Animals provide a mirror to ourselves and our society. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
Unfortunately, Las Vegas sometimes looks pretty awful in this regard. Some of the cruelty to animals happens behind closed doors and gated backyards, but a shocking amount is out in public. One of the worst examples of that treatment has been the Las Vegas Zoological-Botanical Park, better known as the Las Vegas zoo.
Clearly, the people and companies, among them Walmart, that supported the zoo with donations of time and money loved animals. Pat Dingle, the retired police detective who owned and managed the nonprofit zoo, kept it going on a wing and a prayer for more than 30 years. He clearly loved the animals, too.
As we now know, love is not a substitute for responsible animal management. The best zoos in the country are run not to benefit people - although people surely benefit from seeing and learning about animals in realistic habitats - but to help preserve and protect the species in the real world. Keeping wild animals for entertainment purposes is dangerous to both the animals and the people who deliberately or accidentally interact with them.
It wasn’t that long ago that vacationing families could park their overloaded station wagons and watch bears, baited and tortured, their claws and teeth ripped out of their bodies, dancing for the entertainment of clueless crowds. What fun.
The Las Vegas zoo tried to rise above the level of a roadside “zoo.” We’re a lot smarter than we were decades ago. I’d like to think we’re more humane, too. But we had every reason to suspect that something was wrong, seriously wrong, at the zoo.
“There’s just an overwhelming feeling of oppression and sadness at this place,” a Human Society employee told KTNV-TV Channel 13 back in 2011.
In February 2012, the Humane Society and then the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration found serious problems with the zoo, particularly in the housing for Barbary “apes” (actually macaques) and reptiles. One female macaque named Sayda was kept isolated from other macaques; social animals often depend on interaction with others of their species. Without that interaction, they can become profoundly depressed or psychologically disturbed. They can go mad.
People like animals. Baby lions, tigers and other big cats are so darned cute that they’re almost irresistible for animal lovers. But loving animals without shouldering responsibility leads to tragedy. Everyone’s heard of horror stories in which a nice person starts taking in and feeding strays, cat or dogs or birds or whatever, and eventually there are hundreds of sick, dying or dead animals crammed in a filthy house.
Lisa Wathne, Human Society of the United States captive exotic animals specialist, told us that she’s been aware of profound problems at the zoo for at least five years. She noted that the Nevada Legislature last year killed a bill that would prohibit private ownership of dangerous, exotic animals. According to Wathne, Nevada is one of only six states without such a law.
The law wouldn’t have affected the animals already at the zoo, but it would have prevented Dingle from getting more animals. And it would make sure that any other zoo or exhibit is managed carefully, with a priority on the health of the animals.
Sometimes we love animals too much, and we make excuses for behavior that is inexcusable. In September, under pressure from federal regulators, the Las Vegas zoo closed. Several hundred animals have been relocated, we hope to better, safer refuges. We need to ensure as a community that anything replacing the zoo is responsibly, safely managed. Anything else would be inhumane - not that we’re strangers to inhumanity. As Friedrich Nietzsche noted, and we constantly prove, “Man is the cruelest animal.”