We Need To Rethink Our Relationship With Animals – Starting With Zoos

It is 2015 and across the country, and indeed across the world, animals are imprisoned for our own viewing pleasure. The happiness and well-being of these magnificent creatures is secondary to our own amusement. We claim to be civilised, but when we treat other living creatures in such a way, we are anything but.

Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation is said to have ignited the animal rights movement when it was first published in 1975. It is truly essential reading for anyone capable of following the written word. Piece by piece every thread of cruelty and illogic is exposed in an undeniable and thought-provoking attack on the industries and people who profit from the needless harming of animals. Those who fight and campaign on behalf of animals owe much to Singer’s outstanding piece of work, but unfortunately, even four decades on, Animal Liberation is as relevant now as it was then.

When the Green Party of England and Wales announced it’s manifesto for the 2015 General Election it contained specific policies relating to the welfare of animals. In particular it called for a ban on foie gras, a ban on fur, and an end to the Grand National horse race. These policy initiatives were met with derision by the mainstream media, and seen as nothing more than hippy, tree-hugging idiocy by a fringe political party more concerned about the earth than the economy. But such topics are essential political issues, and ones which the majority of other parties refused to put on the election agenda.

I agree wholeheartedly with what the Greens proscribe, and I would even go one further by adding to their list; I would ban zoos.

In July 2013, the Costa Rican Environment Ministry (MINAE) announced that it would close all zoos. The Environment Minister René Castro stated: “It is a gradual process, but eventually we hope that there will no longer be animals in cages anywhere in the country.” The animals that are held at the zoos would be released back into the wild if they were fit enough, or taken to animal sanctuaries if they were too old or sick.

Though this desire has suffered a setback recently with administrative courts ruling in favour of the zoos, it is surely no more than a delay in implementing a policy the Costa Rican government has been pushing for years. The desire to phase out animal captivity in Costa Rica is one of a number of policies that other governments should be adopting in their own countries – Costa Rica’s abolition of the military and their investment in renewable energy are others.

What the Greens advocate, and what the Costa Rican government push for, may seem to be too strong for many of the public currently, but you only have to look at recent events to see that the tide has turned and that this is the direction we are now heading in. Opponents to such proposals are not only wrong, but are soon to be in the minority.

In the UK we have seen outrage at the Conservative governments badger cull and their proposed re-introduction of fox hunting; the Yulin dog meat festival in China has received global criticism; and recent documentaries like The Cove and Blackfish have highlighted the atrocious acts of cruelty regularly conducted by man upon animal. Indeed it is Blackfish and the so-called “Blackfish effect” which provides the solid foundations for the proposal to ban zoos.

Such was the outrage that followed the release of Blackfish that SeaWorld – the company the documentary focuses on – lost $25.4 million in revenue as attendance to their parks fell and shareholders sold their stock. The primary message of the Blackfish documentary was that Orcas (killer whales) should not be held in captivity.

It is using that argument and the step-by-step logic that Singer espouses in Animal Liberation that we arrive at the only conclusion that we can. This being that no animals should be held in captivity at all.

Not a week after finishing Animal Liberation I was handed John Berger’s About Looking by a colleauge at work. The book is a collection of essays exploring a humans role as an observer in order to reveal new layers of meaning. And the first essay of the book, Why Look at Animals?, is the perfect accompaniment to Animal Liberation.

Berger states that before 20th century corporate capitalism reared its head and dictated our lives, animals “were with man at the centre of his world”. They had reached this place through thousands of years of societal development and evolution. Though animals did provide food, transport, clothing, and work, they were so much more than this. They were worshipped, praised, and respected.

Even today, within some cultures, such praise and worship remain. The obvious examples of this is Hinduism with their sacred cow policy and Buddhism which prohibits harm to any animal. Even in Western culture such animal reverence can be seen, one need only flick towards the back of newspapers and magazines to read the horoscopes to see the influence animals have on our understanding of the world. Over half the signs of the zodiac are animals afterall.

Despite this, Berger says that “in the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared”, and today we largely “live without them.” Becoming token, decorative, or redundant, humans have abandoned their reliance and use of animals. Berger cites the great zoologist Buffon when he stated: “to the same degree that man has raised himself above the state of nature, animals have fallen below it: conquered and turned into slaves, or treated as rebels and scattered by force.”

The two categories chosen by Buffon here, “slaves” or “rebels”, can perfectly distinguish how humans now label, and subsequently treat, each species of animal. Those animals relegated to slave status are forced below us and are ours to do to as we please, and those that do not play by the rules we dictate as masters are portrayed as rebels. Too wild, too hostile to tame and control, they are enemies of the human species and can be hunted and culled.

