During our recent visit to the zoo at Whipsnade, and in spite of my profound reservations on the keeping of wild and wide-ranging animals in captivity, the majority of what we saw was positive. Endangered species and some that are now extinct in the wild are being studied, producing young and contributing to our understanding of their needs in such a way that their reintroduction and the preservation of dwindling gene pools is possible.
I was impressed by the huge enclosures and provision for the animals’ welfare and wellbeing. The sea lions, though, moved me in a different way. They are beautiful creatures and, in repose, seem to possess a serenity unlike any other. In the water, they are incredible and move with a fluidity that matches their environment, yet, no matter how carefully their wellbeing is monitored and tended, an artificial pool is not the ocean.
In many ways, they seem alien to us, flying through the water with the agility of birds and the sinuous grace of creatures accustomed to move through more spatial dimensions than our limited limbs will allow. Yet they are mammals and as such they are our distant kin.
Sea lions are now an endangered species too. Climate change, prolonged hunting, over-fishing and our fishing methods have contributed to their status, as has the impact Man has had upon the seas and coastlines we share with them and other marine mammals. We have used their meat and their skins throughout our history. They have been captured for entertainment and their intellect harnessed by the military. They have even seen active military service in several arenas.
I know that these particular animals provide a chance to educate the young as they ‘perform’ in the daily shows. I understand that the shows challenge them physically and intellectually, contributing a stimulus that would otherwise be lacking in this alien environment. I know too that the presence in the zoo of just a few helps aid the conservation of the many. But, no other species brought home the reality of captivity in quite the same way. The sterility of the pool is not a sea teeming with life, danger and opportunity. It is constricted, constructed and empty and the human presence all too near for the basic instincts of safety and territory. These beautiful creatures call the zoo home and may have been born in these same conditions and waters… but steel and concrete is a very far cry from calling the vast, living ocean your home.
“I had else been perfect,
Whole as the marble, founded as the rock . . .
But now I am cabined, cribbed, confined . . .”