Monday, July 4, 2011

Fireworks and Zoos

Every year at this time I find myself being the grinch of summer.  There are endless invites to fireworks displays and events at the zoo and I always decline.  I do not see holding wild animals in captivity or generating air pollution as acceptable ways to honor nature or celebrate our nation's independence.

Every year my mother always bought the giant fireworks variety pack from our local store.  In Virginia they have what many refer to as the "good fireworks". These are the fireworks that people cross state lines to buy.  These fireworks can also cause significant injury if they malfunction or someone gets too close.  My brother and our friends would sit in the driveway while my mom would set off our own private fireworks display.  All of our neighbors did the same thing.  The next morning our cul-de-sac looked like a war zone with burn marks and used fireworks everywhere.

When I was 15, I went to Washington D.C. to see the fireworks display on the national mall with my friend Laura and her family.   We watched the parade (I'm pretty sure this is when I started hating parades too but that's a different blog), had a picnic and then waited for the fireworks.  This was the biggest fireworks display I had every seen.  Patriotic music blared in time to the fireworks making it quite an impressive production.  There were American flags, "God Bless the USA" spelled out and even a giant bald eagle all with the reflective backdrop of the Potomac River.  It really was quite beautiful.  Throughout the entire display I noticed the giant pink cloud of smoke that was forming.  Before the smoke from one firework dissipated, another firework would go off and add to the cloud.  By the end of the display the sky was an unnatural shade of pink.  The cloud seemed to cover the entire city.  It was disgusting. 

On the drive home I thought about all the fireworks displays taking place in driveways and  in major cities.  I thought of the millions of pink clouds that were forming all over the country on Independence Day.  I wondered how the pollution generated by fireworks affected the environment.  How many days would it take for that pink cloud to go away?  Once the pink cloud disappeared were there secondary effects that we couldn't see?  There were no more fireworks for me after that.

My anti-zoo position took longer to form.  I am an animal lover.  I have always been fascinated by all animals (even the ones that scare me).  I had a membership to the World Wildlife Fund since I was a little kid.  We went to visit their headquarters in northern Virginia every year on a school field trip.  They told us all about the animals that they had saved and the sanctuaries that had been set up for endangered and injured animals.  For a long time I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian because I wanted to save animals for a living. 

We also had an annual field trip to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.  I grew up in the time of Ling Ling and Sing Sing, the famous pandas from China.  People from all over the world came to the zoo to see the pandas.  When they had a baby there was a live camera feed so the world could experience the miracle together.  I was very fond of all bears.  My bedroom was full of stuffed polar and panda bears and koalas purchased from the national zoo.  I also loved penguins, giraffes and animals whose names I couldn't pronounce.  Animals from countries and climates that were beyond my imagination. 

As I got older, National Geographic, PBS and Animal Planet added to my love of animals with tons of great articles, documentaries and shows about animals.  A lot of negative stories started to come through about animals abused while in captivity.  About the tactics that some trappers used to catch animals.  About the life of an animal in the circus or at the zoo.  I don't think there was one defining event that ended my love affair with zoos.  It just slowly built up over time and now I can't stand them.

It seemed like when I was younger there were a lot of zoos that acted as animal sanctuaries.  If there was an animal that was injured in the wild it would live in captivity until it was nursed back to health.  The public got a chance to see this animal up close while it healed.  If the animal could be integrated back into the wild, it would be released as soon as it was healthy.  But if that animal could never live a successful life in the wild because of its interaction with humans, then they would create an environmental that was as close to its natural habitat as possible. 

Panda bears are not native to Washington D.C.  Neither are penguins, polar bears, ocelots or most of the animals you will find at the zoo.  The 400-1000 square foot enclosures that they have created for these animals to replicate the hundreds of acres of forest/ocean they are accustomed to is a joke.  It would be like a human being's entire existence being scaled down to a 1 bedroom apartment. 

There are real animal sanctuaries that exist and do fabulous work.  But there don't seem to be school buses of children going to visit those.  There continue to be stories of animals being put down for being to "wild" with their captors.  Of animals abused into performing tricks.  Of shortened life spans caused but the unnatural captive life.  There always stories about the negative effects of holding wild animals in captivity but they rarely get a lot of traction. 

Every year the Syracuse zoo has an event called Brew At the Zoo.  This is a time for adults to come out and get drunk and walk through the zoo and look at the animals.  The Syracuse zoo has received a lot of bad press during the 6 years that I have lived here because of the untimely death of a lot of young animals.  Poor management seems to be the cause of these tragedies but the publication of that information does not seem to affect the popularity of this and other events.  I have been invited by friends and declined with as little political rhetoric as I could muster. 

Yesterday fireworks started in my neighborhood at 2 pm and continued well after midnight.  Tonight there will be giant fireworks displays at all of the local high school and parks.  I will have my radio cranked to drown out the sound of all the explosions and turn my chair away from the window so I don't have to watch the pink cloud form. 

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