You could hardly wish for a more heartwarming film than We Bought a Zoo. Nice people do nice things, prevail over their difficulties and are rewarded with well-deserved success and emotional salvation. This, apparently, is what happens to zookeepers. But what about their charges?
The furred, feathered and scaly denizens of the film's Rosemoor Wildlife Park are incredibly well cared for. They even get Scarlett Johansson to look after them. Yet, in the real world, the fate of zoo animals is still a cause for disquiet.
We were reminded of that last year when dozens of lions, tigers, bears, monkeys and leopards had to be shot by police after the owner of an Ohio zoo deliberately released them. Following this incident, American animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals demanded (unsuccessfully) that We Bought a Zoo should carry a warning about the responsibilities of zookeepers.
Abuses of captive animals continue to be reported. A study of British zoos found that the space provided for the average mammal was less than a hundredth of what its home range would have been in the wild. There's an underlying question that even the rose-coloured lens through which we're asked to view Rosemoor cannot entirely avoid. Is it really OK to incarcerate animals just so people can gawp at them?
In a world where there's so much else to worry about, this may seem a piffling concern. Once, however, people were kept in zoos, and nobody fussed about that. In Paris in 1877, "ethnological spectacles" featuring Nubian and Inuit exhibits attracted more than a million paying customers. Naked "natives" were still being displayed in cages alongside exotic animals into the 20th century.
This practice fell out of favour because races once considered inferior came to be accorded the same rights as other humans. Today, the bedding down of Darwinism has similarly eroded the hitherto sacrosanct barrier between humans and other species. Hence, the treatment meted out to animals now attracts rigorous scrutiny.
In 1939, to get a shot they wanted, the makers of Jesse James – featuring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda – blindfolded a horse and pushed it off a cliff. It broke its back and had to be destroyed. Today, activists are demanding not only that no animal is harmed in the making of a movie but that all live animal appearances should be replaced by CGI.
Even in Asia, where animal rights have not traditionally been high on the agenda, most people now believe that those who cause animal suffering should be punished by law. Some, particularly the young, refuse to eat meat. Quite a few find wearing fur unacceptable. A minority even oppose experiments intended to save human lives. Not just welfare, but dignity has become an issue. Many circuses have been purged of animals, but zoos somehow remain relatively unchallenged.
This may be partly because they have vigorous backers. Keeping animals in captivity enables us to study them more effectively, say zoologists. Intriguingly, anthropologists eager to avoid the costs of fieldwork were keen supporters of human zoos, while conservationists today want to keep groups of threatened species for reintroduction programmes.
Anyway, such considerations have little bearing on enterprises like the one featured in We Bought a Zoo. Rosemoor is a for-profit leisure business. No scientific work seems to be carried out there. Seven of the 47 species kept are said to be endangered, which means 40 aren't. It's when the office runs out of tickets that success is declared.
It's often argued that such zoos don't just entertain, they also educate. Yet Rosemoor offers little in the way of biological exposition. What it educates its customers to believe, if anything, is that their fellow creatures exist for their diversion. Just as the male gaze is deemed to objectify women, animals become "passive raw material for the active gaze of the human".
In We Bought a Zoo, the inmates' function is entirely instrumental. Their task is to enable Matt Damon's Benjamin and his children to resolve their personal problems. They achieve this by providing the family with a project. It could have been anything.
Just occasionally, some awkwardness is hinted at. When he arrives, new to the game, Ben speaks of "cages". He's quickly slapped down by his staff: they must be called "enclosures". When a grizzly escapes, he's awestruck to see it enjoy freedom. All he can do in response, however, is to increase the size of its enclosure. The animals get talked to nicely, but their opinion is never asked.
If you had to be locked up for the amusement of another species, you couldn't find nicer jailers than Matt and Scarlett. Yet you might still feel the whole thing was a bit of damned cheek.