Pamela Anderson is wrong — zoos are not immoral

My friend Pamela Anderson, the animal rights activist and actress we honored at our dinner this year for being a lover of Israel, told me that the Cincinnati gorilla story demonstrates the cruelty of zoos.

Tragedies are inevitable, and the gorilla was punished because of human error rather than animal nature. This, she says, results from the simple fact that animals shouldn’t be caged.

I see her point, in part.

As one who visits South Africa and Rwanda — where it’s not difficult to go to an authentic animal park — I’m a little spoiled when it comes to animals and find the zoo experience artificial.

Still, I love zoos — especially the good ones. It’s a great family experience. In Australia, where I was on a speaking tour recently, the only reason my kids were able to see a koala or a Tasmanian devil was because of the Sydney zoo. If we shut down zoos, how will our children experience the beauty of the animal world?

Of course, seeing wild animals penned up unnaturally is uncomfortable. It seems to violate decency. The animals look restless and bored, which would be a contradiction in any place other than a zoo. Is it pleasant to watch a tiger pacing back and forth in an enclosure wondering, “How the hell do I get out? And how did I get here in the first place?”

Is it inspiring to see beautiful winged creatures only able to fly 30 feet before bumping their beaks into metal grating?

No. But how would we even know these birds existed if not for zoos?

I’m not getting into the Sea World Tilikum scandal. Rarely in my lifetime have I seen one film so destroy a franchise as Blackfish did to Sea World. Yes, these monsters of the deep surely deserve more than a giant swimming pool. But would we appreciate whales as much if the only place we saw them was on National Geographic? My kids have experienced endless wonder at Sea World in coming face-to-face with a shark, albeit — there it is again — through a glass enclosure.

It’s not fair to say, “If you want to appreciate a marine mammal, go whale watching off the coast of Nova Scotia.” Because then you’re making animal encounters a thing possible only to the rich.

I’m actually so confused by the question of zoo morality that I asked my nearly one million Facebook friends to offer their opinions. I received scores of comments, most defending zoos, but many condemning them as well.

But Natacha Segal shot back: “A zoo is an awful place for wild animals. Monkeys in a concrete box with a glass wall for our viewing pleasure. Dolphins swimming round and round in a pool. Tigers, lions, bears etc. bored to death with no thrill of hunting or exploring …Where is the beauty in that?”

Then Pamela Anderson wrote a personal response, arguing that animals are caged against their will. Why should we derive entertainment when the animals are coerced?

It was well written and argued.

But my major problem with her response is the seeming equation of animal and human life. Judaism insists on the ethical treatment of animals always. Indeed, a ban on cruelty to animals is one of the seven universal Noahide commandments.

But still, animals and humans are not equal. To equate animal life and human life is to undermine the sacredness of human life.

This has always been an issue I’ve had with PETA and I’ve met with them on several issues over the years. I appreciate their advocacy on the part of animals, and my conversations with PETA representatives have been substantive, informative, and interesting, on the air, on my radio show, and in private.

But elevating animal life to the level of human life is a step too far. I also think it’s an unnecessary step. People will appreciate animal life, and will be very upset at Harambe’s death even without equating a gorilla’s life with a human child.

This issue is so important that I’ll ask Pamela if she’ll join me in a public discussion that can illuminate it further.

Perhaps the most insightful thought of all those posted on my Facebook page came from Luqman Hakeem, who told me that once again, the Jews were at fault for the killing of the gorilla. “You Zionist rabbi don’t care for millions of humans and approve Israel to keep Palestinians in a big cage. When you are lecturing on animal rights and decency it sounds strange.”

Perhaps so, Luqman. But not as strange as your analogy in this case of Arabs to gorillas, something we might all agree is truly loathsome, disgusting, and offensive.

About the Author
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network. He is the author of Judaism for Everyone and 30 other books, including his most recent, Kosher Lust. Follow him on Twitter@RabbiShmuley