"Grandfather, do you hate the white man now?" "No, but now I understand them. I no longer believe they are fools or crazy. I know that they do not drive away the buffalo by mistake or accidentally set fire to the prairie with their fire-wagon or rub out Human Beings (The Cheyenne) because of a misunderstanding. No, they want to do these things and they succeed in doing them. They are a powerful people."
So spoke Old Lodge Skins in Thomas Berger's Little Big Man. Most of his people had just been wiped out by the U.S. Cavalry at Sand Creek. I recalled this particular passage from the movie I saw twenty-two years ago. It left a very deep impression—so much wisdom was manifested by this Cheyenne chief.
While the rest of the country is suffering in the possible death throes of the recession, the Pacific Northwest has flourished. As I watched new subdivisions and industrial complexes gobble up countryside, I couldn't help but feel dispirited by the continual loss of natural habitat. Every time another thousand acres are paved, non-human animals are losing their homes. This is occurring with biblical proportions on a global level as well. In India and Africa, exploding numbers of poor farmers compete for land, putting the issue of their diverse animal species more in doubt than ever. Consequently, it has become apparent that the last pathetic hope for the thousands of species extirpated by this ever increasing problem is—zoo confinement.
I never liked zoos; even as a small child the crestfallen countenances of the inhabitants reached my young heart. R.M. Rilke captured the pathos in his Panther:
His gaze from staring through the bars has grown so weary
that it can take in nothing more,
For him it is as though there were a thousand bars
and behind the thousand bars, no world—
The lissome stride of soundless padded pacing,
revolving in a circle almost nil,
is like a dance of power that embraces
a core containing, dazed, a mighty will.
At times, the curtains of the eye lift
without a sound, and a shape enters,
slips thru the tightened silence of the shoulders
reaches the heart, and dies.
Most zoo officials and directors would have us believe that they are somehow involved in conservation efforts and wildlife protection. They assure us that the animals are comfortable and well-fed. However, as with most of Man's endeavors, the impetus for caging wild animals is monetary gain—pure and simple. Evidence of this can be easily found on identification signs on or near specific cages. An example:
Environment: Savannah and open plains.
This information on the cage of lions—in nothing short of ghetto conditions. Rotten food and feces are the only compliments to this magnificent beast's concrete abode. [In astrology, the sign of Leo is symbolized by the lion.] It is not uncommon for zoo "casualties" to serve as meals for their fellow captives. Many zoos serve totally unpalatable synthetic foods rejected by animals until they are starving.
Knowing nothing pleases the simple-minded paying public more than baby animals, zoo officials breed them without constraint. I wonder how the hot dog-toting patrons would react if they knew what eventually becomes of those cute cubs and kittens when they are older and no longer "cute." Unfortunately, too expensive and space-consuming to retain, they are usually sold to "dealers" and research labs. The dealers sell them to the highest bidder. Their lives, if they are lucky, are ended abruptly by brave trophy hunters on "game ranches." Disoriented, they are let out of their cages, with no chance of esape and gunned down by a paying guest. Fees for this manly "thrill" begin at about $4000 and climb upwards. A very rare and endangered species might fetch as much as $15,000. The fate of animals sold to research labs in unspeakable.
It is our
nature, as humans, not to question authority. We accept the misguided idea that
those charged with the care of zoo animals are competent. The reverse is often
the case. One only has to visit a poorly run facility—they are everywhere—to
see evidence of this. I remember being convinced by family members to attend a
zoo in my home state. I put up resistance, but was the only dissenting vote, so
I acquiesced. The conditions were more horrible than I could have imagined. I
recall a male elephant, his feet manacled. He was lolling back and forth, the
picture of misery and despondency. Copious tears coursed down my face as I
witnessed his pain. His tiny enclosure was filthy and totally devoid of
vegetation. A black bear in a similarly inadequate cage had lost most of his
hair and was covered with untreated sores. With no place to hide from the
jeering crowds of onlookers, the bear masturbated in a kind of daze, his eyes
vacant. I could see no more. Quite frankly, after what I had seen that day, I
wanted nothing more than to pull the plug on the whole operation.
To be equitable, there do exist facilities where the animal's health and welfare are a priority. They are to be commended. Unfortunately, they are the anomaly. Most operate for purely mercenary objectives. Management does not have to labor too intensely to pull a major snow-job on the ticket purchasing public. They fail to mention the high mortality rate of creatures that are trapped, drugged and transported for their purposes. Also ignored are the rather obvious shortcomings in the habitat department. They would have us believe that a nocturnal lemur or ringtailed cat is happy in a lighted, glass enclosure, or that a continent-traveling elephant is content in a small, dirty, cement pit. Bears and big cats are housed in slippery concrete or tile-lined floors (easier to clean). Revenue is more often spent making the displays appear more "natural." I doubt the lions and other big cats draw much appreciation from garishly painted jungle scenes or synthetic jungle foliage. Such additions are merely an attempt to hide the grim realities of zoo life. These animals are prostituted to provide amusement for bored adolescents and restless toddlers. Prodigious sums of money are expended for elaborate facades and promotional efforts, with little or no revenue to render their charges' lives more pleasant. Staff are often unenlightened and don't possess a clue as to what constitutes proper animal husbandry. The best life—the lion's portion (pun intentional)—that zoo animals can hope for is one of deprivation of fundamental activities and intolerable monotony and boredom.
What is it about the human animal that he must subjugate everything else that lives? I believe it has a great deal to do with his need to destroy the feminine. After all, no one ever refers to Nature as…He. The Earth is and will always be our Mother. What man does not understand, he seeks to control; what he cannot control, he ultimately destroys. Old Lodge Skins continues:
"Human Beings (The Cheyenne) believe everything is alive, not only man and animals, but also water, earth, stone and also the things from them (white men). That is the way things are. But the white man believes everything is dead, stone, earth, animal and people, even their own people. If things keep trying to live; white man will rub them out…that is the difference."
I think it is time for us to decide whether or not we are human beings. Zoos may indeed by the tentative ark of the future. If so, we must make revolutionary changes. The management must learn to adopt animal practices that are above reproach or be replaced themselves. Consideration must be shown towards the comfort, both mental and physical, of the "stock." Many are troubled to see a dog tethered to a stake in the dirt, but we will pay money to see magnificent wild creatures treated similarly or worse. If zoos are to be endangered species' only chance of survival, then we must treat them with the respect they deserve. No more eating junk foods or any food for that matter in viewing areas; clean and appropriate habitats must be provided for all creatures. If it can't be provided, then I believe we can do without ogling miserable creatures huddled in dank and squalid corners. No more solitary confinement. We treat our hardened criminals, guilty of the most heinous crimes, with far more concern and sympathy than these pathetic creatures who committed no crime, but simply were at the wrong place and time. We must make peace with our fellow beings and a good place to begin is our zoos.
© 1992 and 2018 by Nancy de la Vierra.
All rights reserved.
Beyond The Bars, edited by Virginia McKenna
Living Trophies, by Peter Batten
Be sure to also check out other feature articles written by Nancy De La Vierra.