Apr 082014

animalwelfareOne day last year I met Melanie for Vietnamese. The weather was pleasant, and I needed steps, so I parked at the opposite end of the shopping center and walked the 100 yards or so. On the way I happened to notice a moth on an eave, sitting perfectly still.

And then I noticed that same moth on the way back through, more than an hour later. I began reflecting on how far beyond the meager intellect of an insect the concept of boredom is. Do they think anything but “eat, don’t get eaten, have sex”? Do they even think any of that, or is it all instinctually hard-wired?

An animal’s mental capabilities are a major input into how I feel about how we treat them. I actually first started thinking about our keeping whales and dolphins several years ago, when a captive orca killed trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World in Orlando. Blogged a bit about it then. What I wrote then describes most of why I have a problem with keeping cetaceans, so I’m going to quote a lot of the post here:

It’s highly likely that orcas have considerable intellect.  It’s pretty clear that their play is complex.  Their communication may rise to the level of language, and there is even evidence for reasoning skills.  Moreover, they form tight and stable family units.  I suppose that could be argued away as instinct, but I could as easily argue for a basis for real emotion.

Now I’m not much on a lot of the “animal rights” prattle.  I believe the human race has many legitimate uses for many different animals, and I don’t give them a second thought.  But does that extend to an orca (literally) jumping through hoops?

I’m terribly hazy on that.

I don’t find it far-fetched to consider that a captive orca could be aware of his situation to a much larger degree than nearly any other animal would be.  What if he can remember what it is to swim freely, and realize day after day that he’s still denied it?  What if he can remember friends and family, and contemplate the futility of hoping he’ll see them again?

Couldn’t it be an intelligent creature who accommodates confinement as best it can (and mathematically, that must be pretty well), but is still capable of “snapping”?  This article quotes a marine biologist who says it may well be the end result of chronic neurosis, and honestly, I find that a persuasive notion.

Just last week it was made public in court that Sea World gives its orcas antidepressants and psychoactive drugs. Consider that for a moment. Presumably the animals respond to the drugs, else they wouldn’t be prescribed. If an antidepressant is efficacious for an orca, then doesn’t that strongly suggest significant intellect?

I put the same question to you about the orca that I asked about the elephant last week. If the orca is capable of understanding what’s happening to him, and I believe he is, then how can I look in his eyes and tell him I want him to suffer every day for the rest of his life so I can liberate tourist cash at $30 a head?

To be charitable, perhaps we really didn’t know any better when orca and dolphin shows became a thing. How much knowledge have we built in the past few decades? If we reliably observe destructive and otherwise detrimental behavior in whales and dolphins exclusively in captivity, what should we take away from that?

Do we really need to continue keeping cetaceans for our amusement?

 Posted by at 7:00 am
Apr 012014

animalwelfareThe circus is in town. As I type, it starts tomorrow. I’m pretty sure it’s been 30 years since I’ve been.

The most recent time I can definitely remember attending a circus was in Oxford, sometime after my parents divorced but before Mom and Jenny moved to Florida, which almost certainly puts it in 1983. Mom took us to Circus Vargas on what used to be a vacant lot of red clay, on the south side of Highway 78 right where Coleman Rd. intersects. (Trade Day used to set up there too, remember?)

Other than that, I can remember going a couple of times to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, in either Birmingham or Atlanta. I remember going at least once with my friend Edwin, who walked around perpetually looking up so he could see out from underneath the always-too-long bangs he had.

Mostly, I remember feeling like everyone was having a better time than I was. It was too loud, and it seemed like I was looking in the wrong place maybe a third of the time. It was also at the circus that I cultivated a lifelong loathing of cotton candy. I did like the guys riding the motorcycles around in the small round cage. That was cool.

Given that I was rather ambivalent about them in the first place, I never spent a lot of my adulthood thinking about circuses. Started in earnest about five months ago, I’d say.

Think with me for a moment about circuses that use megafauna, like elephants and big cats. Think about how they operate. New city every week? Something like that? They travel by train. The circus web pages are full of PR these days, making sure you understand just how carefully they look after the animals.

Whatever else is said, there are two unimpeachable facts about the lives of large circus animals:

  • No matter how much they’re “exercised” and “stimulated,” they are still wild animals, accustomed to and instinctually wired for ranges of many square miles, who spend almost all of their time in boxcars and small pens.
  • They do not do tricks to delight you or to please themselves. They do tricks because they are perpetually frightened of what will happen to them if they don’t.

Folks, circuses hurt elephants. Baby elephants are broken, then trained with pain, restraint, and denial to spin in circles and sit on their stools for you.

Ringling Bros. had a real problem when it became illegal to take Asian elephants from the wild. They solved it with a private elephant farm—the Center for Elephant Conservation. Click that link for a video showing you an idyllic vision of pachydermic paradise. Then watch this one:

Watch the video closely. Think about what you see. Even realizing it’s a piece of propaganda with an unabashed point of view, how much of that video are you prepared to call BS on? Hey, guess what? You could throw out 75% of it and I’d still be horrified. How about you?

Want to see these “performers” waiting in the wings? Want to see what happens to them right before they come out to delight you?

That’s too many different people in too many different places hitting elephants with bullhooks to convince me that it’s anything but systemic. These are not isolated incidents, strung together to misrepresent what goes on. This is just the way it is. This is how the concept of “circus elephant” works. Are you all right with that?

Inexplicably, Ringling Bros. takes care to tell you specifically that the Asian elephant is one of the most intelligent animals in the world. Do you think these animals are aware of their plights? Do you think they miss their mothers? I do.

And to me, that makes all of this unconscionable.

This “classic” concept of a traveling circus using megafauna is something we need to send into the sunset. Just as we no longer send traveling shows all over featuring people with birth defects, we need to relegate this vision of the circus to history. We need to say “we know better than this.”

There are many circuses that do not use wild animals. Actually, the aforementioned Circus Vargas is one. Circus Vargas has been without animals since 2010. The contemporary circus, of which perhaps Cirque de Soleil is the most prominent example, is a marvelous concept.

Something I hope to convey throughout this series is the idea that because we are the only species with a truly sophisticated concept of morality, we have a special responsibility to deliver it.

If I can reasonably conclude that a circus elephant understands what’s happening to her, and I believe I can, then how can I look in her eyes and hurt her for my amusement?

 Posted by at 7:45 pm
Mar 252014

I introduced this post series last week. And now I’m going to give you something of an extended introduction for Part I before I go to extended treatments of single topics in Part II next week. As I considered it last week, I became steadily less pleased with what I hadn’t said in my introduction. [...]

 Posted by at 7:57 am
Mar 182014

I read a remarkable opinion piece several months ago that has since had me thinking every day about relationships between human beings and animals. I encourage you to read it at the link in the previous sentence. (Be warned that it will likely make you uncomfortable.) Regular readers may remember the first or second time [...]

 Posted by at 6:54 pm

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