Painted Donkeys

The question is: Are fake zebras better than no zebras at all?

In Gaza City, the Marah Land Zoo’s only two zebras died of hunger earlier this year when they were neglected during the Israel-Hamas war. The San Diego Zoo this is not: without the zebras, it’s most popular attraction, the zoo’s only residents are an old tiger, two monkeys, birds, rabbits and cats.

It was just too expensive to replace the zebras, so the keepers decided to have a pair of donkeys painted with black and white patterns instead. The news reports say that children, who have never seen real zebras, are convinced by  the deception, and their parents don’t mind.

This dilemma edges into the Santa Clause Zone, a deception that makes children happy. Santa, however, is a special case. Zoos are scientific institutions, and their mission includes education, not just entertainment. A zoo that fakes its animals has abandoned being a zoo to operate as a carnival. Carnivals can be fun, but they shouldn’t pretend to be something else, especially something with ethical standards.

If the sign on the painted donkey enclosure reads something like, “Donkeys Painted to Resemble African Zebras,” then fine. It’s sad, and it’s cheesy, but it’s at least vaguely educational. If the sign says “Zebras,” however, this is a fraud. Frauds are bad even when children enjoy them. And they tend to become habit-forming for money-strapped institutions. The next attraction display might be Homer Simpson in a panda suit. The “A Fish Called Wanda”  follow-up comedy, starring John Cleese and Kevin Kline, was about a zoo like this.

Fake zebras are worse than no zebras at all.

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