Should travelers go to zoos?

I LOVE ZOOS. I’ve been going to them since I was a child. They were exotic little pockets of life in the middle of suburbia — I could drive half an hour and suddenly hear monkeys laughing, watch vampire bats swoop down to sip out of a bowl of blood, or smell the dusty, earthy musk from the elephant enclosure.

I wouldn’t have thought to question whether zoos were good or bad. I loved animals. The place to see animals was the zoo. Therefore I loved the zoo. How the animals felt about living in captivity never entered the equation. Nothing ever made me question my love for zoos — the people who hated zoos always struck me as either animal haters or part of the PETA fringe. Zoos were educational, they promoted conservation, and they got kids like me excited about what was living out in the wider world. So I never thought particularly hard about whether zoos were good or bad.


That ended early last year when a child fell into the gorilla enclosure at my local zoo. I’d grown up in Cincinnati, and had been to that enclosure a dozen times. When my family got close, I would worm away from my mom, who had at least two other kids to keep track of and I’d do whatever I could to get a good view of the animals. Just like the kid last year. But he fell in, and then zoo officials shot the gorilla when he became aggressive.

What followed was a viral trainwreck. Ricky Gervais gave his opinion. Then Piers Morgan gave his. Then Donald Trump gave his. Within days, it had become a meme. In an August poll for the Presidential race, Harambe was tied with Jill Stein. Everyone — myself included — wrote a think-piece about it. The zoo was so constantly harassed online that, for a while, they deleted their Twitter account.

Shortly after Harambe was shot, the debate about whether zoos had a place in the 21st century began to flare up. But it got drowned out by the jokes and the memes. The thing is, the Cincinnati Zoo is a really good zoo. It’s one of the oldest in the country, and it was voted the third best in a recent USA Today poll.

If Harambe could happen in a place like Cincinnati, what could be happening in lesser zoos around the world?

Do we need zoos in the 21st century?

Last month, Responsible Travel, a UK-based tour operator, became the first travel company to announce that it would no longer promote trips that would include a visit to any zoos. I’m familiar with Responsible Travel, and they aren’t an up-against-the-wall extremist group, so I hopped on the phone with their marketing manager Sarah Faith to ask her why they’d made the decision.

She tole me that it came on the heels of advocating against dolphin and whale shows at places like SeaWorld. “We’ve always thought that if you’re going to keep animals in captivity, there should be very good reason for it, We were looking at the reasons that zoos commonly use to justify why they put animals in captivity. And where some of them might have been relevant 50 years ago, 90 years ago, 100 years ago, we just don’t think that they’re necessarily justifiable now.”

One of those reasons has traditionally been education. But now with the internet, cable, and truly spectacular nature shows like Planet Earth, zoos are less of a necessity — we can get all of the information much easier, without having to move the animals halfway around the world to strange environments that they are held captive in.

I admitted to Faith that I felt that this argument didn’t hold as strongly with me as it should have. I had heard a lion roar, for instance, thousands of times before the start of an MGM movie, but it was nothing like hearing a lion roar at the Cincinnati Zoo a few years back. The sound was chilling — I could feel a cold weight drop into my stomach, and I suddenly had the urge to crouch down and hide. It was a primal feeling that could never be totally be replicated with a camera and a microphone.

“Yes,” she said, “hearing a lion roar itself, you’re never going to be able to replace that with a TV program. But ultimately, do we have a right, just because we’re people, to hear a lion roar if we’re not somewhere where lions are? Do we have a right to keep that lion in captivity? Or is it better to foster a love of wildlife and nature from a young age by focusing on our own wildlife and nature, you know getting kids out into natural spaces, getting them to love the nature that’s around them?”

It was a fair point. Just because I had a cherished experience does not mean I was owed that experience. And while my initial instinct was to say, “Yeah, well, there’s not much wildlife around Cincinnati, it’s all just deer,” on second consideration, I realized that was wrong. I’d seen vultures and bald eagles while kayaking on a nearby river. Coyotes weren’t unheard of in our area. And there have been many nights that I’ve sat around a fire with my dad in our backyard, listening to owls.

