“The zoo cannot but disappoint. The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals. Yet nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond.”
Mankind’s record with animals is generally a dismal one. We beat them, eat them, turn them into beasts of burden or war. We make them into pets or fur coats and shoes. We make dignified creatures do stupid tricks in circus rings in the company of clowns, men in leotards with bullwhips, and flying midgets.
I was at the Johannesburg zoo long ago (I hate zoos almost as much as circuses, which may also explain my aversion to politics) but they provide a great opportunity for observing people at their worst. “Hey koeks, check how funny that one looks … check the size of his — check: he’s an ugly — ” Its really worth watching and listening to zoo-goers in order to better understand the human species). Once I observed two boys, unseen by their parents or the absentee zookeeper, throw their used coke cans at an old, flea-bitten bear who paced away his life of captivity like a man in an asylum: sane when he’d arrived, the asylum had driven him mad.
More to be respected in a captive, tormented bear than in two stupid boys to be sure.
It was a deep enclosure, damp, with a dark grotto at the back and an empty moat at the front. Mercifully, the cans fell short of their mark and clattered to the bottom of the moat. The bear hardly looked away from his course, like a solitary prisoner in a stone world, or a king without a kingdom.
I rebuked the boys who ran away to tell their father about the angry man who’d spoiled their fun. How dare I even speak to his children etc.
The bear kept swaying along, agitated, indifferent to the gawking and now squabbling humans beyond his world. Like a man grown mad from despair, who feels he should be somewhere but can’t think where that elsewhere is, lost in another world, the ultimate alienation. “You project too much,” says one voice in defence of zoos.
Not for me to fathom a bear’s thoughts: the mean enclosure of the human brain is zoo enough to keep us locked in ignorance.
Sometimes I hope we will stand (or perhaps kneel in shame) before God, and discover his visage to be the image of the things we have despised, ignored and ill-treated: the racist will find the face of God to be that of a dignified black man or aboriginal; the mysogynist will find the face of a woman. The man with contempt for the poor will find himself faced with a big, not very pleased homeless man. Those who have abused and mocked animals will find a veritable pantheon of animal gods who will sit in judgement of mens’ cruelties. It would be a surreal affair, with pound-dog gods and war-horse gods and rat-gods and vivisectionist-monkey gods and battery-chicken gods…
In Cyprus long ago I saw a man pulling a chained bear along the hot streets of Limassol. I watched until the man and the cowering animal disappeared into the distance. I still find myself looking, though they are long gone.
Is there a connection between our treatment of and attitude towards animals? Can we trust the man who kicks his dog, then smiles at us? Is the worker in an abbatoir dehumanized by the mechanized carnage, the screams of slaughtered pigs?
From zoo to animal shelters: I have been reading “Pets” by Erica Fudge, and it has been valuable to examine again my own attitude to my fellow travellers. She quotes Montaigne who wrote, “when I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” The author shows how pets help construct who we are. “They tell us much about what it currently means to be human.”*
“ANIMAL OPPRESSION & HUMAN VIOLENCE: domesecation (sic), capitalism and global conflict” by David Nibert’s critique of the “animal Industrial complex” makes for disquieting reading: his book “charts the intertwined exploitations of nonhuman animals and humans” showing how the process fundamentally reinforces relations of power and violence. One reviwer of the book writes, “… reading professor Nibert’s work (was) so profound, exciting, and liberating to me that I still, to this day, consider this to be the most influencial, enlightening, and underrated book I have read in my 37 years. Fascinating revelations and a light shining in so many places never illuminated for most … make this book a joy to read even for all of the horrific tragedy it chronicles. This book is a must read for any serious intellectual or seeker of truth.”
Or, as people are inclined to do, we can look away…
* Approximately 7.6 million companion animals enter animal shelters nationwide every year. Of those, approximately 3.9 million are dogs and3.4 million are cats. Each year, approximately 2.7 million animals are euthanized (1.2 million dogs and 1.4 million cats).