Captive for a cause

A zookeeper at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park feeds an alligator during one of the park’s daily shows.

By Barbaraliz Ortiz |

There is something uncanny about staring into the eyes of a 15-foot, 1,200-pound beast – which is what some perceive him to be – knowing that behind his fenced enclosure, he is powerless to hurt you. Such is the sentiment  many feel when they experience Maximo for the very first time at St. Augustine’s Alligator Farm; such is the sentiment I too, felt.

I walked through the park with a heavy heart, pondering whether the moral conundrum I was experiencing was something perhaps others around me felt as well. With every step I took at the park, it became clear to me that these magnificent creatures are more than just an exhibit, and that they remain trapped behind the walls of the Alligator Farm because of how we as a human race have dealt with our earthly cohabitants.

Symbolic ambassadors for each of their species, these animals remain trapped for their protection, as some won’t survive future extinction events. In the wild they are hunted for sport, their habitats ripped apart often for trivial purposes. But behind the walls of their enclosures, someone can form an emotional connection which, hopefully, will inspire them to contribute to the protection of the diverse species currently found on earth.

Quickly I came to the conclusion that their captivity is a necessary evil. While they are wild animals, which deserve to be free, they also deserve a chance to live.

Under the care of the keepers at the Alligator Farm, many of these animals will stand a chance to survive. Sophisticated breeding programs allow the possibility that perhaps one day, some of these species might be reintroduced to the wild.

Of course this doesn’t eliminate the morbid truth that these animals are essentially prisoners. But at the very least, it seems sound to infer that the institutions and individuals caring for the animals are, for the most part, not keeping the animals captive due to malicious intent. Though there are undoubtedly some that are interested only in profits, there is a large portion of zookeepers who get paid the very minimum to keep these animals alive and in good health.

Perhaps the more concerning part regarding the well-being of captive animals comes in the form of the wildest resident at these zoos: the human visitors. Constant glass tapping, camera flashing and shouting to provoke the animals into reacting are more disturbing than merely keeping them in captivity for protection.

So despite immediately blaming organizations as a whole for the stress these animals incur, it is important to acknowledge that perhaps it’s the park’s visitors who need to evaluate their actions and behave with compassion.

Additionally, those who uncompromisingly negate that zoos such as the Alligator Farm help conservation efforts are as much a part of the problem as the people criticized for their unrestrained behavior at zoos. Notwithstanding that their intentions come from a place of great compassion, to deny that zoos benefit conservation of animals in the wild is a grossly inaccurate representation of the way in which many institutions benefit a great number of species.

It is of paramount importance to remember that as these animals continue to be trapped, their presence in these institutions will one day act as a benefit. Even if it might only be a university student like myself staring into the eyes of a “beast” through the fence, feeling great sympathy for the trapped animal, it is the beginning of a greater understanding that these incredible creatures are to be admired, protected and offered a chance to survive.

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