It’s impossible to argue that it’s better to see an animal in captivity rather in its natural habitat. And this sort of trip is beginning to catch on — Faith mentioned to me specifically a program called Watchable Wildlife, which is trying to both bring communities closer in touch with their local wildlife, and is trying to turn local wildlife watching into a viable tourist activity.

Not everyone lives in places with lions and tigers and bears. But that’s not the point, Faith says. “It’s a matter of perspective, really. You can get kids excited about wildlife from a really young age — any kind of wildlife.”

“But don’t zoos do a lot of conservation work?”

The final arguments that Responsible Travel has against zoos is that they aren’t really the bastions of conservation and environmental protection that they make themselves out to be. While zoos often do give money to conservation causes, Responsible Travel CEO Justin Francis writes in a blog post, “this is overstated as a justification. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums encourage their members to commit just 3% of their expenditure to conservation. While a few Zoos fund some good conservation work it’s hard to understand how they can justify claims to be conservation organizations when such minimal funds are committed. In our opinion most are simply commercial organizations which display animals for profit and donate a tiny proportion of expenditure to conservation.”

A similar problem arises for the “zoos breed endangered species” argument — that’s great for the animals that are endangered, but in reality, around 90% of zoo animals are not endangered. So this argument only holds for a small proportion of the animals in zoos.

I am still not totally sold on the anti-zoo argument — my own experience is anecdotal, but it is largely positive, and many of the most passionate advocates for animals that I have known have worked for zoos. And all zoos are not created equal: at their best, they are centers for learning and education. At their worst, they are abusive, cruel and pointless.

But even in the aftermath of the Harambe shooting, I don’t feel totally ready to abandon the Cincinnati Zoo. Faith said that’s fine. “Ultimately, we just want to create debate, a bit like Blackfish did for marine parks. Like zoos, marine parks existed for a long time as institutions that no one really questioned.”

Indeed, there are alternatives out there (many of which are cheaper than zoo visits) which tourists should start to consider as alternatives. And the zoos of the future may have to work a little harder to justify their existence to the world.

A single day walking tour in London

LONDON IS NOT A CITY you can see in a single day. You can’t even see it in a single lifetime. The town is 2000 years old, and all of those centuries are still visible, tucked into the corners of the city. There are old walls from the Roman era, there are castles from the Middle Ages, there are pubs that great men once met in, and there are pieces of shrapnel lodged in brick walls from the Blitz. London is the closest thing Western Civilization has to an eternal city, and you need to resign yourself to one fact right now: You’re not going to get to see all that you want to see.

With that in mind, say you have a day. You’ve got a long layover, or you’re just taking a train in and out of town. You want to see as much of London as possible on foot without burning yourself out. What route should you take through this city, which was built long before city planning was a thing?

I think I’ve figured it out. I did variations on this walk dozens of times while I lived in London. This is the route I took on my first date with my wife. It was the route I took with my parents on their 30th anniversary. You can do about a million variations on it, and you can start at either end, depending on where you want to end up.

Starting point: The Tower of London

The tower of London is, in my opinion, too expensive at £28, but it’s worth seeing once, and it looks cool from the outside. So start off at the Tower Hill Tube station, and either visit the Tower or head straight across Tower Bridge. Get a bag of roasted almonds on the bridge to go with your coffee (or tea, if you’re being a true Londoner).

Once you’re across the bridge on the South Bank, head west. You can visit the HMS Belfast, part of the Imperial War Museum, or you can just stroll along the bank and take in the sights. A couple blocks to the South is the Shard, the tallest building in the city, which has an observation deck. It’s expensive, but if you show up early, it’s cheaper than the London Eye (which is really not worth it).

Lunch and a pint

From there, you can continue across London Bridge and move a few blocks south to Borough Market. It’s the city’s oldest (and arguably its best) market. It’s only open on Sundays in December — the rest of the year it’s Monday through Saturday.

