A Kinder Confinement for Apes at the Zoo?

Batu, a female Sumatran orangutan swings from a new trail at the Philadelphia Zoo August 14, 2012. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )

As a free-ranging kind of primate, I’ve always had mixed feelings about zoos. They can raise awareness about endangered species, deforestation and other problems, but many of those caged animals may not be enjoying ideal physical and mental health. Are zoo apes happy and secure or confined, bored and stressed out?

So it was good news that Philadelphia is leading the country in giving zoo animals the chance to roam with an extraordinarily innovative system of overhead trails opening today. My colleague at the Inquirer Sandy Bauers covered this for today’s front page.

"On Thursday, the zoo will unveil a network of trails that will allow many animals, from small lemurs and monkeys to large apes, bears, and cats, to make choices and explore new realms, traveling more freely than once thought possible in captivity.
No other zoo has attempted a similar project of this magnitude, officials say. They feel certain that this will make the animals more physically fit, mentally stimulated, and even happier. And scientific research may even provide proof."

It will be fascinating to see how this plays out. If we continue to destory ape habitat, zoos may soon be the only places where they can survive.

I also have mixed feelings about keeping Mr. Higgs the cat cooped up in an apartment, but there’s not much choice, as I’d never see him again if I let him out in the streets. We’re in an urban zone where he’d risk getting run over, or picking up FIV or feline leukemia virus. He seems happy, but I’ll never know what he’s thinking when he sits on the windowsill and surveys the streets he used to prowl.