We humans

5 ways to be a better human at the zoo

Oct 29, 2015 /

Your job: Be interesting. Researcher and author Laurel Braitman explains.

Let me be clear: I don’t like zoos. Looking at captive animals depresses me. They often seem a little glazed over, busy pacing in tight figure eights, eating their own poop or using it to fingerpaint the walls of their enclosures. They’re also prone to depression and the development of compulsive behaviors. Because of this, many critics of the captivity industry say that zoos and aquariums are veritable prisons for the animals who live there — and some certainly are.

But others are more like five-star hotels, if a hotel without a checkout desk could still get five stars. I know a few people who’d choose to live this way if they could — ordering all their meals from room service, every need met by a friendly staff member in a crisp uniform.

For me, though, hotel life would be monotonous and stifling. And this is true for many other creatures too. It turns out the biggest stressor of captivity may not be the animals’ constricted range, bullying cagemates or the proximity of loud visitors rapping on the glass or refusing to turn off their camera flashes, but boredom. The thousands of hours between meals with little to do and few choices of who to do it with.

I spent more than seven years researching and writing about the mental health of animals — captive, domestic and wild — for my book Animal Madness, and what I can tell you is this: Even if you don’t want to support the animal display industry, you should still visit a zoo or aquarium every once in a while. Why? Because you have the capacity to be interesting. And that might make the day of someone who’s stuck inside with nothing else to wonder about.

Most humans are really predictable. We go up to the glass and wave, or pull out our phones and take a picture, and then wander off to the next display or the snack bar. But you can stand out from the crowd simply by being less boring. So here are my best tips for being a better, more interesting person at the zoo — not for yourself, but for everyone there. Note — these tricks seem to work best for smart, social and curious creatures like primates, elephants, parrots, penguins, otters, dolphins and whales — but they might work for others too.

1. Wear a costume (or something shiny or just a funny hat).
A docent at the Bronx Zoo in New York is convinced that the gorillas’ favorite day is Halloween, because hundreds of people visit wearing costumes and this seems to bring all the apes to the glass to marvel at the sights. But you don’t have to be in full costume — even a weird hat or a shiny outfit can inspire another animal to come check you out.

2. Bring a baby or a small child.
This is probably the biggest no-fail tip. I’m not sure why so many animals are interested in little kids, but it’s probably because their movements are more surprising and they’re more likely to be playful. Some baby gorillas can play peekaboo, and I’ve had penguins swim along when I run back and forth with toddlers and the birds in interspecies races. Sometimes, of course, the animals are interested simply because a baby looks like a good snack.


3. Slip a harmonica, a kazoo, a bluegrass band or some mariachis into your bag.
It’s incredible how many animals enjoy music. I often bring musicians to play for captive animals — Black Prairie playing for wolves at a sanctuary in Washington State or Grass Widow playing surf rock for a group of Boston zoo gorillas. But you don’t need a full band. Even a harmonica or some respectful percussion might intrigue an animal who otherwise doesn’t get to hear much besides intercom announcements or the din of the public.


4. Act like a circus performer (even a bad one).
The easiest way to be interesting is to be willing to look silly in public. It’s very effective. Turn cartwheels or do headstands in front of animals, juggle brightly colored objects (like citrus fruit), somersault across the floor, take off your shoes slowly in a PG-rated strip tease and wiggle your bare toes (gorillas in particular seem to like this one), or pull things out of your bag, one by one, with a flourish. Any movement outside the norm for visitors is likely to perk up the animals, and if it startles them, it’s not the end of the world. Most of the time they can simply wander away.

5. Hold up picture books or back issues of National Geographic or, if it’s not too loud or annoying, show them videos on your phone.
Many zoos actually keep televisions on hand to play videos for their animals. One mandrill in Boston was thought to enjoy Disney animated features like 101 Dalmatians. In the San Francisco Zoo they wheel a TV in front of the tigers to give them something to watch, and in Germany a group of bonobos has its own flatscreen with dedicated programming that includes a custom bonobo porn channel. I’ve seen parrots enjoy watching documentaries about other parrots. Captive chimpanzees flip through magazines and gaze at the pictures. So feel free to hold something you’re reading or watching up to the glass and see if anyone on the other side shares your taste for cooking shows, glossy fall fashion spreads or, though this might be just too cruel, travel.


The paperback edition of Animal Madness by Laurel Braitman is available now.
Photo by Stocksy.