By Eileen Stark of Portland, Oregon. Eileen is describes herself as "a landscape designer, freelance writer, conservationist and stanch advocate for animals." Previously, she worked for the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
Humans at the Oregon zoo are asking Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington county taxpayers to fund a $125 million bond measure. Before voting yes or no on Measure 26-96, let’s explore what the measure really is.
$125 million is a lot of cash, but is it really adequate? The measure is touted by the zoo and its cohorts as a be-kind-to-animals issue, even though their PR team regularly and loudly claims that the animals have it pretty good. Now that they want more money, however, they admit the exhibits and facilities are substandard and deficient and they fall just short of saying that the animals are suffering. They’re right; the zoo is a hole. But the measure doesn’t come anywhere close to providing the space and climate elephants need to stay healthy. At a time when more progressive zoos are closing or phasing out their pachyderm exhibits, they’ve added another calf. Alas, the timing couldn’t have been more politically perfect: Cute baby elephants sell tickets and votes.
What about accountability? The measure might help the animals in some ways; then again, it might not. The animals at the zoo unquestionably deserve the very best of care, but if the measure passes, no outside party would oversee how each dollar is spent and make certain the animals benefit. One plucky zoo employee has revealed in a current voter pamphlet argument that previous zoo bond measures did not deliver what was promised.
Captivity and cruelty is not conservation. Wildlife conservation is essentially about protecting and maintaining habitat, not the futile creation of artificial enclosures. At a time when scientists predict that up to a third of the earth’s species will be extinct by the end of the century, the number of species saved from extinction by zoos can be counted on one or two hands. Even Oregon Zoo Director Tony Vecchio has acknowledged our inability to replicate wild animals’ natural conditions. Particularly for those creatures that migrate, it’s impossible. Had the measure included a vast exhibit for elephants, who normally walk up to 30 miles a day, it might have been more acceptable, although the cold, damp, pathological conditions they must endure here for over half the year can never be resolved. All of the Oregon zoo elephants suffer from severe and painful foot problems and let’s never forget the 2000 cruelty conviction of the elephant keeper who sadistically stabbed and beat Rose-Tu with a bloody bullhook, a sharp instrument used by circuses and some zoos to control elephants in captivity. Despite public outrage, the zoo refuses to curtail the use of such brutal “management” techniques.
With the zoo in such a bad state, all the money in the world won’t make it adequate and perhaps we should – can I say it? – phase it out. It’s been done before: Vancouver, B.C.’s bedraggled, main attraction Stanley Park Zoo went on the ballot as a referendum in 1994. That city’s citizens – and those unwilling to part with money they felt would be wasted – voted it shut. Its last resident, a lone polar bear, died in 1997.
An anonymous quote from a photo exhibit at the U of O a few years ago – “Tell me again: What’s the difference between a cage and a jail?” – pops into my mind again. Voting NO on Measure 26-96 will not make the animals suffer more. In fact, they might not even notice the proposed improvements; they’re too busy trying to figure out what they did to deserve a life sentence.