Seal Beach, California. Photo by Jason Goldman.
I’ve grown used to names having no relation to reality, which is partly why I was so surprised to find, as my eyes adjusted to the dim light, so many seals on the sand below me. Before the lumps took shape completely, before my eyes became aware of the motion in the varying degrees of shadow on the sand, my nose registered the smell of sea thing, that terrible stench that is so wonderful at the same time. Immediately I was transported to the Islas Ballestas off the coast of Peru where I had seen seals for the first time in my adult life.
It’s different here. There are no expectant tourists making inane comments as they lean as far as they can over the side of the boat to take photos. It’s been argued that showing humans nature makes them more likely to fight for conservation, but I’ve lived in too many places where such well-intended forays quickly turned into profit-making endeavors that destroyed habitats, and dealt with too many clueless tourists to support such initiatives. On the boat off the coast of the Ballestas, all I heard were shouts of “can we get closer?” and “it stinks!”
Here, it’s different. The people are few. They crowd together holding one another in the cold, only turning to watch the seals from time to time. Whatever their reasons for being here, no one expects the seals to entertain them. The seals for their part seem used to the comings and goings of the bipedal primates on the horseshoe-shaped sidewalk around the little cove. The beauty is impossible to miss.
The seal below me stretches lazily and rolls over on its back, looking up at me. I know nothing of the behavior of seals, but this act of showing me its underbelly suggests a level of comfort I’ve never seen a wild animal exhibit anywhere else. How remarkably different it is from the despondent pacing and circling I see among animals in the zoos.
In a text message conversation with a friend, he tells me zoos only make me sad because I am looking at things like a human being, “Ninety percent of what animals do is for food and shelter,” he says. “At the zoo, they get both, readily and frequently.” I was given all the comforts of the world once to enjoy from the comfort of a gilded cage. How can I look at it any other way? No creature belongs in a cage, with the exception of those that require that cage for preservation from the abuses of our species. But for our entertainment? I do not see how this helps in conservation efforts any more than blockbusters that feature wild animals.
We can do more for our children’s sense of respect and responsibility by having them work at animal shelters and with habitat preservation initiatives in our own cities and towns. We don’t need to put any living creature behind glass, and to state that doing so somehow makes children more likely to join conservation efforts is a point that begs to be proven.