From here, cross Southwark Bridge to Bankside, where you’ll reach Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Most of the plays are in the evening, but you can take a tour at any time. If you’re less about theatre and more about art, the Tate Modern is another two minutes down the walk. The Tate, unlike the Globe, is free, and houses some of the best art on the planet.

Right across from the Tate on the banks of the Thames is the Founder’s Arms. Get lunch or a midday pint here. If St. Paul’s is on your to-do list, you can cross Millennium Bridge here and be in the Cathedral in 5 minutes.

Dinner and a show

You’ll cross over to the North side of the Thames at Golden Jubilee Bridge. Get a pint on the boat/pub Tattershall Castle, with an incredible view of Big Ben. From here, walk up to Trafalgar Square, where you can visit Nelson’s Column, The National Gallery, and The National Portrait Gallery (all free).

From there, you have two choices — you can head down Whitehall and towards the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and Buckingham Palace or (my recommendation) up towards Piccadilly Circus, where you can catch a show after getting some food (and maybe a pint) in Chinatown.

This is nowhere close to the definitive London visit — it doesn’t include Hyde Park, Shoreditch, Brick Lane, the V&A, Abbey Road, or the British Museum, for goodness’s sake. But it is manageable in a day, and it does hit more of the major sights than you could hope to hit on most other walking tours.

The GBR is dying

THE GREAT BARRIER REEF IS one of the natural wonders of the world, and it’s dying. That’s according to scientists, who say the reef is “terminal” thanks to the massive bleaching events that have happened as a result of climate change.

This is an enormous tragedy for the planet — the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most beautiful and biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, and its collapse is mostly the fault of mankind. Huge swaths of the reef are going through what’s known as “bleaching.” In short, bleaching is what happens when coral is put under great stress in its environment, possibly by a rise in temperatures or an increase in pollution. When coral bleaches, it is more likely to die. And if enough coral in a reef dies, much of the other life in the reef goes with it.

Fish collage

Photos by Scott Sporleder

We saw this coming, too — scientists have been warning us about the damage being done to the Great Barrier Reef for years. As the temperature of the ocean rises, as pollution increases, and as ocean acidity gets worse, this will happen in other reefs, too.

An orange fish in turquoise coral

Some types of coral may be hardy enough to survive the mass bleaching, but the remaining reef will be a shadow of its former self. We destroyed in a matter of about a century and a half an ecosystem that took hundreds of thousands of years to develop.

Purple, yellow, and orange striped fish

The impulse, as a traveler, may be to try and visit the Great Barrier Reef before it disappears entirely. But if you want to go, you should educate yourself first. Unfortunately, tourism hasn’t always helped the reef. At times, irresponsible tourism has actively damaged it.

The reef in view below the surface

A view from above the waterline.

First, there’s the physical damage that tourism does to the reef. Snorkelers and divers who have behaved irresponsibly and have touched or even physically damaged parts of the reef have been part of the problem, as have the propellers of boats that have struck the reef while taking tourists out to go diving.

A cuttlefish changing colors

Likewise, some forms of sunscreen contain chemicals that, in small doses, can kill huge swaths of coral. So if you must go, take reef-safe sunscreen.

 Heart ReefWhitsunday Regional, AustraliaWords can not define the feeling of flying over the biggest coral reef in the planet!
September 2016

Tourism has also driven a demand for coastal developments near the reef. This can result in the dumping of chemicals into the sea, which can harm the reefs.

A rainbow over the water

Tourists, of course, are not the only ones to blame. Overfishing has also been a problem. Some rare tropical fish are even caught using a stunning cyanide spray that leaves nasty chemicals in the reef they were taken from.

Bubbles and light rays in blue water

And ironically, movies with a pro-conservationist message like Finding Nemo have driven demand for the reef fish featured in the movie. And this has paradoxically harmed the reef.

A casual turtle

In response to the problems that tourism has caused at the reef, operators in Australia have been becoming more environmentally friendly, and more eco-conscious.

A cod's face with a diver in the background

The real problem, though, is climate change. Reefs are very fragile (and very important) ecosystems, and their collapse is not a good sign for our planet’s future.

