I have a confession: I accidentally broke into the Audubon Zoo while visiting New Orleans.
Well, perhaps breaking in is an exaggeration. I wandered in through the exit without realizing I was bypassing the admission fee.
Sometimes people make honest mistakes in their life. Sometimes they take advantage of loopholes. My situation fell somewhere in between. And I'll tell you why I felt guilty about it. No, I did not feel guilty that I didn't pay. I felt guilty because I had an epiphany: The caged animals in that zoo are a mirror image of the human race.
Allow me to explain.
Why I don't feel bad that I didn't pay
My epiphany came out of some basic feelings I have about animal tourism.
First of all, I don't support most animal tourism.
I am not going to criticize the Audubon Zoo specifically. My visit to the Audubon Zoo was merely a vessel for exploring my discomfort when it comes to most animal tourism worldwide.
There's a lot I could say to criticize animal tourism. I could talk about companies or organizations purchasing illegally trafficked animals. I could discuss the restricting enclosures in which animals are often kept. I could bring up the fact that many animals are warehoused in even harsher conditions after they've become too old or inactive to entertain tourists.
But, at least in the case of zoos, I could also emphasize the good they do. I fully acknowledge zoos' conservation efforts, the rehabilitation organizations they help support, and the many educational programs they provide to children and adults who would otherwise never learn about the diversity of the Earth's flora and fauna.
The Audubon Nature Institute, which includes the Audubon Zoo, is a not for profit organization which emphasizes using animals for entertainment as much as it focuses on environmental conservation and rehabilitation.
So there's good and there's bad. At the end of the day, my decision not to support zoos and some other forms of animal tourism comes down to a basic feeling of discomfort.
As a result of this discomfort, I chose not to ride elephants in Thailand. I chose not to swim with captive dolphins in Florida. And I chose not to pay for my admission fee at the Audubon Zoo when I realized I had entered through the exit.
In general, I prefer not to financially support organizations or companies—whether for profit or not—that exploit animals free will and are tied to an industry that carries a history of poor treatment of animals. Simple as that.
I support humane, authentic animal interactions
On the other hand, I do get a good feeling from seeing animals in their natural or near-natural environments. Thus, I support certain instances of ethical animal tourism.
I support industries that facilitate learning about animals and interacting with animals at the animals' own discretion in sanctuaries or in the wild.
I support businesses that facilitate humane, natural interactions through clearly established rules that emphasize putting the animals' well-being and protection first and foremost.
For these reasons, I did not have mixed emotions about swimming near wild humpback whales in Niue. I felt right about my decision not to feed the monkeys during my walk through the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary in Ubud. I respected the rangers rules about keeping my distance from the bison in Kentucky. I felt confident that my admission fee would continue to support responsible observation of the penguins, koalas, and wallabies in their natural environments at Australia's Philip Island nature parks.
With these activities, I was still able to learn about animals and admire them in-person, authentically, and with minimal impact.
Why I still felt guilty about visiting the zoo
Even though I was not financially supporting the Audubon Zoo, I still felt awful guilt during my visit there.
I was uncomfortable the entire time because, as I was admiring the animals, I was acknowledging that they were caged up. I love animals and feel incredible excitement when I get to see them. But I continued to feel as though I was contributing to the problem merely by being there, walking around the Audubon Zoo.
My feelings constantly came back to the fact that this was a totally unnatural state in which to observe these animals. They were these magnificent creatures, trapped inside these small cages, never to know (or know again) a life in the wild. How dare I admire them as they sit there, not even realizing what they are missing?!
Jono and I stayed at the zoo until closing, so I was able to observe how the animals easily recognized the time of day when their feeder would come to take them inside behind the scenes to give them their daily bread. They were literally going through a regimented daily ritual, clocking in at 9 and out at 5, no longer free agents in an open world of unlimited possibility.
I felt enraged by this. I wanted to break them all out!
That's when I realized—these animals are a projection of the human race. So many humans are exactly these caged animals going through their routines, day in and day out. What irks me about human social norms, clearly irks me about zoo norms.
We think we're doing these animals a favor—ourselves a favor—when we give them/ourselves routines of comfort.
These animals have food, shelter, safety, routine, and minimal pain. What more could you want?
But is living in drone-like comfort really living?
There's so much parallel here between the ethics of our treatment of animals and the ethics of the cages we place on our own lives. It's often so easy to forget that we, too, are animals. You might say we were once "uncivilized," but I say we were free. We were free of the normalizing constraints created later on by modern civilization.
The need to explore my inner animal, my freedom as a creature of this Earth, my ability to suppress the norms that others have imposed, was a big motivator for my long-term travels. Deviating through travel is my way of breaking out of my own socially-created and self-sustained cage.
When I made the decision to travel long-term, I was like a zoo animal giving up the comforts of my cage and my personal feeder to get a glimpse at the wild. The point was to test the limits of my own discomfort no matter how scary or uncomfortable it got. I tested those limits and I finally felt like I was living!
Demolishing cages and opening doors
I learned there's a wild animal inside of me that is a survivor despite years of a pampered, zoo-ified life. I now know I am perfectly capable of dealing with any curveballs thrown my way at any moment or if I choose to step outside my cage.
This confidence allows me the ability to no longer see vertical metal bars surrounding me but revolving doorways or a ladder over them to the outside. I know I can always choose a different path. I can deviate at any time, and, most importantly, I know I will be fine.
The only problem is, I see revolving doors or ladders while so many others do not or do not even know they're an option!
Both animal and human alike, there are far too many beings on this Earth who simply cannot travel outside their cage or do not even realize they can! That, my friends, is what needs to change.
And so that is why I have chosen to settle down for a while and refocus my energy on my work. Simply writing in this blog as I traveled was not enough for me to feel like I was having an impact.
For now, I'm trying to make a difference through the job I took in college administration. My role here is to open up more doors for students in their personal, academic, and professional lives. These doors will provide them with more choices in life, more pathways and opportunities, one of which I hope will be travel.
I am excited to see the results! And I'm excited to see what paths open up to my students and to me!