Behaving like animals
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
BY JOHN M. CRISP
TATIANA THE TIGER is dead, killed by police gunfire after she escaped from her enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo on Christmas Day. Only four people showed up on a nearby beach for a candlelight vigil in her memory, but many others are offering their sympathies through blogs and MySpace.
Considerable sympathy has been expressed for Tatiana's victims, as well; she badly mauled two young men and killed a third. That sentiment may fade pending the outcome of allegations that the victims had taunted Tatiana with slingshots before her escape. The truth could come to light in court; the two survivors have hired celebrity lawyer Mark Geragos to represent them against the zoo.
And they may have a case. A year ago, Tatiana mauled a zookeeper and the zoo was fined $18,000 for negligence. Furthermore, the moat wall that separated Tatiana from the public was only 12.5 feet tall, 4 feet short of the industry standard.
(I'm not sure why anyone believes that a 12.5-foot wall could confine a healthy tiger; the semi-feral cat that lives in my yard and measures, perhaps, 9 inches at the shoulder can surmount a 6-foot fence from a standing start.)
All in all, nobody is coming off looking very good in this unseemly incident, except perhaps Tatiana, who was just behaving like a tiger. And now she's dead.
But maybe this incident provides an opportunity to reexamine the ethics of confining intelligent, wide-ranging beasts like tigers, elephants and dolphins in zoos, aquariums and circuses.
Unquestionably, our treatment of animals in captivity has evolved in humane ways since the days when zoos were little more than rows of squalid cages, an evolution documented in books like "Animal Attractions," by Elizabeth Hanson, and "A Different Nature," by David Hancocks.
But in spite of the best attempts of the best zoos, captivity for an animal like a tiger or an elephant is only a hollow approximation of the only place where a tiger's or elephant's life really makes sense: wild nature.
Of course, we go to great lengths to make ourselves feel better about confining these animals. We give them human names and train them to perform anthropomorphic tricks.
Naturalistic "habitats" are engineered to make us feel better about observing the confined life of an animal that, in the wild, would range over dozens or hundreds of square miles. We imagine that they are "ambassadors" representing their wild brethren. We mourn them when they die.
The stress factor
But even the most enlightened captive environment does little to meliorate the stresses that captivity imposes on these animals. Many of them -- particularly dolphins and killer whales -- have shortened life spans. Big cats like Tatiana often grow listless and develop captivity-related illnesses. Breeding becomes difficult. Many develop pacing behaviors and other unnatural tics that indicate their diminished state of well-being.
The public relations departments at zoos, aquariums and circuses spend considerable resources to convince us that these animals are actually "happy" or that somehow their confinement benefits the species as a whole.
But nearly all such institutions labor under a serious conflict of interest: in spite of gestures toward research, education and conservation, their primary goal is to amuse us and thereby serve the profit motive.
Perhaps objecting to the confinement of large, intelligent mammals is, as the Bible says, straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel. After all, each year we raise and slaughter millions of animals in wretched, miserable conditions in factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses. We breed them for pets, then often mistreat, neglect and euthanize them by the millions. We experiment on them. We race them and fight them in public and train them to fight each other. So why spend much energy worrying about a few tigers and elephants that, in comparison, have it pretty good?
In fact, captive animals are so much a part of our cultural landscape that they're almost invisible, except when we're amusing ourselves with a trip to the zoo or Sea World.
But civilization's survival over the next hundred years or so depends on a dramatic re-evaluation of its relationship with the entire natural world; the way we treat animals like Tatiana might be a good place to start.
John M. Crisp teaches in the English department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.
For The Tiger
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