BUENOS AIRES — The world has spent the past week debating the case of a gorilla that was shot at the Cincinnati Zoo after a toddler fell into its enclosure. But over the last year, there has already been plenty of noise about the treatment of animals at zoos in Argentina. A spate of reports about the state of animals kept at the Buenos Aires zoo included the deaths of a baby giraffe, two sea lions and a Patagonian mara, as well as case of a local court ordering the release of an orangutan named Sandra. There was also the very human spectacle of a labor dispute with zoo employees.

City legislators from different parties have visited the zoo in recent months and put forward proposals to change the way it is run. But all of this raises deeper questions about the very nature of the modern zoo.

Pretty or dirty?

Local residents have undertaken symbolic acts of support for SinZoo, an NGO that seeks to end captivity in zoos. The city parliament has proposed two bills on the zoo's scheduled and progressive closure and conversion into an ecological garden devoted to education and the recovery of captive animals, given the fact that Buenos Aires is a big center for animal trafficking.

Lunch in Buenos Aires — Photo: Eliza Curtis

Lately, more bad news has come from Mendoza Zoo, sadly known for the suffering that heat waves inflict every summer on its polar bear, Arturo. There is an unending list of premature deaths here (more than 70 animals have died in the past five months): pumas, deer, parrots, a black panther and rheas. The causes include overcrowding, poisoning and lack of heating. The governor of Mendoza has said he will take action, and has not ruled out the zoo's closure.

What do we expect places like the Buenos Aires or Mendoza zoos to teach us about animals today? A recent study carried out in New York revealed that zoo guides were frustrated by the public's indifference to their educational efforts. They see the average visitor drifting fast through the cages and stopping to see certain baby animals or more exotic species. People seem to describe animals as simply either "pretty" or "dirty."

We should consider the effects on children of visiting a place where they are shown the confinement, loneliness, enslavement, stress and pain of other living creatures, as if this were worthwhile in some way. Where is the justification for so much suffering just to make money — which is what zoos these days are designed to do? Every time we buy an entry ticket, we are an accomplice of this suffering.