I'm just about two months into cat motherhood, and the more time that passes, the more I worry that my cat doesn't have a very interesting life.
Sure, he stares out the window and watches the squirrels and mourning doves—and even saw a hummingbird the other day—but he's just inside my studio apartment all the time. He eats, naps, and cuddles with me, but he doesn't show much interest in toys or play.
And I wonder: what's the point of it all?
He may not be philosophical enough to care, but I'm having an existential crisis on his behalf.
Now that I've adopted him, my reason for getting up in the morning can be him, but what does he have to live for?
As much as I rely on his company, he probably has no idea.
But his small feline ancestors chose to hang out with humans, more or less. They weren't forcibly domesticated, and they've managed to escape the trappings of animal husbandry. Their only jobs are providing companionship and cuteness.
There are other, bigger cats—like mountain lions—who've never been officially domesticated as a species and put to work; and yet we humans till insist on collaring them and trying to convince them that we're stronger than they are. Which is totally not true.
At America's Teaching Zoo at Moorpark College, they've got a cougar that's supposedly a "wild" animal; but he walks on a leash, eats special cat food out of a can, and gets brushed while he's paraded in front of an audience to make sure it's a "positive" experience.
Spirit the cougar—as well as their young lion who's still growing his mane—is there to teach students interested in earning an Associates of Science degree in zoological education, who can then teach kids and their families about animals like him at some other zoo or sanctuary.
It seems like a good cause—it's a college program, after all—but when you consider how small the enclosures are, and the fact that these very social animals are taken away from a pride and more or less put into solitary confinement, are they anything more than lab animals to be experimented on?
Sure, the facility doesn't breed the animals, but many of them were donated by some other captive breeding program that no longer had use for them. Along with the ones that were seized from private owners keeping them as pets by the feds, they'd never survive in the wild anyway. They were never born to be wild.
But here, a serval would be lucky to hang out and snuggle with a lynx, with a bobcat next door.
Even the more open enclosure—a kind of arena for play—is pretty small for even just one animal...
...and wouldn't give any of larger size the opportunity to really socialize with others.
The worst part for me wasn't seeing how small the equine corral was...
...but how desperately James the donkey was to play fetch—maybe because he's a third wheel, sharing an enclosure with two brothers.
The sheep get sheared once a year and turned into wooly hats and handbags; but in the meantime, they're just staring out through that fence.
You may not think that animals can feel emotion—only sensations of hunger or instincts of danger—but these poor beasts sure looked sad.
I mean, primates like the ring-tailed lemur are incredibly social, but at America's Teaching Zoo, there just aren't enough of them there to form a "troop" of even six animals. (Their usual troop size is more like 17.)
The most human interaction that the zoo program's animals like Michelle get...
...is when trainers drop a treat into a bucket that she can retrieve via a pulley system.
They say she doesn't get along with people so well anyway, but maybe that's because people are the ones who've locked her in a cage.
A bird like an emu can't fly anyway, so I guess it's a bit less heartbreaking to see one behind bars. But, as I've discovered personally, they do like to chase things (and people).
This fluffy lady has got nobody and nothing to chase, and when she's laying her beautiful, blue eggs, she's shooting blanks.
Their bald eagle, though once wild, was found with an injured left wing by the Alaskan Department of Fish & Game, which brought him here. The big excitement in his enclosure was a half-eaten rat on the ground.
At least the eagle could move freely about his cage. One of his fellow birds of prey, a falcon, was literally chained.
Many of these animals—including birds like their beautiful crane—get let out of their cages on weekends for quick little performances in demonstration shows, which consider them "cast members."
Their trainers have taught them "behaviors," like spreading their wings or bobbing their heads...
...or fluffing all their feathers out.
At least here, cutie pies like the possum can get the star marsupial treatment...
...rather than being seen as garbage-rooting pests.
But one thing is clear: This is not a petting zoo. Learning does not mean touching.
And as soon as the show is over, it's back in the cage you go.
Although many of the animals were sleeping in their enclosures on a warm Sunday afternoon, those who were up and about seemed to be looking out at anyone who passed by, their eyes begging...
..."Let me out of here."
Photo Essay: An Orphanage for Contraband Pets