Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Are Zoos Better than Circuses?

I just finished reading an article in the latest New Yorker.  It concerned Marius, a young giraffe killed, or "culled" several months ago at a Denmark zoo.  Regrettably born a male similar in genetic material to other males in the zoos's collection, at 18 months of age the young giraffe was offered a piece of rye bread by a keeper and upon leaning over to accept it, shot in the head by the zoo's veterinarian. His genes were not needed to keep up a healthy breeding group of giraffes for the zoo's collection

This however, wasn't what caused animal lovers around the world to have a hissy fit.  That was caused by the zoo's scientists dragging the dead animal into a public space and dissecting it in front of several classes of school children.  Later, behind the scenes fortunately, they fed it to the big cats. The whole event was staged to make a splash, the Denmark zoo proclaiming, "we're a scientific institution, not a Disney movie. Sentiment has no place here."

Hold the bus right fucking there.

Zoos and oceanaria like to think of themselves as scientific institutions and not entertainment venues. To a zoo's way of thinking, it provides a public service by displaying, housing, and sometimes intentionally breeding, endangered and rare animals.  Its "good" is twofold.  Part one, so the theory goes, is that by educating the public about animals, patrons/citizens are bound to appreciate them more in the wild, (there is little statistical evidence to support this), and part two, as guardians of endangered species DNA, they are preserving animals destined for extinction in the wild.

"Culling" is an interesting term.  It means killing animals judged surplus.  This act is carried out routinely by Fish and Game officers throughout the world when local wild animal populations are judged too large.  This happens most often with deer.  When big predators are gone natural population control vanishes and the deer invade suburban gardens, causing great discomfort to homeowners, then dying of starvation come winter.  Sometimes, when islands are devoid of natural predators but flush with populations of boars or goats, riflemen are brought in to shoot the surplus from helicopters

But the killing of Marius, the young giraffe, did not take place on an offshore island or even behind the scenes.  It was not something that the Scandinavian zoo sought to hide from the press; indeed, it did not evince any feeling of embarrassment or guilt in ending the life of this animal.  It was business as usual and the zoo took pride, overmuch as it turned out, in its decision to represent the event as a fun lesson for school children.

There had been several offers by other organizations to take the animal, including one of several million dollars from an entertainment executive in Los Angeles.  All offers were rejected.

Yesterday, the news was agog.  After 150 years The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus is being shut down once and for all.  The large animals, elephants particularly, will be relocated to sanctuaries where they will live out their lives in habitats more suited to their roaming nature and social needs.  The movement to stop keeping large, intelligent, "charismatic" animals in captivity has been around for awhile but really got off the blocks with the release in 2013 of the documentary "Blackfish." Blackfish made a compelling case that keeping free ranging orca whales in small cement tanks and requiring them to "dance for their bread" 4 or 5 times a day, is cruel.  People who previously wouldn't have known an anchovy on a pizza from a killer whale, were suddenly up in arms about orcas in captivity.  Sea World in San Diego agreed to end it's Shamu Shows.  The hue and cry went out. Ringling Brothers demise was only a matter of time.

It's interesting to note that roadside circuses are still perfectly legal and can be found in any rural county fair.  It's also a fact that many discarded zoo and circus animals wind up in attractions where people pay large sums of money to shoot them.  So maybe PETA shouldn't be cheering and tossing its babies in the aisle just yet.

But back to Barnum and Bailey.  Clearly, riding in trains and performing under the big top for a living is not a natural way for an elephant to live.  And just as clearly, most circuses at some time have used cruel methods to tame and subdue elephants, but I got to thinking yesterday, having just come off the Marius article, about what I would choose, if push came to shove, were I an elephant tasked with choosing whether to live in a zoo or the Barnum and Bailey Circus.  I think I'd choose the circus.

At least animals in the circus have something to do.  Their lives are varied.  They go from city to city, receive great veterinary care, are constantly learning new things and are, within their admittedly limited world, loved.  Many even seem to enjoy performing.  Having worked with captive animals I can honestly state that the majority of persons I've met who spend their lives ministering to them, to the point of  living along side them in RV's, forsaking family, relationships, and any other "normal" human activity for the sake of their charges, genuinely care for their animals.  As for the tricks or "behaviors" they're trained to do, sophisticated persons may be upset by the perceived degradation of having an elephant sit up and beg like a puppy, but the elephants don't know they're being degraded. All they know is that everybody's excited and happy when the tent goes up and the bright lights go on and that they get a loaf of cinnamon bread chucked into their mouths if they do a particularly good job.  Animals in zoos just pace all day, or sleep, or hide, or masturbate.  Anything to relieve the relentless boredom of their meaningless lives.  In zoos, hunters to not hunt, grazers do not graze, birds have very little room, if any, to fly. One of the Denmark zoo's points was that Marius's birth was due to the fact that they don't neuter or keep their animals on birth control.  They are allowed sex and reproduction.

