A zoo is a prison for animals who are guilty of nothing except being animals. Is it unethical to visit the Oregon Zoo?

—Kevin S.

 I'm flattered, Kevin, that you seem to think I can furrow my mighty brow, stroke my long white beard, and dictate a final, authoritative answer to the thorniest ethical questions of the age. I can settle all your moral dilemmas! Just take two of these stone tablets and call me in the morning.

That said, I'm happy to scratch my pointed head and provide my best guess on the subject.

The standard take in zoo ethics is to ask whether the benefits of zoos outweigh the harm they cause. Conveniently in this case, most of the benefits (education, sense of wonder) accrue to the humans who are asking the question, while the harms (deprivation of liberty, frequent accidental death) tend to accrue to the animals.

Still, given that animals are stuck living in a world where humans own most of the guns, slaughterhouses and coal-fired power plants, there's something to be said for indoctrinating our yuppie larvae with fondness for our fellow vertebrates.

A major problem, though, is that the animals everyone wants to see—charismatic megafauna like elephants and polar bears—are precisely the ones worst-suited to captivity. These animals often go sort of bonkers as a result of being cooped up indefinitely.

Here's the deal: If you're the sort who believes we have no right to eat animals, or ride them around, or keep them as pets, then you probably have an ethical obligation to avoid zoos as well.

However, if you're the animals-schmanimals type, maybe you figure zoos are enlightening for our young—and keep the rest of us young at heart! (Warning: Being young at heart will not keep you from being old at face.)

QUESTIONS? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com