So you ‘ve been abducted and placed in an alien zoo, put on display for other aliens to gawk at. The good news is that you’ll probably get free food; the bad news is they’ll probably try the same tricks on you that our zoos play on Earth animals. Here’s all the ways these zoos will mess with you in the name of animal husbandry.
Your first instinct will be to go for passive resistance — or stunned fear. Either one will deprive the aliens of what they want, which is either an entertaining zoo exhibit or a vibrant healthy animal for conservation purposes. Too bad. One day, they will offer you something you can’t resist and you don’t even know what it is yet. They don’t even know what it is yet. They’ll just find something that works.
Take, for example, the Wildlife Conservation Society, who wanted hair samples from wild cheetahs. This seemed impossible. They couldn’t even find all the wild cheetahs, let alone painlessly grab hair from them. So they decided to make the cats come to them. They put out “hair snares,” brushes that the cheetah would rub against to leave a hair sample, and bated them with various substances. Did meat work? No. Did blood work? No. Did urine work? No. Calvin Klein’s Obsession worked. It worked so well that cheetahs would barely even take a break from rubbing against the snares. Since that day it was known that if you want a big cat to come close, to paw something, to examine something, or to rub against a spot leaving DNA samples, you could use perfume. It wasn’t always Obsession, but some scent would make them nuts. So when you’re in the zoo, just imagine them testing different alien household objects until they stumble upon superheroin, or ultrachocolate, or the coolest ranchiest Doritos ever, or nanomachines that self-assemble into Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Whatever it is, they’ll find it.
The terrifying albino beekeeper brandishing a fake whooping crane head above is one of the carers at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. They want to raise whooping cranes, a beautiful but endangered animal that once had a population of only 16 birds. They don’t want the baby cranes to imprint on humans, because we’re the main reason for the whooper’s incredibly low population. You may have noticed that humans and whooping cranes don’t in any way resemble each other, but that doesn’t mean the humans don’t give it a try. They raise the young birds while wearing whooping crane costumes. This is a technique used at zoos and refuges everywhere. There are all kinds of different surrogates at different facilities. They can range from hand puppets to people in planes (they use gliders to teach birds how to migrate).
If the aliens think you’re young, or you need special guidance in a task, and if they think you’re not a threat, they’ll probably send in a human impersonator. I’d play along. This may be your best chance to get a long look at them.
Image: Tom Lynn, Getty Images.
Zoos try hard to keep animals healthy and engaged in their environment. One of the techniques they use is giving the animals complicated meals, or at least complicated treats. They’ll throw live fish into the ponds in bear enclosures. They’ll hide lion’s food in the crook of a tree. Sometimes groups of wolves will receive a whole carcass that they have to strip bare. They’ll often give animals “treat balls” — hollow, plastic balls filled with whatever the animal likes to eat. For herbivores like camels and horses, the treat balls probably contain apple chunks or bits of carrot, while carnivores will get jerky or chunks of ham. The balls have small holes in them, and as the animal rolls the balls around the exhibit, the treats fall out and the animal can eat them.
This may be a problem for you. The food challenges are meant to keep the animal from getting bored and despondent, but they’re also meant to symbolize a more “natural” eating experience. Your experience will depend on what the aliens think is “natural” to us. It could be anything from trying to catch a rabbit with a spear to tilling the soil and raising turnips. But what if the aliens watch reality TV? If you’re unlucky, you may have to ride a tricycle across a ravine to eat live spider. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a full kitchen in which to prepare duck confit... but afterwards you’re going to have to bake a cake in the shape of a shoe.
Zoos around the world are giving gorillas and orangutans access to computers. It can be as simple as keepers holding touchscreens up to the bars of a cage and letting the apes play simple games or “fingerpaint.” Sometimes it’s a more elaborate set-up. Keepers take a section of bars out of the cage and push a computer screen up to the space. The computer is loaded with special games that test the gorilla’s mental abilities. The gorilla can keep taking these tests for years, in order to give people an idea of how their mental abilities change as they grow and age.
When you’re in the zoo, keep an eye out for alien tech. They might allow you in a virtual reality, or let you teleport to another enclosure, or just see what you’ll do when confronted with one of those tanks in which they kept the precogs in Minority Report.
Bad news. People kill other people. Kind of a lot. This has been well-established as a problem on Earth, but from the point of view of aliens it’s just natural human behavior. Most zoos want to get their animals behaving as naturally as possible. If they see humans as a predatory species, that means they’re going to try to get you to fight something.
And it could be anything. Zoos and conservation parks keep their lions and tigers occupied with all kinds of things. A pumpkin might not interest a tiger, but a pumpkin full of crickets might. A lion may not try to attack a ball, but it will attack a plastic ball if there’s a device that plays bird calls in it. Some even go as far as hanging human dummies from a rope and slathering them with blood or civet smell. The Smithsonian National Zoo attaches a retracting cord to a ball. The tiger leaps on the ball and holds it down, but as it loosens its grip the cord will tug at the ball, the ball will “struggle” free, and the tiger will go after it again.
The good news is zoos don’t want to hurt their animals, so you’re probably not in any danger. The bad news is that they will keep trying things until you engage. So expect a weirdly-shaped thing to follow you around, calling you “bro,” and quoting Borat at you until you take a swing at it.
