Bear cubs are a perennial fixture at Reston Animal Park, as they are at most of the nation's thousand-plus roadside zoos. Taken from their mothers at birth, the bottle-raised cubs are teddy bears come to life, making them a particular favorite of the park's younger visitors. The zebras and llamas and wandering deer are always paid attention by zoogoers, who line up at food-vending machines to buy handfuls of animal chow. But the cute, cuddly bears are the real crowd pleasers. Parents and their transfixed children ring the steel enclosure, hanging on the cubs' every moves. Feeding time is announced over the petting zoo's loudspeakers, bringing even more eager eyes to the rectangular cage. And twice a day a keeper straps the cubs into a harness and parades them before patrons, who surround the bears and press forward in hopes of running a hand across their fur.
But the bears typically grow to seventy or eighty pounds by autumn's end, giving them a less crowd-pleasing, adult-like appearance and making contact with their keepers increasingly risky. As temperatures drop, those animals unable to survive the winter in the Washington, D.C. area are trucked by Reston Animal Park to Florida zoos. The once-vibrant park begins to feel eerily empty, as crowds become sparse and animals looking for handouts have nowhere to turn. Even the bears are shunned, left to stand on their hind legs and beg for attention from the occasional passerby, their front paws scraping the metal bars and their high-pitched moans, which resemble an infant's cries, going unnoticed. And then, suddenly, the bears are unceremoniously removed from exhibit, their departure never announced in advance. On Wednesday the male-female pair of black bears nervously pace their cage. On Thursday the cage is empty.
Few patrons ever asked where the bears had come from, so they rarely inquire about their disposition. Those who do ask where they go are not always given truthful answers. This is the case not only at petting zoos like Reston, but also at the nation's larger, more respected municipal facilities, whose officials would prefer that the public never learns details of the animals' comings and goings. After all, where the dispossessed end up is the dirtiest, best-guarded secret of the nation's zoo community. Disclosure would reveal a sordid truth about the self-appointed stewards of rare and endangered animals: that their actions are in some instances contributing to the decline—rather than preservation—of species. Although zoos claim to offer safe haven for species threatened by poachers, human encroachment, and environmental devastation, they are in fact the very institutions that have fostered a system designed to secretly profit from the animals' exploitation, misery, even death.
At Reston, for example, visitors were told that the petting zoo's bear cubs had come from a Wisconsin zoo and would be returned there at season's end. In truth, the cubs were the property of an exotic-animal dealer who has earned his living, in part, by providing black bears to an individual involved in slaughtering the animals for profit. This horrific commerce has been accomplished only with the tacit cooperation of zoo operators across the country.
Pub date: 06/15/05
Price: $18.00/23.95 Canada
5 1/2 x 8 1/4
8 pp b/w photos
Selling Territory: World