If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that being trapped sucks. It is mind-numbingly dull to be forced to stay inside all day, following the same routine day in and day out. Now imagine what we have forced animals to do since at least the 19th century, if not earlier.
This week in The Global Tiller, we check in on our furry friends to see how the pandemic has impacted those who were already in confinement before Covid-19, and whether or not zoos have outlived their relevance in this world.
Mankind’s fascination with the exotic has led to some grotesque actions. Let’s not forget that human zoos existed well into the 1950s. The last such exhibition to be held was the Brussels World Fair in 1958, in which nearly 300 people from a Congolese village (who were part of an exhibit) died.
Even then, the reason why interest in human zoos faded was not because of its sheer inhumanity, but because the television was invented and people could see exotics things easily at home. Perhaps this explains why as recently as 2012, tourists were comfortable paying to watch the reclusive Jarawa tribe of India’s Andaman Island, some even forcing them to dance on command.
If we feel outrage at the existence of these human zoos, we should feel some discomfort when we trap millions of animals in cages just so, every now and then, we can take a trip to the zoo with our friends and go on a tagging frenzy when we post photos of the monkey cage.
Scientists and psychologists have determined that most animals forced into confinement would feel the same stress and anxiety as any human would. This forced many of the well-funded zoos to upgrade their facilities to resemble each animal’s natural habitat.
Philadelphia Zoo in the US started a Zoo360 initiative that allows animals to travel within wire meshes around the zoo facility, making them more mobile. Hongshan Forest Zoo in China decided to end all its animal shows and built a 1,000-square-metre enclosure for wolves. Many zoos also function as breeding facilities and fund conservation efforts in the animals’ native regions as well.
Whether or not these actions are enough, that’s debatable, but the Covid-19 pandemic is threatening to throw all these efforts out the window. With ticket sales down to zero, these facilities are struggling to feed their animals or continue any of the much-needed uplift of their facilities.
Zoos in England are demanding funds to keep their animals alive, those in the US are furloughing staff, and in Canada, two pandas have been sent back to China since importing fresh bamboo sticks is getting increasingly difficult during a pandemic. In fact, things are getting so bad that a zoo in Germany has prepared a plan to feed animals to each other if they can no longer afford to buy their food.
The concept of trapping animals merely for our enjoyment is cruel. What is more cruel is starving them to death because a pandemic put an end to ticket sales. Surely, we can reimagine these spaces so that they can serve our curiosities through better ways.
In some parts of the world, zoos are turning tourist income into conservation funding. Zoos around the world spend over $350 million a year on conservation, and around 77 species that are extinct in the world are currently only maintained in zoos and botanical gardens.
Technology is also helping us address some aspects of this issue. If television made us lose interest in human zoos, virtual reality and high-definition cameras can bring us exotic animals right into our living rooms. For example, LightAnimal - a digital exhibition system that can provide virtual encounters with any animal species, even dinosaurs!
As far as mankind’s invention of zoos are concerned, we started so far down that the only way forward is up. The future seems promising, and less cruel. But until it arrives, let’s make sure we are at least keeping our furry friends in confinement well-fed.
Until next week, take care!
Hira - Editor - The Global Tiller
In this series, you get to see up-close the tiny creatures that reside among us. Narrated by Paul Rudd, Tiny World docu-series showcases nature’s lesser-known tiny heroes. Spotlighting small creatures and the extraordinary things they do to survive, each episode is filled with surprising stories and spectacular cinematography.
…and now what?
“Who am I? Think again.” This is the title of one of my favourite TEDTalk ever. Why? Because it forces us to understand how complex our perception of others is - whether it be another human or another living being.
Way too often, we are trapped in the physical and intellectual cages of our perception, as animals or visitors in a zoo. Our daily life is almost like a zoo! Sometimes I’m caged by my biases, my lack of knowledge, of curiosity. Sometimes, others are caged by the same problems.
All together, we are physically tied down by limits: economic limits that prevent us from travelling and experiencing other cultures; mental limits that prevent us from taking care of others and ourselves; and political limits - the borders that prevent us from moving freely (some even more than others).
But the biggest limitation of all is the fact that reality is what our brain perceives from it. We are trapped in our skulls, as a lion in a cage impatient to run into the wilderness, yet we’re just being fed by our senses a mix of perceptions that are as prepackaged as the meat being fed to animals in captivity.
For a long time, even between human beings, we were struggling to understand who was who. If I’m barely aware of my own consciousness, it’s inherently hard to acknowledge the consciousness of others. And let’s not even go to animal consciousness, when we’ve barely started to free ourselves from the cages of our own biases within our own species.
When we try to understand these “things", we look beyond the cage of our trapped mind. We give them names, we categorise them, we find similarities and (as importantly) differences, which eventually wash out the similarities and we end up justifying cruel actions on the basis of differences alone.
Eventually we try to have them behave like us, but in a funny way. Since we try to preserve our perspective as being the “authentic” one, any other must be ridiculous. We dress them as humans, we make them play tricks, we try to personify them because it’s easier for us to understand how they work: through our own point of view, our own perception.
And then, we welcome them in our inner circles. As if they have passed the standard test of humanity. We take them out of the zoo and we go visit them on holidays. We visit those “cultural centres” where we re-enact the life we think they had.
Let’s talk about animals now!
Whoever has had encounters with a dog, a monkey, a dolphin or a whale (one of my favourites) has seen that their eyes showed more than the automated behaviour fantasised by Descartes (not one of my favourites). There’s intelligence, there’s sense, there’s emotions. Just not quite like ours.
And this makes it really hard to engage with them in a more natural way. So we dress them as humans, we make them play tricks. Some end up being part of our families in ways that are not always good. We force them to be like us when we should just learn to live with them. How often do I dream of cities where animals would roam freely in the middle of our shared spaces.
All in all, zoos are like an exploration of our own experience of life, of reality and of consciousness. They answer the question: who are we, and invite us to think: do we need clear boundaries to make sure we exist? Or can we learn to live when there’s no clear distinction, categorisation, or hierarchy? How can we learn to live with complexity, like it is in the wild?
Zoos are terrible necessities of our times: educational yet limiting, inspiring yet insensitive, a tool for the future yet a dark memory from the past. Let’s use them as a metaphor of our own experience with reality and with others:
making sure that we find ways to learn more through the perspective of others;
finding awe and inspiration in differences while trying not to force others into our own frameworks;
and taking the lessons from the past and building a future where everyone has the space they deserve, the life they expect.
Philippe - Founder - Pacific Ventury