Should Veterinary Groups Patronize Animal Parks?

Last month I spent four sweltering hours in the company of my colleagues at a “Spring Social” event in support of my local veterinary medical association. Though it conformed vaguely to the confines of an activity you might call “fun,” it was marred by one glaring flaw: It was held at a park where wild animals are kept in captivity. 

As we pedaled our rented six-seater vehicles languidly around the 350-acre Zoo Miami facility, many of us couldn’t help but interpret the lethargic sloth of the park’s inhabitants as a dejected reaction to their unjust and inhumane captivity. The guiltier among us might just have construed their behavior as divine condemnation of our patronage rather than a physiological response to the unseasonable heat. (Naming no names, of course.)

Do we need a "feeding time" demonstration to help us learn to respect and protect animals?

Do we need a "feeding time" demonstration to help us learn to respect and protect animals?

What can I say? Veterinary professionals are sensitive folk. We understand the principles of animal welfare better than most and, as such, we’re unlikely to take an animal in captivity at face value. For example, we know what we’re looking at when we watch chimps rock back and forth on their heels or observe a rock-throwing tirade undertaken by an adolescent elephant. 

In fact, the only animals I enjoyed during the course of those four hours were the African hoof stock (who appeared to be enjoying the heat every bit as much as my backyard goats do) and the tropical birds, most of which seemed content to go about their normal everyday birdy behaviors as if they were anywhere but inside a ginormous aviary. (But who can tell with most birds?)

Yes, for me, it was an epic fail, event-wise.

Full disclosure now (with a twist of irony) … I belong to the board of the above mentioned veterinary association. In fact, I could perhaps be said to have been most responsible for the selection of this park as our Spring Social location. But before you excoriate me for my sadomasochistic ways, let me explain:

It’s customary for veterinary groups to convene around animal-centric locales. Zoos, water parks, animal events, etc. have historically served as preferred locations for veterinary professional association events and conference-related activities. As our wider culture has adopted more animal welfare-friendly ideals, however, our choices have become increasingly restricted. No longer is it considered acceptable to patronize just any animal park. 

For example, when I first graduated from veterinary school, some local veterinary meetings were held at our local aquarium (the Miami Seaquarium). Nowadays, the only reason I go anywhere near this place is to protest on the highway median in front of it. (Which explains why I nearly choked on my asparagus when a fellow board member offered this awful place as a possibility during our planning session.)

Apart from the site of Lolita’s prison, the other choices included ...

a) Miami’s Jungle Island (home of the Orangutan School™ and Lemur Experience™, among other Wild Animal Adventures™),

b) a locally notorious wild animal “sanctuary” that aspires to much the same thing as Jungle Island but can’t afford to keep the animals confined via anything loftier than chain link, and

c) Lion Country Safari, yet another tourist trap of a Florida destination where aspiration exceeds execution by several orders of magnitude. 

Given those choices, can you blame me for going the more traditional zoo route? Well … perhaps you will … and should.

After the zoo debacle I couldn’t help thinking there had to be a better way. After all, veterinarians have pledged an oath to alleviate animal suffering. Why should we effectively endorse the fuzzy morality of animal parks with the animal-friendly caché our presence connotes? 

Sure, you could argue that zoos do more good than harm. But that only works for some veterinarians at some of these places some of the time. And as I see it, nothing in my vow to protect animal life says anything about the keeping of animals for the greater good of their species, as most zoos and animal parks claim for their higher purpose. (Personally, this utilitarian brain-bending exercise does me no good, morally speaking.)

Further, I’d venture to guess that the emerging wave of newer-vintage veterinarians is more likely to feel the way I do than like veterinarians who choose to attend Disney Animal Kingdom functions with every Orlando-based convention. What’s more, even veterinarians once happy to bask in Lolita’s splash are no longer feeling so comfortable in the wet. After all, Blackfish and The Cove have made their mark even in the veterinary community. We all grow and learn, do we not? 

So why do we still feel as though animal attractions offer the only way to unite us all? Do we not recognize that our presence, both physical and financial, signals to the world that animal parks and events as a whole are an animal-friendly means of entertainment?

My take? I posit our patronage of these places reflects veterinary cultural inertia more than it does anything else. I mean, we veterinary professionals are thoughtful, well-meaning, animal-loving people, plenty of whom don't condone animal keeping in most animal parks. What's more, we don't require the presence of non-human creatures every time we convene, do we?

But even if we do, I’m thinking we should probably hold the next Spring Social at the beach, where plenty of wild animals still frolic freely. Worst case scenario we can all commune at my house where well-domesticated dogs, cats, goats and chickens will assuage our veterinary sensibilities. This option, along with a lush canopy of shade, cheap drinks, and a couple of hoses to keep everyone cool in the event of inclement weather sounds like heaven by comparison with last month's adventures in physical and emotional sunburn. 

What say all you veterinarians and veterinary watchers?