Tiger Image: Dave Pape.
Ever notice that, in lion enclosures, one male gets thrown in with a lot of females? This is the rough structure of lion groups in the wild, and zoos try to recreate it. There are obvious reasons for this; disrupting the way an animal naturally behaves will lead to in-group fighting and sometimes even death. Over the years, zookeepers learn all kinds of societal quirks about the animals they keep. They’ve learned, for example, that once established, meerkats colonies will be hostile to outsiders, sometimes killing new animals. This means that meerkat populations tend to age and dwindle away until such time as the meerkats can be completely replaced, like the oil in your car. Some populations keep their children around for entire lifetimes, some only for a few months before they start angrily driving the children away.
The point here is, build the kind of social life you’d want to be recreated if you were kept in an alien zoo. (Which is as good a motivational slogan as I can come up with.) If you want your kids around you instead of being shipped off to new zoos, keep ‘em close now. If you want both men and women around, make sure you have male and female friends. The aliens have only you to go on.
American zoos give their animals pumpkins at Halloween, turkeys on Thanksgiving, and put up red, white, and blue scent-drenched paper banners on the Fourth of July. They give their animals Valentine’s Day presents. I have personally made a petting zoo goat an elaborate oat cake on his birthday. The keeper rejected the first version of the cake because it wasn’t pretty enough, so I cut little carrot flowers, and made special “candles” out of apple slices, put the whole thing on a nicer plate, and garnished it with lettuce. I have never made myself such an elaborate cake.
Zoo keepers tend to be sentimental, and there is a practical aspect to this. They want animals to be active and happy with novel items, and during the holidays there are plenty of novel items being sold in stores. Seeing decorations around makes zoo visitors happy, as well. Mostly, though, the keepers devote themselves to caring for these animals and want to share the celebration. Inspect any items they put in your enclosure. If you can see into other enclosures, check to see if their items bear a resemblance to your items. Be patient. Look for patterns. If you ever get out, you’ll be able to bring back observations about alien society that we are never, never going to believe.
There are two ways things can go for you when you’re in a zoo. Either the aliens will dart you full of birth control, or they will try to get you to mate. Either or both of those things may be disagreeable to you, but at least if you get shot full of birth control they’ll pretty much leave you alone. If you don’t want to mate, they’ll go a little crazy. Expect hormone-filled pee to be squirted around your enclosure. You’ll probably find special tunnels and corners built into your enclosure, so you can have “privacy.” (A zoo trying to mate pandas went so far as to turn off the cameras, in case the functioning cameras were making the pandas shy.)
Eventually the aliens will start wondering if you even know how to have sex, which will initiate a new round of craziness. They’ll try to pair you with “experienced” partners who can teach you how to have sex. They’ll show you porn, the way a zoo in China showed pandas panda-porn in order to guide them through the process. And there’s no guarantee that they won’t try to help you out themselves. This isn’t to say that they’ll try to have sex with you, but human keepers have often tried to demonstrate themselves what the animals in their care should do. This can be as simple as stepping over a ramp or as complex as caring for children. One zookeeper, worried about a pregnant gorilla’s ability to care for her baby, had his wife come in and both nurse and care for their newborn child in front of the gorilla exhibit. Now, I’m not saying that the aliens will have sex in front of you, but I’m also not saying they won’t.
Maintaining a breeding population is more complicated than just putting two pandas together. Careless breeding programs have caused a lot of problems, from overpopulation to inbreeding to degradation of distinct subspecies through mating, for example, sumatran tigers with siberian tigers. Today, respectable zoos are overseen by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which runs things called Species Survival Plans. These plans determine which animal can mate with which other animals. To keep the population from inbreeding, animals are moved from zoo to zoo after they’ve had babies with the current population.
This has a good side and a bad side, and then another potential good side. A well-run zoo won’t make “ligers.” They won’t pull stunts like trying to have you mate with a Martian to produce Mearth babies. Unfortunately, you’d best not get attached to your sex partners, because after one or the other of you has produced a cub, you’re getting shipped out to a new group. Then again, if you want to see more of the alien world, or if you want a chance to escape, or even if you just want to change your conditions, all it takes is bonking whoever is in the enclosure with you.
Image: H Kandy.
Kori bustards are the heaviest living species of bird that is still able to fly. They don’t fly well and so, naturally, they’re endangered. A group of bustards are housed in the Smithsonian National Zoo, and zoo officials are happy to announce that they have laid eggs. They’re not so happy with the idea of the bustard keeping the eggs. The enclosure is outside, something could happen to the eggs, and understanding how kori bustards care for their young is important information that’s difficult to get. The scientists replaced the eggs with a telemetric egg, which records how far and how often the bustards turn what they believe to be their offspring. It records interior and exterior temperature data. And every 48 hours it downloads that data to a computer, where scientists take it and use it to care for the real bustard chick.
So if you’re in the zoo, and suddenly you see a baby, be aware that the aliens probably don’t trust you with a real baby — especially after all the erratic behavior you’ve shown. That’s probably a robo-baby. As much as you resent the robo-baby, be nice to it. Somewhere there is probably a real baby, looking up at an alien in a crude human suit, being cared for exactly the way you care for the robo-baby. And with that creepy thought, we leave you to contemplate your captivity.