Q – Given the recent Ohio tragedy involving a private zoo, in which dozens of exotic animals were killed, I was wondering whether it is ethical to have such zoos in the first place.
A – The images of last week’s massacre of over fifty animals freed by their deranged (and suicidal) owner in Ohio, Terry Thompson, is still fresh in our minds. "It's like Noah's Ark wrecking right here in Zanesville," cried a former director of the Columbus Zoo. As if on cue, this week Jews read the portion of Noah, describing the epic tale about that largest floating private zoo ever.
The midrash goes into great detail to show how difficult it was for Noah to feed the animals in the ark – and to keep them from feeding on one another. He didn’t get a wink of sleep for months. Midrash Tanhuma suggests that Noah is described as righteous specifically because he showed such compassion for animals.
Any pet owner can tell you that caring for animals is a 24/7 job, even when your pets don’t happen to include 18 rare Bengal tigers. This exotic menagerie should never have been permitted to Thompson, but Ohio law foolishly allows ownership of such animals (perhaps thinking that otherwise they would have to ban the Cincinnati Bengals from playing in state). After this incident, the Wall Street Journal ran a state by state chart indicating where you can live if you want to own a tiger. Ohio is one of eight states where not only is it allowed, but you don’t even need a permit.
Last summer I saw thousands of animals in their natural habitat on safari in Africa, where the only “exotic” creatures present were me and my fellow human intruders. The animals we saw were free and content (except for those unfortunate moments when they were being eaten). When you’ve seen these animals in their element, you can never go back to a zoo. But witnessing this glorious spectacle made me wonder whether any zoo can be considered ethical, even ones run by qualified, licensed zookeepers. Do animals have an inherent right to liberty, or at least to live in a climate that is natural and normal for them, and not to be separated from their families?
There are only two justifications for the incarceration of animals, conservation and education, according to zoologist Dr. Michael Hitchen. By learning more about these species, and by exposing the next generation to them, we can help to save them. An additional, secondary benefit of zoos is that they help to bring diverse groups of people together. The Jerusalem Zoo is one of the few places in that city where Arab and Jewish residents mingle freely, exploring their common love of nature. But all these advantages need to be weighed against the moral imperative that animals not be allowed to suffer.
Maimonides felt that animals can feel pain on a level equal to humans. The Shulchan Aruch agrees, adding, “It is forbidden, according to the law of the Torah, to inflict pain upon any living creature. On the contrary, it is our religious duty to relieve the pain of any creature.”
Terry Thompson clearly crossed that line, long before he released his beautiful creatures into the wilds of Zanesville. It is irresponsible for unqualified private individuals to collect wild animals, whether for resale or display. Next time, stick to stamps and baseball cards.