. So, when an animal moves its head repetitively or goes from one place to another, it’s not playing with the children at the zoo, it’s showing the trauma.” By taking children to zoos, she tells me over the phone, we show the wrong values, such as the lack of justice or the null rights of the animals.s other individuals, “as well as the pride and wickedness of man over the freedom of other species”.

Instrumentalizing animals

Toledano affirms that animals have been instrumentalized and objectified in all facets of human behavior: “At first they began to be trafficked in order to exhibit them as trophies that form part of a colonial view of the exotic. Now their existence is justified for conservationist reasons, while many of the animals in zoos are not of species to be conserved, but animals kidnapped from nature like elephants”. When elephants are kidnapped and “imprisoned, a very complex and sophisticated social and family structure is broken, which emotionally destroys them, so, if they were to be conserved, it would be better to prevent the ivory trade and keep them in their habitat”.

I look at the Whatsapp group and burns. Marta writes: “I have a dilemma with this, because I love animals and I refuse to go to the zoo. I’m debating whether Cabárceno or similar counts as a zoo”. Laura says: “I don’t think they have to see all the animals that exist live and direct. I’ve never seen a polar bear, for example. It makes me angry to deprive them of something that other children enjoy, but I also don’t want to teach them that a zoo is acceptable.

In the group they recommend places that respect animals (without usurping them from their habitat) such as Burrolandia, Safari Madrid, Kunaibérca, the Zoo-Koki Foundation (Toledo), the Santario Món La Bassa (Tarragona), Greenheart (Navarra) or La Pepa (Arcos de la Frontera). I remember Naiara Castillo, director of the Viñas School in Poio (near Pontevedra), who collaborates raising funds for the Vacaloura Sanctuary in Santiago and who rejects zoos. Castillo does not promote or support going to the zoo as headmistress, but when she was a teacher she had to accompany children to an aquarium: “I had to swallow my pride and go. What I tried to do was to get the children to reflect, I asked them if they thought the animals were happy without being able to go out, if they would be happy with so little space. I tried to work on empathy and love for them”.

Naiara Castillo suggests that if you want to see elephants, save money and go on a safari in their natural habitat, and that to get closer to the animals you can also do it (and start) with the rescued and cared for animals of the territory. And I ask myself: Will I be able to pay for a trip to see elephants in their natural habitat?Do you ever get a type? I read the Whatsapp group and Raquel writes: “I have given in, Rocío. My boy did want our daughter to meet animals, and we’ve already been to the zoo, Faunia and a couple of aquariums”, and Raquel concludes: “I guess in a few years it will be one of the contradictions on the long list that we’ll have to explain to her”.

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