This relegation of animals has seen them displaced from our lives. We are sold burglar alarms and so we do not need guard dogs. We travel by car and rail and so we do not need horses. We have mechanical plows and tractors that farm the fields rather than oxen. We use chemical fertiliser to grow and produce plants and vegetation and so we do not need insects. Berger highlights the fact that with “cities growing at an ever increasing rate” the surrounding countryside is transformed into suburbs. Where once animals flourished in these lands, they are now a rare sight. As humans we colonise their land, complain of their existence, and then drive them further into obscurity. Even animals that we deem relatively common are now seen very infrequently, think about it, when was the last time you saw a pig?

Berger continues: “In the first stages of the industrial revolution, animals were used as machines. As also were children. Later, in the so-called post-industrial societies, they are treated as raw material. Animals required for food are processed like manufactured commodities.” Nowhere is this more apparent than the industrial or factory farming that exists in countries across the world. (Singer is particularly enlightening on the issue of farming in modern societies, highlighting the cognitive dissonance that many of us hold).

Though the image of farms that society likes to promote is one of fresh air, green fields, and a friendly farmer, this could not be further from the truth. The famous nursery rhyme Old MacDonald is in dire need of a modern update, but it is an update that will sicken rather than uplift. In the UK recently, Midland Pig Producers had a planning application rejected in Foston, Derbyshire. At their proposed pig farm site almost 25,000 pigs would be bred and sold each year in a “state of the art unit.” On their website it states that Midland Pig Producers is “one of the largest pig production companies in the UK, producing over 100,000 pigs each year from six farms.”

From their own copy it is clear what role these living creatures play. They are “produced” and are housed in “units” until ready for sale or slaughter.

Whilst pigs, cows, sheep, and chickens are continually mass produced for the profit of big business, other animals do not follow such a morbid cycle. Berger states: “the commercial exploitation of certain species (bison, tigers, reindeer) has rendered them almost extinct. Such wild life as remains is increasingly confined to national parks and game reserves.” National Geographic recently reported that extinctions are occurring 1,000 times faster because of humans. Writing on Matador Network Hyacinth Mascarenhas states that “experts are calling this the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history.” It is believed that “30 to 50 percent of all species are moving toward extinction by mid-century.”

Despite this tragic trend of animal extinctions, there has been one category of animal, along with those unfortunate enough to be factory farmed, that have increased in number. In the words of Berger: “Never have there been so many household pets as are to be found today in the cities of the richest countries.” In the UK alone there are an estimated 65 million households with pets. 24% of households are said to own a dog, and 18% of households have cats, but as stated earlier, these animals serve next to no purpose. No longer are they guard dogs and mice catchers, they are “pets”, and like the pigs on the pig farm they are commodities, bred and sold in order to make a profit.

Berger says that this practice of keeping animals, regardless of their usefulness, is “a modern innovation, and on the social scale which it exists today, is unique.” The UK pet industry is estimated to be worth some £2.7 billion annually as animals are marketed as commodities to children, adults, and families. Berger continues by saying that this marketing “is part of that universal but personal withdrawal into the private small family unit, decorated or furnished with mementoes from the outside world.”

The fact that these animals are then given the title of “pet” rather than animal proves that they have been reduced from what they truly are. Berger states: “The small family living unit lacks space, earth, other animals, seasons, natural temperatures, and so on. The pet is either sterilised or sexually isolated, extremely limited in its exercise, deprived of almost all other animal contact, and fed with artificial foods.” Everything that should come naturally to this animal we have deprived it and Berger explains that “this is the material process which lies behind the truism that pets come to resemble their masters or mistresses. They are creatures of their owner’s way of life.”

As ridiculous as it sounds, and though I have joked about it with friends in the past, I would not be surprised if in some decades time – as that is how long it may take for selective breeding – we see dogs born with little to no legs. The popular trend seems to be having the smallest dog possible so that it can be carried around in a bag or in one’s arms. As consumers desire smaller dogs and become more intent with the dogs being carried rather than allow them to walk on their own, so dogs will begin to be bred that match these requirements.

At the same time that animals were divided into “slaves” and “rebels” and they began their enforced retreat from daily life, public zoos came into existence. At the time of their founding zoos brought prestige to the cities and countries that they were established in. They were demonstrations of power and wealth. “The capturing of the animals was a symbolic representation of the conquest of all distant and exotic lands. ‘Explorers’ proved their patriotism by sending home a tiger or an elephant.” Quite simply, the zoo was, and still is, a tool of imperialism. Countries that have been invaded and conquered by a state must cede their wildlife as payment for their loss.

As with any imperialist tool, zoos also had to claim to provide other necessary societal functions. This claim was that zoos were “another kind of museum, whose purpose was further knowledge and public enlightenment.” In Animal Liberation Singer spoke about the illogical, pointless, and cruel way humans attempt to learn lessons from animal captivity or animal experiments, and in my eyes zoos are no different. If we are being told that zoos are there in order to study the natural life of an animal, how can this even be possible when the animal is living in such unnatural conditions?

