Let VR make zoos obsolete

Like many people online, I was distressed and angered by news of Harambe the western lowland gorilla who was shot dead at the Cincinnati Zoo just one day after his 17th birthday, for the actions of a neglectful parent who allowed her four-year-old toddler to slip through the barrier and fall into the enclosure. Michelle Gregg, the parent, has been defiant and unapologetic in a Facebook post, calling it an accident. All the online hate she has received is not going to change her mind, but perhaps we can direct that hate towards a positive outcome.

Let’s question this: why do we need zoos? If we are trying to preserve near-extinct species, might we not direct our money and efforts towards combating the actual causes of extinction, such as over-fishing, hunting, poachers, and unscientific traditional Chinese medicine remedies, to name a few? If we want economic ways for children (and adults) to observe animals in the flesh, there are new technologies today that are just as good.

How close can you get to a predator in a zoo anyway? 20 feet? 10 feet? Is that worth them being locked up in a cage or enclosure for years? Animals’ stress in confinement conditions is a well documented phenomenon. We know we are doing these animals harm. Yet we do it anyway because “every city deserves a zoo.”

Perhaps it’s time to call for an end to public zoos. We call Josef Fritzl (the man who imprisoned his daughter in a cell for 24 years) and his ilk monsters, yet we routinely imprison animals for their entire lifetimes in the name of science, companionship, or “education” for children. Perhaps letting a child experience a gorilla up close through VR goggles instead of from 20 feet away in a zoo, is a small price to pay to spare an animal years of misery and stress?

If you haven’t already, get yourself and your child a VR headset (the cheapest is Google Cardboard), and see the potential of the technology. I’ve swam with dolphins and penguins, stood within 5 feet of a lion, and soared next to an eagle.

What zoo can match that?