Smile Politely

C-U Has No Zoo. And That Might Be a Good Thing.

Champaign-Urbana, for all of its glory, lacks a couple of things that might help qualify it as a more well rounded and culturally relevant city. Minor League baseball, perhaps, is a missing element. An amusement park to draw in the regional folk for a Saturday afternoon of theme-filled fun is another.

Something notable that’s missing and simply can’t be denied when looking at the cultural make-up of C-U is the absence of a zoo. Oh sure, we have a petting zoo at Prairie Farm at Centennial Park, and you can feed a goat at Curtis Orchard come fall, but those are not zoos. Those are spaces with dirt, .25 cent feed and farm animals.

Both of our neighbors to the west, Bloomington and Decatur, have the distinction of playing host to actual zoos, albeit, small ones with a limited amount of space and animals. Scovill Zoo in Decatur, which is run by the park district, is the larger of the two, housing almost 100 different species of animals. From cheetahs and pygmies to hermit crabs and emus, Scovill Zoo has an impressive scope when you consider that the population of Decatur is fewer than 100,000 strong in the city proper.

In Bloomington, Miller Park Zoo, which is also run by the city, features everything from Red Pandas to Sun Bears to a Sumatran Tiger, of which there are only 50 left in the wild. There are also sea lions and a sea otter with twice-daily feedings for the viewing public.

My feelings on zoos have always been lukewarm since I went on a field trip in my junior year of high school, smoked a bowl and watched in horror as two monkeys in captivity screeched for attention at me. Something about that experience made me feel really sick about watching animals, out of their natural environment, in captivity and on display for humans; we’re also a species of primates — but with a bad reputation for domination and abuse of other animals.

On one hand, it’s apparent that the zookeepers are careful with the animals — gentle to be exact; they love them as if they were their own. That is a good thing in my book — after all — a zookeeper doesn’t apply for this job the way you’d apply to be a short-order cook. This type of work takes training, education and most importantly, a big heart for the conservation and protection of sometimes rare and endangered species of all sorts of animals. Needless to say, it takes a certain type of personality, and I am appreciative of their efforts.

Though on the other hand, standing there watching a rare and beautiful Amur Leopard pace back and forth in a space no bigger than your average living room, with nowhere to run, nowhere to hunt and nowhere to interact with other animals, makes you scratch your head and wonder whether or not this type of place is good for us. There are less than 40 of this type of felids left in the wild. And this one, while cared for well, has no place to behave like an Amur Leopard. Her natural instincts are suppressed in a place like this. And it makes me wonder whether something better can’t be done for her.

I went to Miller Park Zoo with my extended family, and most notably, with my nephew, who is just 18 months and is absolutely in love with all sorts of animals. I tried to be a good uncle and in doing so, I held him up to see the animals above the small crowds of other kids and parents, lost in what I would guess is a similar state of confusion regarding the ethical ramifications of participating in such an event: Is this really all right?

And despite the fact that he wouldn’t, or even couldn’t, understand, I took a private moment with him, as we watched the Sun Bears basking in the sun as they toyed with each other within the confines of their less-than-tight living quarters, to tell him something profound, something that I hope will sink in as time goes on.

“Nephew — listen to me,” I said. “These animals shouldn’t be here. We put them here, it’s our fault, and I am not sure if it’s all right. I wanted to let you know that. I wanted you to know that your Uncle Seth isn’t sure that this place is good for you, me or the animals. But I am glad we’re here together.”

Photos by Justine Bursoni

Related Articles