The Navajo Nation Zoological and Botanical Park is the only zoo I have visited that did not sadden me. Located in Window Rock, Arizona, the capital of the Navajo Nation, the zoo is dedicated to conserving and restoring native plants and animals, caring for injured and orphaned animals, and educating visitors about the cultural significance of certain animals and plants to the Navajo. It is the only zoo in the United States owned and operated by Native Americans.

Elk enclosure at Navajo Nation Zoo, with hogan on the right, 2013

From its beginnings in the early 1960s as a home for an orphaned bear, the zoo has grown to house more than 100 animals (more than 50 species). When my husband and I visited in 2013, the zoo itself took up 9 acres. It was a fairly weedy place, but staff had landscaped some areas into xeriscapes with native plants.

Xeriscape at Navajo Nation Zoo, 2013

Perhaps the injuries suffered by the great horned owl below will make you sad. But I’m happy that someone is caring for it, since its wing was undoubtedly injured during a collision with a manmade object such as a car or wire. This owl was one of two in a brick enclosure; inside, a tree propped against a branch allowed the birds to walk up the pole to reach a perch.

Great horned owl at Navajo Nation zoo, with injured wing, on perch in enclosure, 2013

I know that many animals in zoos are bred in captivity. I know that zoos do a lot of good work for conservation, including breeding animals that may someday be reintroduced to the wild, thus helping to restore ecosystems. But zoos still imprison animals so that we can see them, and no matter how perfectly an enclosure mimics the animal’s habitat, it remains a cage.

Bobcat at Navajo Nation Zoo with blue ball, 2013

I look forward to the day when zoos no longer house animals from elsewhere but instead teach us to appreciate the animals and plants around us. To be perfectly honest, I would be happy if there was no need for the current type of zoo at all. Until then, I think zoos nationwide should work toward the Navajo Nation model.

Todd and I visited this zoo during our trip to see the Navajo version of Star Wars.

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