In the days shortly after my dad died in July, as you can imagine, things were rough. Thirty-something years of having a constant presence in your life, followed by five months of rapidly declining health, followed by his suddenly being gone… it’s something I still consider impossible on busy mornings when I’m stuck in traffic.

Although, as an ethical vegan, I don’t support zoos or any other exploitation of animals, I took my mother to the county zoo that she and Dad had gone to and enjoyed over the years. (I state this not to excuse myself for going, but to put this visit in context.) Mom & Dad’s favorite place to visit was the prairie dog exhibit – a colony of the furry critters playing and burrowing and tumbling over one another under a glass enclosure for all to see.

I have to be honest – I understand why people willingly visit these places. They like animals (to the extent that they don’t eat certain ones) and zoos have done a great job making themselves look like havens for education and conservation. But as I watched the admittedly adorable prairie dogs that day, I thought back to a road trip I took to South Dakota a few years ago, where I got to watch the free-living prairie dogs in Wind Cave National Park. There was no glass enclosure for them to live inside. They were free to live their lives. As they should be.

South Dakota prairie dog

Free-living prairie dog in Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota. Credit: Daria Zeoli

We proceeded through the zoo, passing exhibits where bald eagles, American bison, and spider monkeys are confined in their cages or enclosures. I thought about the vegan t-shirt I had purposely worn that day, hoping to spread some sort of message to the people who very innocently were spending a “fun day” with the animals. I was no better in my knowing this place was wrong than they were in their not knowing. The quote on the back of the shirt I wore that day is one of Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s that has resonated with me since I first heard it on her podcast:

Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. Just because we always have doesn’t mean we always have to. Once we know better, we should choose better.

The tradition of zoos and aquariums, of animal amusement parks and Thanksgiving dinners, of ritual religious sacrifice and hunting to cull a population of animals, does not make it necessary to continue. We’ve oppressed and enslaved other beings since human history began; it doesn’t mean we have to continue.

As I left the zoo that afternoon, I knew I would never return, just as clearly as I know I will never sit down to a table with a turkey carcass as the centerpiece or or buy a car with leather seats. Answering the question “Why?” with the simple excuse “Tradition” is no longer valid for me. How about you?

Despite their commonly cited benefits, zoos are no home sweet home for the animals. Find out more about the vegan position on zoos.