The Denmark zoos's point in being open about the practice of culling, which whether they'll admit it or not is done by almost all zoos worldwide, is a very Scandinavian pragmatism.  This is how it works, folks.  We are the keepers of the Ark and sometimes it gets too crowded.  These beasts are expensive to house and feed.  You should thank us. Without us, you'd never get to see these animals at all, alive or dead.

Which brings up an important question.  Why should we have the privilege of seeing these marvelous animals at all? Whether discussing circuses or zoos, why is it that we imagine we have the right to stare through bars or slabs of plexiglass at captive wild animals?  Worldwide habitat destruction is the single reason that populations of elephants, giraffes, big cats and countless animal species are disappearing.  Animals need range.  African elephants travel between 19 and 37 miles a day, giraffes dozens of miles.  Big cats like leopards require up to 30 square miles of territory, tigers, 23 to 39 square miles.  There were 7 billion human beings on earth in 2012.  That number has increased by half a billion in the last 5 years.  With 7.5 billion people on planet Earth and at the current rate of exponential human population growth, in 50 years there will be no undisturbed animal habitat anywhere.  The logic is straightforward.  Where humans are, wild animals can't be.  If you put a farm or factory in rangeland formerly used by elephants, the elephants, by definition, become a "menace" and are shot.  Same thing with big cats and giraffes.  In the last 15 years giraffe populations have dropped from 150,000 to 80,000 world wide.  Giraffes are a seriously endangered species; Marius was just a drop in the bucket.  In 50 years it's entirely feasible that giraffes, both African and Indian elephants, tigers, leopards, pandas and hundreds of other less "charismatic" species will be extinct in the wild.  Living examples will exist only in zoos.  If you call that living.

If zoos are in fact, genetic repositories for the DNA of animals destined for extinction, neither Marius's existence nor his death make any sense.  DNA can be preserved in labs without feeding or housing it, indefinately.  The so-called scientific argument propounded by giraffe dissectors and their ilk, that zoos provide a vital function in maintaining genetic diversity, is entirely specious.  Unless human populations drop dramatically-- as the result of a pandemic, natural or human caused disaster-- there will never be places these genetically diverse animal populations can thrive.

So we keep them locked up, and justify ourselves with self-serving arguments so that little kids can press their grubby faces against thick glass windows, laughing at gorillas as they masturbate and the polar bears swimming round and round its pond in circles, its suffering having caused it to go stark raving mad.  In the wild polar bears have evolved over millions of year to range over hundreds of miles.  Climate change not withstanding, we are in the way now.

Zoos are no better than circuses and both have outlived their time.  We are the dominant animal on the planet.  We won.  This is what it looks like.  Those "scientists" who shot Marius?  They'd have done the world a much greater service by shooting or at least neutering themselves.  That would make for a revised human population of seven billion four hundred ninety-nine million nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-eight.

At least that's got things going in the right direction.  

Friday, January 13, 2017

Why “God” is Very Meaningful in my Life.

A kid I know told me a story one day.  When she was 7 years old a horse fell on her and shattered her pelvis.  Rushed to the emergency room a nurse asked, “on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the worst pain you can imagine, what is your level of pain?”  The kid thought for a minute and answered, 1.  She may have been broken like a ceramic doll thrown out a train window but 7 year olds have pretty powerful imaginations.  “I could imagine way worse pain that what I was in,” she said.  “What if the horse had fallen on me and then somebody had set me on fire?  What if someone tore my fingernails out one by one then ran me over with a car?  That would be way more painful.  What if an elephant instead of a horse had fallen on me?”  All those things would have been much more painful than what I was feeling.” 

They triaged her at the bottom of the list and she spent most of the day, un-medicated, on a gurney in the hall.

Seven year olds have incredible imaginations.

This is something that is hard for grownups to remember.  Compared to a kid most grownups hardly have any imagination at all.  Even an artist, someone who spends her entire day in creative activities, does not have anything close to the imagination of a child.  On the one hand this is cool.  Kids have an easy time believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, ghosts and goblins at Halloween. 

On the other hand, not so much.

I was raised in a seriously Roman Catholic household.  We had to go to church every Sunday.  It never made much sense to me.  In those days most of the liturgy was in Latin, which I couldn’t understand, nor could I make out a single word the red-faced and the furious Irish priest blasted at the congregation as if it held collective responsibility for murdering his entire family.  After time, I figured out he was talking about a horrible thing done to one poor guy 2000 years ago, but I couldn’t figure out what it had to do with me.  Even as a kid I could understand basic arithmetic.  Two thousand years was a long time.  I knew I was no saint, but there was no way I could have been responsible for that.

