If life's a bitch, go see a Canine Counsellor

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The Independent Culture
THE DEBATE which concluded State of the Ark (BBC 2), a thoughtful series about zoos, was conducted in the Elephant House at London Zoo, a location which rather left zoo defenders with the downhill end of the pitch. One contributor present, an architect who runs an exemplary zoo in California, did concede that it was 'a fine piece of architecture . . . something like a Unitarian chapel'. But the average Unitarian chapel would offer considerably more to an elephant in the way of stimulus. In fact the average underground car-park would offer more, being rather more extensive in size.

The backdrop reminded you, as did the presence on the panel of David Attenborough, that one of the traditional defences of zoos has worn rather thin in recent years. It isn't easy to argue that the melancholy sight of an elephant in a concrete shed is more thrilling or more likely to engender respect for the animal than a well-made television documentary. To watch people in the average British zoo, poking Cheesy Wotsits through the bars and giggling at baboons' bottoms, is not to observe a noble blossoming of environmental wisdom.

A similar point had been made earlier in the evening by Will Travers, who runs an organisation dedicated to closing zoos down. For no particularly good reason 'Noah's Ark 2150', the last film in the series, had decided to treat the audience as 12-year-olds, couching its look into the future as a role-playing computer game; Travers played the part of an on-line advisor and argued - rather convincingly, I thought - that live link-ups, virtual reality and Imax cinema could replace the zoo as instrument of wonder.

You may still need zoos to save species, of course, which is why all over the world they are retitling themselves - there is a miniature history of our attitude to animals contained in the shift from 'menageries', through 'zoos' to 'conservation centres'. But even here the argument isn't very clear cut. 'These are the rivets in the airplane,' said a Cincinnati zoo worker, offering a striking metaphor for animal species facing extinction. 'How many rivets are you prepared to lose before you decide you don't want to fly in the plane?'

We're losing around 10,000 a year at the moment, according to one calculation, and zoos can only save 1,000 at the most. It's arguable that that is better than nothing, a view taken by the woman assembling the Frozen Zoo, a collection of frozen embryos of endangered animals, which could later be delivered by surrogate mothers. Having species on file like this sounds nifty, but it seems to miss the point that wild animals and humans actually live in the same big cage. And if the places the animals belong to disappear then even the most brilliant captive breeding programme will be pointless - as if you were to happily embark on a flight, reassured by the knowledge that the pilot had all the plane's rivets in a box under his seat.

A less elevating examination of the relationship between humans and animals was provided by QED's programme 'Revolting Dogs' (BBC 1). This examined the work of Canine Behaviour Counsellors - dog shrinks, to you and me - and essentially delivered the abject spectacle of human beings being bossed around by their pets. In my view the psychiatrist was occupied at the wrong end of the lead. 'His motions are quite normal, are they?' asked the doctor about one canine thug that had reduced a neighbourhood to misery by constant barking. Probably, I thought: copious, disgusting and everywhere underfoot. The production team, to their eternal shame, thanked the mutts involved in the final credits.

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