Zoos Dehumanise Us
The Mumbai zoo’s latest imports, eight Humboldt Penguins, are here and stirring up quite a controversy. Editor-in-chief, Sanctuary Cub magazine and mother to two young boys, Tara Sahgal writes on the disastrous impacts of ‘unwilding’ our kids, and why she has never taken her sons to see animals at a zoo.
Rennet Stowe / Public Domain
Zoos – spaces where wild animals are held against their will – have been around for a very, very long time. Many ancient civilisations had some version of them. They also had human sacrifice, institutionalised mysogyny and slaves. Admittedly, some parts of the world still have these problems, but in the last couple of hundred years, ‘human rights’ have come a fair way. ‘Animal rights’? In theory yes, but in the actual lives of millions of animals, not so much. Which is strange because scientifically speaking there is absolutely no debate anymore about the fact that people are animals. And as primatological research has shown for years, in many of the areas that we feel make us special – intelligence, sentience, empathy, and even morality – the differences between humans and apes hangs by a thread.
Empathy, in fact, is rife in many mammalian species – anyone who loves a dog can vouch for that. ‘Altruism’ is clearly not an exclusively human – or even exclusively mammalian – behaviour. Elephants mourn their dead. Gorillas each have distinct personalities. Langurs have a strict social code by which they conduct their lives. Dolphins have been reported to have rescued other cetaceans and even humans from drowning. The examples abound. So the fact that we treat non-human animals so very differently from how we treat one another is possibly more a matter of what is convenient, than what is true.
We seem to have a great need to deny that when we look into the eyes of an orangutan, what looks back at us (despite what our gut is telling us), is a person. Because admitting to that would cause the whole house of cards to come crashing down. It’s a pretty well-documented fact that in order to knowingly hurt an innocent you must first dehumanise them. That’s how fascism works. That’s how racism works. That’s how killing people you’ve never met before in your life during a war works. And that’s clearly how our schizophrenic relationship with animals works.
Many of us would never dream of trapping our cat in a box all day, but we think nothing of teaching our children that it’s totally okay to see a tiger rot in a cage or an orca suffer endless misery in a tub. We’d be horrified if someone killed a racehorse for mistakenly trampling a jockey, but if a zoo official shoots dead a 17-year-old western lowland gorilla for approaching a human toddler that fell into his jail cell – everyone cheers. Not to say it wouldn't be the appropriate action under the circumstances, but why do these circumstances exist at all? Why do we still feel the need to trap thinking, feeling creatures in cages to ogle at? We are full of inconsistencies about which kind of animals deserve our love and protection and which kind are disposable things, to be used for entertainment or hard labour, only to be tossed out like an old rag when we’re done. How confusing this must be for our children.
Wired to be monkey see monkey do, our kids follow our example in absolutely everything. Almost all children are born fascinated with animals, delighted by them. They have an inbuilt yearning for nature, curiosity about the natural world and an attraction to animals that most of us busy ourselves with removing from them, fibre by fibre from the day that they are born. Psychologists agree that a penchant for animal cruelty in childhood is a strong sign of a psychopathic bent of mind. I wonder then, what this says about us as a species? About our tolerance of the brutality in factory farms? About what on earth our kids learn at the zoo.
Even though his birth came with all the technology and disconnect from nature as is possible at a modern city hospital, when I gazed into my child’s face for the first time, I felt a blinding dedication to his welfare that I could not take credit for mustering up all on my own. It was pretty clear: I was a mammal. This was my baby. We are primates. But by the time my second child was born a couple of years later, I realised that the whole process of raising humans was an exercise in ‘civilising’ them at a huge cost to their emotional well-being. Of course some of this is necessary. Bonobo mothers would also train their babies to deflect particularly selfish urges in order to get along with the group, for example. But a lot of the ‘unwilding’ that we do in the name of ‘parenting’ is disastrous, not only for our kids, but also (and this is not just my humble opinion) for our species as a whole.
Even a perfunctory googling will reveal reams of well-regarded studies about how ‘nature deficit disorder’ is afflicting us all – not just the kids – resulting in all kinds of emotional and behavioural problems. And anyone can see that the global economy’s anthropocentric views aren't going very well despite what the ads say. If you’re still among those who feel the biocentric view – which places all species on equal footing – is a whole load of bunny huggery, it maybe helpful to keep in mind that Galileo spent most of his life under house arrest for suggesting that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around! Scientifically speaking, we now know we are not the ‘most important’ species in the world, not even close. And we know we can’t go on like this if we are to survive. Yet here we are, stuffing Humboldt Penguins, whose natural habitat is the long coastline of Peru and Chile into a 1,700 square foot chamber in a Mumbai zoo well known for the high mortality rate (12.1 per cent according to some reports) of its inmates.
We know that confinement engenders fear, stress and psychosis. So assuming that your child will learn about wild animals at a zoo or an aquarium is akin to saying they will learn about human behaviour at Guantanamo Bay. It maybe true that zoos have been useful for conservation purposes in the past and that theobservation of captive animals in research facilities have contributed much to our understanding of wild creatures. But that’s cold comfort for the individuals in thesecollections. Perhaps the modern zoo grew out of a fascination for natural history and zoology, which eventually lead to the field of species conservation. But now it’s time to man up and admit it: the animals in modern zoos suffer just as they did in the menageries of ancient Egypt.
I don't think it makes that much of a difference to a lion if it’s in a four by four foot crate or in an acre of fake African bush behind glass. It is trapped, it is stressed, it does not want to be there. So not only is a visit to the zoo – even a fancy one – pointless from an educational perspective, but also, knowing what we know today about the lives of animals, it’s morally indefensible that it exists as an option for family days out at all. There is a real need at this point in history for humans to reconnect to ‘The Source’, to better understand the natural world, to bond more with other species, but no one in their right mind can suggest that a zoo is the right place to do it.
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