Saturday catechism however, was a whole different story.  Three hours long, the format was the same as regular school with 20 or 30 kids sitting at desks, the teacher in the front of the room talking, occasionally illustrating things on the chalkboard.  But unlike Sunday mass, catechism taught the mechanics of our religion.  It’s where the rubber hit the road.  We were taught to pray every day, to avoid even the occasion of sin.  Sins where things that made God either angry or disappointed.  You could get out from under them by going to confession.

Going to confession was like a “get out of jail free” card, which is why so many gangsters embrace Catholicism.  You can do just about anything but if you make a good confession you’re forgiven.  Of course the tough part is “making a good confession.”  Both gangsters and little kids fall short in this area.  If you keep murdering people and stealing stuff, then at the end of each week recounting your bad deeds in the presence of some poor unsuspecting priest in the hope of walking out with a clean slate, only to start work again in earnest on Monday morning, that’s not a very good confession.  To make a good confession you have to be genuinely sorry for what you did and sincerely resolve not to do it again.

Gangsters aren’t the only ones who have trouble with this.  I remember the day before I was supposed to make my first confession.  A big deal in the Holy Roman Catholic church, it happens at about the age of 7 and that day I was in an absolutely panic.  Not only did the thought of being alone in a dark chamber with a priest on the other side of a screen scare the crap out of me—they were God’s representatives on earth and by definition, terrifying—I couldn’t think of any sins.  I was a pretty good kid.  Yeah, I’d hit my brother a time or two, but only because he’d hit me first.  Okay, maybe I’d stolen a cookie here and there but only because if I didn’t, my siblings would swipe every damn one of them before I even knew they were in the house.  When you have multiple siblings it’s a dog eat dog world.

My sister who’d gone through the thing a year earlier told me, “Just make up stuff.  Say you stole twice, lied 3 times.  You’ll have to say ten Hail Marys and an Our Father and then you can get out of there.”  I was thrilled with this elegant solution, but I was also a fairly serious kid and realized that in following my sister’s advice, I would be lying to a priest thereby compounding whatever sins I was not fessing up to in the first place.  Doing this, I realized, would have severe consequences for my immortal soul.

But in the end I took the easy way out and did as advised.  My penance was 10 Hail Marys and an Our Father.

I was pretty sure I was damned from an early age; and if not damned, destined to spend a long fucking time in Purgatory.

Some religions have Purgatory, others do not.  The Holy Roman Catholic Church definitely does and in those days it was one of 4 places you could go after you died.  The first and most highly prized was of course, Heaven.  Heaven was all clouds and holy songs and whatever you wanted as long as it was consistent with pictures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Also, you got to sit at the right hand of God.  This sounded boring as hell to me— there’s nothing little kids hate more than having to sit still for more than 5 minutes-- but Heaven was certainly the best of the alternatives.  Another was Limbo, which is where unbaptized babies went.  I spent many an hour wondering if there was any way I could become un-baptized and get into Limbo.  Sure, it sounded boring but if they sent little babies there how bad could it be?  They weren’t going to put thumbscrews to little babies, were they?  Limbo was so ill-defined that the Church eventually cancelled it.  

Then came Purgatory.  Purgatory was exactly like Hell, only it didn’t last for all eternity.  Eventually you could work off your unconfessed sins and ascend into Heaven.  It was all a very complicated business because God’s time isn’t like Earth time.  When you’re dead you’re not on Earth anymore; and since there’s no planet going around the Sun regulating the days, months, and years, time spent in Purgatory could be weeks, months, or millions of years.  The good news was you could and would get out at some point.  And it was LOTS better than going to Hell.

Hell was the worst.  Supposedly run by The Devil, but clearly an extension of God’s agenda since He’s all knowing and all powerful, Hell was eternal suffering.  In Hell, you could be thrown into a pit of hot lava, burned to death, re-made whole all over again, the process repeating and this could go on forever.  This was one of the better scenarios.  Demons might peel your skin off strip by strip then throw you into a volcano of hot lava and acid, or you might be chopped up into tiny pieces, reassembled then chopped up all over again and roasted on spits; all of this after having had your eyes gouged out with a hot poker.  (In Hell, obviously, most things have to do with heat.)

These torments, as described by various part-time catechism teachers in astoundingly graphic detail, were all part of teaching little children to walk the straight and narrow.

I’m a big girl now, have been for many years and while I read scholarly books by enlightened Jesuits along with various modernists trying to explain that God is Love, or all-encompassing compassion, He is neither to me.  I’ve come to understand that within myself, the word “God” defines a terrifying and angry entity worse than any Halloween goblin could ever be, with a book full of arbitrary rules penned in almost indecipherable English that I was supposed to memorize and follow under threat of eternal damnation.

I guess this is why I embrace Tibetan Buddhism now.  Buddhism requires no God and of course having no God, it’s not really a religion but a way of life.  When asked about his beliefs once, the Dalai Lama said, “my religion is kindness.”

Kindness I can get with.