According to one pundit, a zoo is an excellent place to study the habits of human beings.
If that is so, then what it reveals is not very flattering, says Dale Jamieson, a philosopher at the University of Colorado's Center for the Study of Values and Human Policy. He recently elaborated on this theme in a paper titled, ''Reflections on Captive Animals: Zoos as Emblems of Depersonalization.''
The thesis of this work is that ''most zoos ought to be abolished; not just because they demean animals, but also because they demean humans.''
''In many ways I would tend to agree . . . if it were not for the new awareness which has swept 'zoodom' in the last 5 to 10 years,'' says Robert O. Wagner, executive director of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA). Zoos aren't run as they were 20 years ago. In 1982, United States and Canadian zoos and aquariums are spending $130 million for more natural habitat. Instead of presenting solitary animals in sterile surroundings, zoos collect animals in breeding colonies.
In recent years, radical animal lovers have been arguing that animals should have rights equivalent to those of people. The basic text for this group is the 1975 book ''Animal Liberation'' by Peter Singer. He argues that, just as whites and men have had to acknowledge that blacks and women have rights, humans must give other species equal moral consideration. However, Mr. Jamieson takes a different tack.
Instead of arguing that animals have a fundamental right to the same consideration as do other people, which would preclude confining them in zoos and aquariums, Jamieson reasons that the depersonalization of animals, so forcefully symbolized by the institution of zoos, has led to a system of slavery which is detrimental to people as well as animals.
To begin with he establishes the fact that zoos are a reflection of a process of alienation between man and animal which began with the Enlightenment and which has accelerated with the Industrial Revolution. For most of human history, animals ''have been viewed as persons . . . ,'' and, as such, were respected members of man's moral community.
Although such well-known thinkers as Aristotle and David Hume found it natural to assume that animals feel, think, and even have beliefs, this view began to change in the 17th century. Philosophers of this period, with their conviction that the universe, excepting man, was a giant clockwork, conceived of animals as unfeeling, organic machines. This was handy because it allowed scientists to dissect and experiment on animals without compunction. Today ''textbooks constantly warn us against the elementary error of ascribing human properties to animals,'' Jamieson points out.
While it was the Enlightenment that depersonalized the animal, it was the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century which ultimately reduced the animal to the role of curiosity, pet, and renewable resource. ''Most children first encounter an animal between two slices of bread. As they develop . . . they begin to experience animals in their natural state: wrapped in plastic,'' Jamieson jibes.
Mr. Wagner says zoos can help instill in humans a reverence for animals. A zoo's inmates become ''ambassadors for their kind still in the wild'' the zoo spokesman argues. Almost all zoos today have an education staff and programs depicting the plights of various species in the wild, he says.
According to a study by Stephen Kellert of Yale University, most Americans' exposure to animals is restricted to pet ownership, watching TV, and visiting zoos. Each year 125 million North Americans visit zoological par-oOe than attend all professional sporting events, reports the AAZPA.
The world's best zoos educate people about the nature of other species, foster scientific research, and help preserve endangered animal species, Jamieson acknowledges.
''No doubt viewing captive animals is educational, but what does it teach us?'' he asks. ''It teaches us a false sense of our place in the natural order. It produces people who believe that they can live successfully in a human community and a human world, appropriating animals only to satisfy their needs if they bother with them at all, and who are willing to banish the rest of nature should she dare intrude.''
Essentially, he sees the captivity and depersonalization of animals as a reflection of the arrogant attitude toward the natural world which he says lies at the root of the environmental problems which bedevil industrialized nations.
Thus, ''the abolition of zoos would be a small but hopeful beginning toward reestablishing our kinship with other animals and nature,'' Jamieson concludes.