Not everyone perceives wild animals in the same way. I have had long conversations with people who are amazed at how similar some animals are to people. They seem to feel that how they see a bear, a coyote, or a parrot behave is exactly how you or I might behave in the same circumstances. These people often have tremendous empathy for animals, and often take great pains to explain why animals are really just like people, only wrapped in fur, feathers, or even scales.
On the other end of the spectrum are people who do not view animals as living creatures at all. They may still find animals a curiosity, but they do not seem to think of them as possessing any thoughts or feelings of their own. I suspect these are the people who shout or clap their hands at animals that are not active enough when they come to the zoo, and sometimes take that attitude too far, banging on the glass or tossing things at the animals to make them move.
Personally, my feelings about the non-human animals I have worked with fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Animals are certainly not unthinking and unfeeling automatons, but nor are they humans wrapped in fur or feathers.
I have seen animals behave in ways that very much seem human and sometimes in ways that are far removed from anything we do as humans. I have seen a pair of monkeys holding hands just like any human couple sitting in the park, and I have seen groups of animals ignore or chase off their own children or other group members and never allow them back.
But I don’t think these behaviors make them more human or less human. They do not lose any value because their behavior is not human-like. Each species is unique in its behavior and, I suspect, in how it views the world. The fascinating part to me is that so much of what people experience as life is a common experience for the non-human animals that share the world with us.
And my suspicion is that this is the same thing that motivates most of the people who come to the zoo, whether they watch the mountain lions resting or the sea lions playing. Zoo visitors are making a connection with animals through their shared experiences of living. And almost everyone who visits the zoo has some yearning to make that connection with the other living things on the planet and hopefully recognize that this connection is something worth protecting for the future.
So now when I see those folks throwing food to the ducks, or even those people tapping the glass at the monkey house, I hope they are doing so because they are trying to connect with wildlife, and zoos and aquariums are really the only place where most people have the opportunity to do this.
Scott Silver is the Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Queens Zoo.