Thursday, June 02, 2016

Dance like a monkey!

Right from when I was a kid, I loved elephants.  And then there is that vague memory of having watched the movie Maya, of which the only thing that I remember is that the plot had something about a white elephant.

As much as I loved those massive but somehow gentle animals, I always, always, felt bad that they were under a mahout's control and that they were not free.

It was also why I have never enjoyed going to zoos.  An animal locked up in a space, away from its natural habitat, bothers me a great deal.  A few years ago, when I was in Washington, DC, for a conference (and to also interview for the journal editor position, which I finally did not get) I walked into the National Zoo.  But, I quickly exited--I could not handle watching the caged big cats.

Which is why when it flashed in my news-feed that a gorilla was shot dead in a zoo after a kid fell into the enclosure, I was less interested in the details of the incident, but was bugged by one question: Why the hell do we have these zoos that cage in the animals?

There is at least one person who knows something about animals who has taken up that very question.  In this essay at the Scientific American, a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology asks,  "Why Was Harambe the Gorilla in a Zoo in the First Place?"
Harambe was in the zoo because he was captive born, and breeding animals who are going to live out the rest of their lives in cages raises numerous issues. However, that is precisely why Harambe was living in the Cincinnati Zoo. Being a zoo-ed animal, Harmabe lost all of his freedoms – the freedoms to make choices about how he was to live, what he would eat, when he would sleep and go to the bathroom, where he would roam, and if he were to become a father. While some might say Harmabe had a “good life” in the zoo, it doesn’t come close to the life he would have had as a wild gorilla, with all its attendant risks. Indeed, one might argue that the animal people were seeing was not really a true western lowland gorilla, surely not an ambassador for his species.
A gorilla was bred in captivity so that we humans will have gorillas to keep in zoos.  How awful!  Why do we have to do this?  Are we not content with photos and videos of gorillas in the mist?  Is the US founded on an idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and a gorilla for every zoo?
For people who want to know more about what was going on in Harmabe’s head and heart, think about your companion dog, for example. How do they respond when someone trespasses into where they feel safe? I like to ask people to use their companion animals to close the empathy gap because people get incredibly upset when a dog is harmed because they see dogs as sentient, feeling beings. So too, was Harambe.
So, would you allow your dog to be put in a zoo? If not, then why Harambe and millions of other individuals who languish behind bars?
Exactly.  This is seriously messed up.
A gorilla's life was traded off because a human child was in danger.
As simple as that.  If the kid had fallen into a cheetah enclosure, we would have killed the cheetah.  We would have killed any animal in the zoo.  Those animals had no choice on whether they wanted to be there in the first place!
Captive breeding by zoos to produce individuals who are going to live out their lives in cages, in the name of entertainment and possibly in the name of education and conservation, raises many challenging questions. Did people who saw Harambe learn anything about what the life of a male western lowland gorilla is really like? ... Did they learn something about these fascinating animals that would help Harambe or his wild relatives?  ... Did people learn something about these gorillas that would help wild relatives?
The answers to those questions range from definitely not to most likely not.  We put those animals in cages because it is entertainment for us.  As simple as that.  An entertainment that says "fuck you" to those animals who deserve much, much better treatment.  We humans are being beastly! :(


Ramesh said...

There are no more "cages" and "bars" in most zoos. There are much better designed enclosures with natural barriers and much more space. But, yes, the animals are not free.

I am conflicted on this one. Yes, I agree we cannot deprive animals of their freedom for our entertainment. But then who are zoos really for. Children. Many children will never see an elephant or giraffe in their lives, but for zoos.

By the same argument, domesticating any animal is not good. Whats the difference between a pet dog and Harambe ?

Mike Hoth said...

Is that why Arnold Schwarzeneggar got charged by an elephant? Do they understand that we are the real beasts?
I can understand both sides of the argument when it comes to the shooting of a gorilla, but without having been there myself I can only make assumption on what I would have done. I've never had to make a choice about shooting a gorilla holding a child.

Sriram Khé said...

The biologist that I quoted and I use "cage" not to refer to the physical old-fashioned cage but to the practice of enclosing the animals in a structure that is not their natural habitat.

So what if children do not get to see a giraffe or an elephant in the real world. There are a gazillion species that you and I have not seen in the real world but of which we have seen photos and videos. Again, to quote from my post, the Constitution does not promise a giraffe for every kid.

Not all animals were/are domesticated. We humans did not, and do not, go about domesticating lions and gorillas in huge numbers for very good reasons. There are animals and there are animals. Keep in mind that the dog is a cultural reference--a pet in the West is easily food in the Southeast part of the world!

Except for that passing comment, I stayed away from whether it was ok or not ok to kill the gorilla in favor of the human. Because, that is not my interest in the post. The fact that gorillas are bred to be in that zoo is the real freaky problem that then yielded the situation with the child.

Anne in Salem said...

I grew up in Cincinnati and have visited the zoo many times, even as an adult. My children have visited the Cincinnati Zoo as well. I can still sing the jingle from the commercial when I was a child.

The Cincinnati Zoo is world-renowned for it's endangered species programs, including the lowland gorillas and Bengal tigers. I do not know whether any Cincinnati Zoo-bred animals are released into the wild, but I know there are zoo programs that release into the wild. There are also programs that care for wounded animals that cannot live on their own any longer. Is that a service to the animal - live longer but in captivity? I don't know.

Relative to seeing real animals versus pictures, I propose it is similar to traveling versus looking at a book. Children and adults do learn about the animals and the ecosystems, and the experience is more complete by seeing and hearing the antics and boredom and feeding and play of a live animal.

Sriram Khé said...

It seems that Anne's comment too contains an idea that somehow we have a right to experience those animals up close and personal ... just because we can't travel to their original habitats (whether or not the animal is endangered) we think it is ok to put those animals in enclosures for an experience that "is more complete by seeing and hearing the antics and boredom and feeding and play of a live animal." We can't get to Rwanda and, therefore, we bring gorillas here. We can't get to the Arctic so we put polar bears in enclosures. We similarly put penguins, lions, elephants, whatever, all because we humans rule over them?
Imagine humans in cages ... oh, wait, Hollywood did that for us in The Planet of the Apes ;)

Sriram Khé said...

I love this commentary by one of my favorite contemporary thinkers:

Most read this past month