A snorkeler swimming near the reef

The collapse of the Great Barrier Reef is truly sad. Travelers can learn a lesson here, though — wherever you go, make sure you’re leaving as little of a footprint on the local environment as possible. We have a great big world to go out and see, but we should leave it better than we found it. If we don’t approach our planet with that mentality, there will be more tragedies like this one.

Songs that remind me of travel

IF I LIKE A SONG, I listen to it 10,000 times. As a result, the songs tend to stick in my head independent of where I first listened to them. But every now and then something clicks and a song and a place become totally inextricable from one another. There’s at least some science behind it — psychologists have found that “the songs we love become woven into a neural tapestry entwined with the people, seasons, and locations throughout our lifespan.”

It’s why a song can almost make you smell barbecue hot dogs, or can make you feel summer warmth on your skin in the dead of winter, or can raise emotions that you haven’t strongly felt in ages. When you travel, it’s inevitable that some of these songs will become inextricable from specific locations, even if there’s no great meaning behind it. This happens to me from time to time, and it’s an immense comfort — in the worst of times, I can listen to a song and be transported somewhere else.

1. Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones — The South China Sea

I was on a ship that was sailing into Ho Chi Minh City. We’d just come out of the Straits of Malacca, where we were told we had to go full-speed “to make us hard for pirates to catch.” It was the dead of night, and the wind was blowing too hard for anyone else to be out on the front deck.

I’d watched every Vietnam movie known to man, so I put on a 70’s playlist and stared out to sea. As we got close to shore, I saw the lights of tiny fishing skiffs drifting dangerously close to the ship. In the pitch black, they sped out of the way, trying not to be swamped by the massive cruise ship barrelling towards the mouth of the Mekong. “Gimme Shelter,” the Stones apocalyptic classic from Let it Bleed came on, and I suddenly felt like I was a part of something far too big and sinister for me to ever fully understand.

2. Goin’ Out West by Tom Waits — Meatliquor, London

In one of the more famous scenes in the movie Fight Club, Brad Pitt walks through a dingy bar to the tune of Tom Waits’ 1992 song “Goin’ Out West.” The song sounds like it’s being played in a warehouse, and Waits sounds, as Patton Oswalt puts it, like he’s been “gargling hot asphalt.” It looks like the type of place you don’t leave without a couple of stab wounds.

There’s a restaurant in a fairly posh part of London called Meatliquor. It serves meat and liquor and not much else. It’s decorated like the inside of an abattoir, with Ralph Steadman-style drawings on the wall, skulls all over the place, and with a soundtrack that consists almost entirely of grungy blues and country. It is the best American dive bar I’ve ever been to, and it’s 2 blocks from Oxford Street. When I walked in the first time, “Goin’ Out West” was playing, and I felt a jolt of electricity shoot down my spine. I had just walked into Fight Club.

3. Green River by Creedence Clearwater Revival — Dale Hollow Lake, Tennessee

Dale Hollow Lake is one of the places that was built by the Tennessee Valley Authority during the Depression — it’s a dammed up river that has filled a valley. As you boat across its murky waters, you are always aware that there are hundreds of homes and abandoned villages flooded a hundred feet beneath the surface.

My dad used to take me and my friends to an island in the middle of the lake where we could drink booze and maybe shoot off guns or fireworks at night, and ski or tube from during the day. He started every trip with Creedence, and now I can’t hear “Green River” without feeling the steamy heat rolling off the Tennessee lake in mid-July.

4. All These Things That I’ve Done by the Killers — the Outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa

The ship was docked in the ritzy part of Cape Town. We’d stumbled back at 2 in the morning, our stomachs full of fishbowls. At 4 a.m., we had to wake up in order to catch a bus to a cage-diving expedition out past the Cape of Good Hope. We were all hungover. Some of us were puking out the windows of the van.

I sat in the back and tried to sleep, earbuds in, when The Killers’ 2004 song came on just as I felt a bit of warmth on my face. I opened my eyes just as the sun had started peaking over the coastal mountains of South Africa. I felt a pit in the bottom of my stomach. And then, over the song, I heard the sound of someone barfing out the window.