What is there to learn about an animal from attending a zoo, that you would not learn from reading a book or watching a documentary? The information within the books and presented in the documentaries does not come from the study of animals in zoos, it comes from the study of animals in their natural habitats. In terms of public enlightenment, visiting an animal in a zoo is redundant, similar to visiting a showroom to look at a car. You do not know it reacts or how it behaves, and it is only in its natural environment – in the case of the car this being the road – that you are able to gain any worthwhile information.

Berger says that trips to the zoo are often nothing more than “sentimental”, where adults can take children to see the real life version of the reproduction cartoon, cuddly toy, or drawing book.

We are all able to relate to these sentimental, and ultimately futile, trips to zoos. Unfortunately, I was taken to many as a child. We catch glimpses of the animals in their enclosures as they sit and do nothing, pestering our parents or the nearest staff member: “Where is he? Why doesn’t he move?” The animals appear dull and lethargic, so much so that zookeepers have to entertain them by hiding food when it is feeding time. Such is the animals monotonous and no doubt depressing existence, that the only enjoyment they receive is the 30 seconds of foraging prior to eating. Their innate natural ability to hunt for food and feed themselves has been deprived from them and so they have nothing to do for the vast majority of their waking life.

In 2003 The Guardian posted an article entitled “wide roaming animals fare worst in zoo enclosures.” Within it they listed “how many times smaller the average zoo enclosure is compared with animal’s natural roaming range.” Brown bear’s had enclosures 300 times smaller, lion’s 17,000 times smaller, cheetah’s 63,000 times smaller, and polar bear’s one million times smaller. Just imagine if you were to be confined to such a space.

Berger states that: “the animals, isolated from each other and without interaction between species, have become utterly dependent on their keepers. Consequently most of their responses have been changed. What was central to their interest has been replaced by passive waiting for a series of arbitrary outside interventions.”

Quite simply zoos are art galleries for imprisoned animals. “In principle, each cage is a frame round the animal inside it.” The cages themselves – somehow called enclosures or habitats for animals, yet prisons for humans – even add to the spectacle. They are designed and presented to continue the illusion that what you are seeing is not only harmless, but natural. Painted back drops, walls, and murals, dead branches, artificial twigs, and fake rivers. “These added tokens serve two distinct purposes: for the spectator they are like the theatre props: for the animal they constitute the bare minimum of an environment in which they can physically exist.”

Long ago we reached a point in our own development where we knew that zoos were a cruel and unfair practice, yet we have continued to support and promote them despite all the evidence and logic telling us otherwise. Once again animal’s welfare is being sacrificed to make way for money. All sentient creatures deserve the right to live naturally and by abolishing zoos we would return that right to the animals that have been imprisoned for far too long.

Recommended Further Viewing:

The Dodo – A blog that covers the most “interesting and fascinating” animal stories from across the internet.
Animal Equality – “an International animal advocacy organisation that is dedicated to defending all animals through public education, campaigns and investigations.”
PETA – “is an international charity dedicated to establishing and protecting the rights of all animals.”
Animal Aid – “the UK’s largest animal rights group and one of the longest established in the world, having been founded in 1977.”
Animal Rights UK –  whose mission is to “help the animal rights movement in the UK in any way possible. This includes publicity, legal advice, web design. leaflet design, online advice and so much more!”
Mercy For Animals – who work to “create a society where all animals are treated with the compassion and respect they so rightfully deserve.”
Captive Animals’ Protection Society – who work to “free animals from exploitation in captivity”

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This article was originally published on Cultured Vultures on 21/05/15

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3 thoughts on “We Need To Rethink Our Relationship With Animals – Starting With Zoos

      1. Thanks, trying. Linked it to a Tumblr meme calling for the closure of all zoos and posted it on my Facebook timeline. I hope the pebble in a pond ripple effect will come into play. A global zoo boycott would close the animal prisons, but it will be a challenge to get global support. Meanwhile the Harambe killing adds to a list of recent related incidents. Not too long ago here in Singapore a Siberian tiger had to be killed when some idiot entered the pen in a suicide attempt.
        With further reflection on the Harambe killing it came to mind that there should be punishment for the zoo managers that were responsible for this inadequate barrier which allowed a child to enter the pen, and any state officials that issued an approval for the design and construction of the barrier as well.
        Sadly the focus is now only on the parents and the staff that pulled the trigger, however the responsibility goes far beyond these pawns.
        Ultimately all of us who pay an entrance fee to view animals locked into a zoo are responsible for this abuse, and if we can accept that truth, then we can also understand why we must boycott all zoos.
        In this day an age, in which politicians are owned by corporations, the power of the consumer is a weapon that must be utilised.
        It worked for Gandhi. We should learn from his success.
        And again, complements on an excellent blog. Aside from my humble effort to draw attention to it, you may be pleased to note that anyone searching on Google will see it appear amongst the initial search results.

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