Throughout my formative years, I was enamored with animals of every kind and visited zoos on a regular basis; in my mind, despite their use of restrictive cages, zoos played an important role in public education and wildlife conservation. The increasing use of "naturalized enclosures" allayed some of my concerns and I planned to pursue veterinary medicine long before I opted for medical school.
The zoo of my youth was the Cincinnati Zoo, where yesterday's tragedy unfolded; a four-year old boy somehow gained access to the gorilla exhibit and fell into the moat. This caught the attention of a 17 year-old male gorilla who grabbed the child (perhaps with protective rather than hostile intent), forcing staff members to kill him. While the cause of this tragedy is under investigation, inadequate fencing and inattentive parenting both surely played a role.
In a larger sense, this tragic event highlights both the potential risks and ethical dilemmas of caging intelligent creatures (primates, elephants, cetaceans, etc.) for our own entertainment, even if a certain degree of education and research is achieved. The concept of rescuing endangered species for captive breeding and reintroduction to the wild has been unsuccessful in most cases (California condors and black-footed ferrets are two exceptions) and "naturalized exhibits" can never match the freedom and benefits of native habitat. Though tragedies such as occurred yesterday are rare, the greater tragedy of human-imposed captivity has long been a cherished practice in our culture. Perhaps, as human enlightenment progresses, we will come to reject the imprisonment of intelligent animals.