Updated: Mar 2
In 1752, Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina, the only female ruler of the Habsburg Monarchy, decided that her love for animals (possibly second only to Catherine the Great’s horse-lust) was too overwhelming to ignore.
But, rather than hail a carriage with her jaw and visit them, the Holy Roman Empress preferred to bring the objects of her desire to Vienna. And so, on the grounds of the glorious Schönbrunn Palace, the imperial menagerie was founded.
In that singular moment of self-congratulatory human glee and metaphoric animal pant-shitting, the modern zoo was born.
And, off we jolly-well went to the far corners of the world, collecting and displaying like bowerbirds. Nowhere were animals safe from the tentacled net of the animal hunter.
Chancers, like Frank Buck, made a name and a fortune by stealing from nature’s overflowing larder. During Buck’s years of live-animal hunting he allegedly nabbed (in huge bags, one assumes) one hundred and twenty Asiatic antelope and deer, one hundred gibbons, ninety pythons, sixty-three leopards, sixty tigers and sixty bears, fifty-two orangutans, forty-nine elephants, forty kangaroos and/or wallabies (he wasn’t sure but they hopped), forty wild goats and sheep, twenty-five giant monitor lizards, twenty hyenas and twenty tapirs, eighteen African antelope, fifteen crocodiles, eleven camels, ten King cobras, nine pygmy water buffalo, five Babirusa wild Asian swine and five Indian rhinoceroses, two giraffes, a pair of Indian bison, more than five-hundred different species of other mammals, and more than one-hundred thousand wild birds.
Animals that were once roaming in peace on the grasslands of the Serengeti, or swinging cheekily from trees deep in the tropical rainforests of the Congo, or bounding across the semi-arid scrub of the endless Simpson Desert, were not doing that anymore. They were sitting, shitting, and near to quitting.
The creation of outdoor enclosures was a semi-thoughtful salve that attempted to alleviate this sad, sedentary, muscle-atrophying existence; confining animals with moats, ditches and fences rather than with concrete and cages.
Safari Parks, like the one at Whipsnade in Bedfordshire, England, often covered thousands of acres and let the animals live in a more natural environment. That is, if they could ignore the buses of screaming children, carloads of Chucks and Debbies filming their most intimate moments, and hordes of fat, juicy people that could not run.
Even then, there were and are terrible negatives to the zoo trade that nothing less than zoo-eradication could solve. For every animal that’s caught in the wild, several more are killed in that same process.
Animals bred in captivity are often surplus to the zoo’s requirements and are sold to traveling circuses, wicked animal merchants, delusional pet owners, or hunting ranches.
Studies, like the one by the San Jose Mercury News, show that around 40% of mammals that leave accredited zoos in the U.S. when they are no longer of use are sold to people and organizations with no official zoo ties. People like William Hampton who, it was discovered, bought wild animals only to slaughter them for the trophy value of their skins, heads, and pelts.
Alternatively (and, not necessarily worse for the animals in the long-run), zoos could follow the lead of Nuremberg Zoo’s deputy director, Helmut Mägdefrau, who said that “... if we cannot find good homes for the animals, we kill them and use them as feed.”
This may be a slightly less horrific way to kick the food-bucket than the one the unfortunate goats at the Badaltearing Safari Park in China have to suffer: they are thrown live to the lions to be torn apart and consumed to amuse snap-happy visitors.
For those that aren’t sold or shredded, even an extended life in captivity is no picnic in the woods. A four-decade Oxford University study found that bears and big cats become particularly confused, perplexed, and depressed when confined; they often engage in wildly neurotic behavior like pacing or circling, swaying or rolling their heads, headbanging their cage to relieve their stress, or voting Republican.
And then, at the end of this hopeless journey of captivity, they die as exiles, dreaming of their return to an ethereal place they vaguely recall or never even knew.
But, it seems not every story has to end this way.
A few years ago, at Longleat Safari Park in England, there was a colony of rhesus macaque monkeys and within that colony, there was a macaque called Hugo.
Hugo was sitting with the gang, watching them scratch each other’s balls for the fourteenth time that day. He had an odd look on his face, more pensive than anything.
A cute Macaque ambled by, gave him that sideways look and rolled her gums.
But, Hugo wasn’t interested; he had bigger ideas. His own ideas. He used his opposable thumbs to climb higher onto one of the four branches in the enclosure, and looked across toward the town of Warminster.
Hugo had heard about the city.
He knew that today Warminster, with a population of around 20,000, is a residential paradise, with a sparkly bypass, listed and protected buildings of local Chilmark and Bath stone and brick from nearby Crockerton, and an old-world charm that reflects the days when Warminster was a busy coaching centre.
And, he liked the sound of that.
He scratched his own balls for a change, and took a long, thoughtful swing on his evolutionary branch.
And then, with a screech of freedom, he was gone. At least for the weekend.