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.  

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