“Well-mannered predators” and other speciesist notions about animal captivity

Kathleen Stachowski Other Nations

No sooner do we turn the page on the sad story of two wild Montana grizzlies gone psychotic in a Midwestern zoo when along comes more tragedy involving captive wild animals. Yes, wild animals taken from their habitats or born into captivity to live unnatural, diminished lives are tragic cases in their own right. Witness a bear turning endless tight circles in her cement cell (instead of ranging across 100 square wilderness miles) and tell me this isn’t tragic.

But the latest calamities are compounded in that they are also human tragedies–and needless ones but for our speciesist insistence on keeping wild beings captive for our own pleasure and profit.

It’s almost impossible to contemplate the two year old child who fell into the African wild dog exhibit at the Pittsburg zoo. This horrendous incident has prompted all sorts of online chatter–everything from mommy/baby forums (“Poll question: Do you think the African painted dogs should be put down?”) to gun owner forums (“If you’re carrying, open carry or concealed carry, in a zoo…and you see something like this happening…do you draw and fire at the animals to stop the attack?”). Argh. One article alone generated 660+ comments. There’s compassion for the mother as well as condemnation that goes beyond cruel. There’s bravado, there’s anguish. Would-be wildlife experts abound. The dogs have many defenders, as does the zoo. “Sue the zoo,” others advise. And so it goes.

A writer for National Geographic wonders, “Why did the carnivores attack the boy?” Responds an expert from the African Wild Dog Conservancy in Tucson, “Captive-bred animals can behave differently than their wild counterparts, but there is nothing we can say with certainty as it relates to this tragedy. The context in captivity is so different than in the wild.” Meanwhile, zoo apologist Jack Hanna (he’s called something less genteel by PETA) does damage control by making sure we understand the Pittsburgh Zoo’s vital importance to the survival of this particular species (see Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Pittsburgh Zoo to reopen, but dogs off limits”).

But for sheer speciesist self-absorption, my money’s on Q103, “Albany’s #1 Rock Station.”

As sad as this story is I can’t help but to chalk it up to another countless stupid zoo action that undoubtedly will ruin the zoo experience for the rest of us. …Soon the zoo will be a solid concrete wall where you will just have to trust that on the other side is a panda. Instead of saying to your child do “do you see him” you will have to say “can you smell that? That’s panda poo in the air.” Sound enjoyable? We’ll (sic) it’s our future if brilliant people keep getting eaten at zoos!

It’s not about the dead child or the stricken, grieving parents, and it’s sure as hell not about wild animals doomed to live sad, whacked-out lives in captivity. No, it’s about us, the zoo-going public. It’s about our precious zoo experience!

Closer to home, an employee at Animals of Montana (Wildlife visuals with an edge) was mauled to death as he cleaned a brown bear enclosure he’d been in “hundreds of times.” Though the bears are presented as grizzlies, they’re actually Syrian brown bears “purchased from a vendor out of state,” according to the investigating sheriff’s office. One of the two bears–a bear named Griz–was shot and killed when he refused to back away from the victim.

Irony doesn’t get richer than this, taken from the Animals of Montana website (which includes video of the bears performing their tricks):

Griz is full of all sorts of energy! He lives to practice his extensive list of trained behaviors. Our entire trio of Grizzlies will amaze you with their trained skills, yet leave you in AWE over just how well behaved they are! They have starred in several films requiring “attack reenactments”, using our trainers as stuntmen! They all have such different characteristics and personalities, and every day they give us something else to chuckle about!

It’s a sure bet that chuckles are in short supply right now; this morning’s paper brings news that Yosemite, the second bear present at the mauling and brother to Griz, must be destroyed “for the health, safety and welfare of the public and any current or future employee of the facility.” Ordering this destruction is Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks–the same agency that licensed the business as a “roadside menagerie” as defined by the Montana Code Annotated (28). In even more recent developments, Animals of Montana says it will defy the state agency and spare the bear. “I myself personally fully intend to protect this bear with everything I have. They are going to have to arrest me and take me away in chains before they can take the bear,” said the head trainer.

Animals of Montana provides animals for photo shoots and film-making. An hour-long photo shoot with an African lion, a grizzly, or a snow leopard will set you back $500. Black bear, grey wolf, mountain lion? $200. Raccoon, skunk, or mink? $150. For an extra Benjamin you can get “mother and baby interaction.” But if your interest is in film, “At Animals of Montana you won’t need to write around our animals, they will perform to your script.” And they never storm off to their dressing room in a snit!

Animals of Montana refers to its captives as “animal actors” in the same way that other exploiting industries–rodeo and horse racing, for two–refer to their live commodities as “animal athletes.” It has a ring of mutuality to it, like the critters agreed to the terms, signed a contract, maybe even got a nice signing bonus in the deal:

The respect given by both the trainers and the animals is apparent to even the most naïve. The devotion needed to raise healthy, photogenic, well-mannered predators for the entertainment industry is our life long goal. Our animal actors are all treated with love, respect and trained with the utmost kindness and positive methods while keeping their own unique needs in mind.   ~Animals of Montana homepage

“Well-mannered predator”–does that ring as ridiculously false to you as it does to me? (I picture them sitting down to a kill and knowing which fork to use.) One doesn’t respect an animal by bending his wild will to endure zoo confinement, to pose for the camera, to perform stunts, or to mind his friggin’ manners. The idea of tending to “their own unique needs” is wholly incompatible with confinement and amounts to so much obfuscating, feel-good blather. Call it what it is: Profiting off the captivity and enslavement of others.

In two devastating incidents, two humans and one animal (one of the wild dogs was shot) are dead. The common thread in these tragedies is, at the very core, the tragedy of speciesism. But god forbid that our zoo experience should be ruined, or that we can’t have a trained grizzly shill our product, or that our bottom line suffers for lack of that perfect (and perfectly fake) snarling wolf or roaring lion photo. I mean, hey, what about our rights?!?

Meanwhile, routine tragedies play out daily in zoos everywhere (and circuses and fur farms and…) as animals pace and circle and sometimes attack–broken-spirited prisoners in body and mind. Apparently you can take the animal out of the wild, but you can’t take the wild out of the animal…yet another inconvenient truth we refuse to acknowledge.

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