It's summertime in Tucson, and while I love it here the dry heat shrivels the patience, and the shoreline sings its siren song. My family and I go San Diego as often as we can. It's a day's drive for an entirely different world from the desert. Years ago, though we'd just seen Blackfish and skipped Sea World, we took our daughter to the San Diego Zoo. It's enormous, it's beautiful, it's rightfully world famous for its presentation, and it's still captivity.
What got me was the Silverback gorilla behind the plexiglass. While technically safer in a plastic box than at home with poachers sizing him up, I felt for him. He was meant to be a monarch. He had the build but displayed a strained face with tired eyes. How did he get here? Does he suffer in this endless performance? Why do we do this to our neighbors?
It's too easy to dismiss animals as less than we are. Here's another creature capable of language and I had no idea how to reach the Silverback's mind. I felt compelled to put my palm against the glass, to meet those eyes and in some way apologize for the absurdity of it all. So we don't go there now. The best zoo in the world, with the best keepers and enclosures, is still a hostage situation.
That may rattle you, and I understand why. I loved the zoo as a kid, and it remains the only way to see the animals we've mostly pushed off the world. The topic of conservation is too nuanced for a layman like myself to make a call on where to draw the line between salvation and show business. The spectacle is undeniably magnetic, for we all yearn for connection with the web of life. Intention aside, there is such an apparent disconnect in our behavior.
People know in some distant way that zoos are full of slaves. We won't leave a dog in a car, but a polar bear in a swimming pool is judged acceptable. Thousands of human beings with loving hearts and functioning minds somehow spend all day admiring animals and stop to eat a few on the way out without a second thought. The way we treat animals is just one of those enormous problems we pretend isn't happening. We've turned the elephant in the room into tacky end tables and scrimshawed ivory knick-knacks.
Sanctuaries, on the other hand, represent a different road for disenfranchised animals, and we were thrilled to discover one not far from San Diego in Alpine. Lions, Tigers, and Bears is an excellent operation that aims to provide a haven for big cats and others rescued from the horrors of the exotic animal trade. We got an eye-opening education about cut-rate breeding farms in squalid trailer parks, rich kids abandoning their pets (like the old alligator myths but real and shocking), and sickening practices like fur and "predator urine" farms. The reality was not sugar coated.
What we saw, by contrast, were not haggard, suffering beasts lumbering through concrete mirages. These cats and bears are healthy, happy and simply loved. Our guide hand-fed each one with a long tool that kept both parties secure. Not a one was without shelter, shade, and above all, room to roam. Their stories all had happy endings because of the tireless work of the site's proprietor and her dedicated staff. The tour ran long for the parents of toddlers, but the experience was worth every penny once we saw exactly where the money was going.
Lions, Tigers, and Bears have stated their mission as follows:
"Lions Tigers & Bears is dedicated to providing a safe haven to abused and abandoned exotic animals while inspiring an educational forum to end the exotic animal trade."
They deliver this and more. I heartily recommend and encourage anyone interested in the welfare of animals and the witnessing of redemption for these long-suffering animals who deserve our compassion and stewardship to visit this sanctuary. For more information, visit their website: https://lionstigersandbears.org/
I am excited to announce that the proprietor of this fine establishment will be my next podcast interview. Details soon.