5. Jungleland by Bruce Springsteen — I-71, Just out of Cincinnati, Ohio

It was June 18th, 2011, and Clarence Clemons had just died. Clemons was the massive saxophonist who formed the heart of Bruce Springsteen’s heart-stoppin’, pants-droppin’, love-makin’, earth-shakin’ E Street Band, and I’d never heard him live in concert, having only really discovered The Boss a few months earlier.

I was living at home with my parents, and I was miserable. I hated my hometown, and I wanted out. It was the type of youthful discontentment that made me very, very prone to listening to Springsteen music.

I did not know that in just over one year, I would be watching Bruce in Hyde Park, London, with a belly full of Meatliquor, and with the girl I would soon marry on my arm. I did not know that in three years, I would move to Asbury Park, the home of the E Street Band, and I would walk the same streets as Bruce and Clemons (or “the Big Man,” as the Boss called him).

I just felt discontented. So I rolled down the windows of my 1996 Toyota Camry and blasted the sax solo from “Jungleland,” here on the highways I knew so well, and felt that maybe, maybe, there was a future ahead of me.

5 books you should read for Earth Day

TOMORROW IS EARTH DAY. So why not pick up a good book, head outside, and find a nice tree to read under? Here are a few suggestions.

The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock

James Lovelock is the inventor of the Gaia Theory, a scientific framework that sees the earth as a self-regulating system that’s somewhat akin to an actual living being. For a long time, it was dismissed as a hokey, New Age-y theory, but it is slowly becoming more accepted.

His 2006 book about climate change is almost apocalyptically scary. It makes the argument that we may still be able to stop the worst of climate change, but that it will take immediate and decisive action. It’s particularly frightening to read now, 11 years on, and to know that climate change denial is still a major problem. If you need a book to light a fire under your ass, this is it.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

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As a thought experiment in 2005, journalist Alan Weisman asked the question, “What would happen to our civilization if every human being disappeared all at once?” In 2007, he published this book, breaking it down in fascinating detail. Our pets would become feral, our homes would quickly become reclaimed by nature, and our cities would collapse in on our sewer systems. Some of it would happen blindingly fast — some of it would last for eons.

It’s easy to imagine that the world revolves around us. But life on this planet may well outlive humanity. And Weisman’s beautifully written book gives us a glimpse into what that would look like.

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

“Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.” The narrator of Daniel Quinn’s 1992 book Ishmael answers the ad and finds that the teacher is, in fact, a telepathic gorilla. The gorilla takes him on as a student and forces him to answer the question: what if humans aren’t the pinnacle of evolution? What if humans aren’t “above” any other form of life?

What follows is one of the most intensely interesting philosophical books ever written. It will make you reexamine your entire relationship with the natural world, and question the very basis of modern civilization.

Saga of the Swamp Thing by Alan Moore

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Alan Moore’s breakthrough run as the writer of the Swamp Thing horror comic is truly spellbinding. In it, he tackles the problem of good and evil, plant morality, the dangers of industrialization, the fight against the apocalypse, and even the sex lives of swamp creatures. It is exciting and thoughtful and it has this incredible lesson which straight up blew my mind when I read it:

“If you wish to understand evil, you must understand the bank, the roots, the worms of the Earth. Aphid eats leaf. Ladybug eats aphid. Soil absorbs dead ladybug. Plant feeds upon soil… is aphid evil? Is ladybug evil? Is soil evil? Where is evil, in all the wood? … perhaps evil is the humus formed by virtue’s decay and perhaps, perhaps it is from that dark, sinister loam that virtue grows strongest.”

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

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Edward Abbey is the environmentalist movement’s angry uncle. The anarchist and pacifist worked for a couple of years as a National Parks ranger at Arches in Utah. During this time, he wrote his masterpiece, Desert Solitaire, which is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing about the natural world that you will ever read. If, on this Earth Day, all you really want is to get in touch with the world around you, this is the book to pick up.