Max and I went to a really cool place last week where I brushed shoulders with a bison, cuddled with a lion, and hung with a sloth. It was so fun and such a “me” kind of day. Animal encounters always make me giddy. Watching me on animal encounters always makes Max giddy. This time, though, he engaged in some encountering himself. He experienced a certain measure of first hand giddiness.
The backstory on this excursion revolves around our love of bears. Max, in particular, is fanatical about bears. He especially loves grizzly bears, but any animal with the word “bear” in its name floats his boat. We’ve done encounters with different types of animals, but have never been up close and personal with a bear. I’ve always been on a quest to find a place where Max could interact with a bear.
In fluttering around the internet one day, I located a place that allows guests to do exactly that. The have a zoo/reserve area about an hour from where we live. They offer tours of the premises, the ability to feed large cats, the opportunity to feed and hold about 20 different animals, and even a chance to swim with some of their animal residents. The specific activities available on any given day depend on what critters are of an appropriate age for handling at the time of the visit and the mood of the animal. When I saw that guests could feed and hold a black bear cub, I jumped on the opportunity. I signed us both up for the bear encounter. I added a sloth snuggling for me.
Things didn’t start out so great. As we approached the facility, we noticed a certain seediness in the surrounding area. We arrived early because we get everywhere early. The gates to the park don’t open until half an hour before the tour time. We drove about two miles away to find a place to park where we felt it was reasonably safe. When we entered the park, we got a little more excited. It seemed perfectly nice. It felt wild and natural and primitive in a nonlethal way. There was a pet safety gate blocking the opening to the office. Beyond that gate was our official greeter, a one-eyed, three-legged, delightfully friendly housecat. I loved her and she loved me. My innards starting warming up to the experience again. More disappointment was in store, however. When I checked in with the owner of the facility, she sadly told us that she couldn’t offer us the bear encounter that day, after all, because the bear was “being ornery.”
I couldn’t believe it. My face must have sagged and my lip must have jutted into a pout position because the lady quickly started to explain why she couldn’t take the risk with the bear.
I told her I understood and that there wasn’t anything to be done, but I was just sooo disappointed I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. She quickly offered to substitute an encounter with a lion cub and to give us a free photo package. I agreed and we tried to put the whole bearless incident behind us.
It was a great day. A guide took us on a tram ride around the property, introducing us to their large collection of animals. We stopped to feed the bison. After the tour, the individual animal interactions started. Another zoo employee, who I call the Sloth Wrangler, managed the process. One at a time, he brought out an otter, a fox, a monkey, a skunk, a lion cub, an anteater, and a sloth. Guests who had paid for the specific encounters stepped up to the cuteness plate and enjoyed their talk with the animals. It was nice because, even if an individual guest had not paid for a specific animal, we could all watch what was going on during all the different animal encounters. Also, if one person in the party paid for a date with a specific animal, the Sloth Wrangler allowed the rest of the party to come up for a group picture with the animal. After these encounters, some folks went to the large cat enclosures to feed the tigers. Other folks headed to the pool to swim with an animal.
Having amped you all up about this experience, you’d think I’d mention the name of the place, wouldn’t you? I hesitate because, as much as I enjoyed my time in the Wild, I am of two minds about it. I am conflicted about the morals of the whole thing.
Now, I am not a person who objects to zoos or most legitimate wildlife parks. I believe most are responsible custodians of animals. They preserve species that might disappear if not for breeding and veterinary programs. They take care of injured or orphaned animals that wouldn’t survive in the wild. They give people a chance to see and understand what we might be losing to extinction without conservation. As long as the zoos are run by people who know what they are doing and the animals thrive, I’m a big fan.
I absolutely don’t want to assert that this place was not well-run or that the owners did not know what they were doing. The animals did seem to be thriving. They seemed healthy and happy. The animals they have were either born at the property or were rescued from bad situations, so it isn’t like these particular animals were taken out of their natural habitat. I do have to admit to having a few niggling doubts, however.
For one thing, the animals seemed almost too bonded to their human caretakers. They came running to the front of their enclosures when the tour guide called them by name. The bison actually smiled on command when the tour guide was taking pictures of each person feeding her. He explained that he had taught her to do that. The vibe was a little weird. It almost felt like the zoo collection was made up of household pets rather than wild animals.
Then, there were the cages. Notice, I have been carefully using the term “enclosure” to describe the animals’ houses. That is a nice way to say “cages.” They weren’t bad as cages go. The animals seemed to have room to exercise and they did not seem nervous or anxious. However, I am a child of the newer generation of zoos, which are increasingly cageless. I am spoiled by my experiences of state-of-the-art-zoos that have large, open areas for the animals.
Lastly, it did not escape me that the majority of the park’s income is based on the availability of baby animals. Many of the encounters require cooperative cubs. There is no way that I am going to object too strenuously to the idea of adorable baby animals. On the other hand, I do wonder about the breeding program. I asked some questions about their breeding practices and I was satisfied with the answers, but I am aware that I don’t know what I don’t know. It may be that there are inherent risks to the animals in the breeding protocol that I was too naive to question.
I realize that an organization like this helps animals by caring for ones that are not able to live in the wild. I also realize that it is expensive to run an organization like this. The money to support the animals and the people taking care of them has to come from somewhere. Part of me believes that allowing the animals to produce cubs that will cuddle with the paying customers may be an acceptable price for the benefits this organization provides.
This is why I am conflicted about the ethics of this place. I am torn. I don’t see anything wrong with the animals “paying for themselves,” as it were, as long as their human caretakers are kind, responsible, and well-versed in husbandry. On the other hand, I can see the opportunity for abuses. I hope there are no abuses. There very well may not be, but the potential exists.
I am no closer to sorting out my dilemma after all my cogitating. The real problem is that, in some ways, I am afraid that I will just believe what I want to believe. I may have ethical concerns, but, given how enchanting the experience was, I don’t think I have the will power to act on those concerns by withholding my patronage. I may be more morally repugnant than I ever knew I was.
What do you think? Do you draw any lines when it comes to wild animals in captivity? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at email@example.com.
Have a wild day!