This past Thursday, a four year old Andean bear named Ben escaped his cage at St. Louis zoo. It was Ben's second escape in February alone.
What struck me most about the story was my own instinctive reaction to it: I rooted for Ben. I wanted him to succeed. It would have been the animal version of "Escape from Alcatraz". Or the World War II escape from Stalag Luft III during World War II. Epic, as the kids say.
As it turned out, zookeepers found Ben the Bear hanging out in a nearby stream. After tranquilizing him, they returned him to his (newly-reinforced) enclosure.
But his daring escape attempt reminded me of a happier story from a few years ago: Inky, an octopus at New Zealand Aquarium, actually got out. At night, after all the aquarium workers had gone home, the intrepid mollusc wriggled through a small opening at the top of his tank. He then made it down to the floor, crawled eight feet to an open drain, and disappeared inside. One hundred and sixty four feet later, Inky exited the drain pipe and entered the ocean waters of Hawke's Bay, never to be seen again. What a champ.
The thought of Inky triggered yet another memory. It was from a few years ago. I was grocery shopping. I approached the fish counter, only to see a Dungeness crab desperately clawing—almost leaping—up over the other crabs, trying to pull himself over the edge of the tank. He wanted out. I'd never seen a grocery store crab make a real escape attempt before, let alone an attempt so furious and relentless. Up he would scrape, then slip and fall, then up he would scrape again, ever hopeful, over and over. The tight elastic bands holding his claws shut made the scene all the more poignant.
As I watched, I wondered what it might feel like to be the striving crab. Obviously he was having a conscious, sensory experience. He was pursuing a goal. He was failing, yet still hoping. He was trying new ways to achieve the goal. What was all that like, subjectively, in crab world? I tried to imagine. After a few moments, I thought I could sort of sense what it might be like. I felt pity.
And as I mull over that moment, another memory arrives.
I was at the Vancouver Zoo. I approached the outdoor lion cage. It was a slow day, and at that moment, no one else was near the cage but me.
The enclosure didn't have much inside—a couple of raised logs to climb on, maybe one or two other things. It looked pretty boring. I spotted a male lion lying in the tall grass, his back toward the chain link fence which now separated us. Hoping he'd turn around so I could see his face, I made a low roaring sound.
To my surprise, he spun around and looked directly at me. What startled me was his expression. His face, his deep eyes, flashed a mix of frustration, torment, sorrow, and total defeat. It caught me completely off guard. I'd never seen such an anguished look in a lion, or any animal, either in person or on film.
The lion, still looking straight at me, then let out something like a roar. I say "something like", because what it really sounded like was a cry. The lion then began to walk toward me, still glaring at me, still looking anguished, and then, cried out again.
I didn't imagine this. There was something wrong. I grew up looking after animals—horses, sheep, cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds. I knew animal anguish when I saw it. There was something wrong.
And what was wrong, I thought in that moment, was that a magnificent wild beast, of miraculous design and the most exquisite engineering, with an irrepressible and distinct leonine energy and spirit bursting through every cell and system in his body—a living, natured being born to rove and explore, bond and mate, hunt and fight, preside and protect, and to fulfill everything it meant to be a lion, no matter how it ended—was stuck living his life on earth trapped inside a chain link square outside Vancouver, Canada, with absolutely nothing to do, surrounded by idiots like me, snapping photos and trying to roar in his direction.
But they live so much longer in captivity, people said. But in a flash, I wondered what I'd choose if I were a lion: to take my chances out on the Serengeti, living wild and free, come what may; or to spend 25 years trapped in a cage. There was only one conceivable answer.
A little while later, I happened to see the documentary Blackfish. It tells the sad story of an orca I actually sort of knew. His name was Tillikum. Professional captors captured the two year old orca off the coast of Iceland in the 1980s, wrenching him from his mother and pod. Tillikum later wound up at a beachside tourist attraction in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, which is where I saw him a few times. What we visitors didn't know was that various handlers had abused Tillikum. We didn't know he'd been seriously traumatized and damaged.
Not long after I last saw Tillikum perform in his Victoria show, his young female trainer slipped and fell into his tank. Tillikum and his tank mates attacked. They dragged her around, held her underwater, and finally drowned her.
Tillikum's owners then sold the damaged, dangerous orca to SeaWorld Orlando, where he would subsequently savagely kill two more people—one of them, a star trainer named Dawn Brancheau. During a dinner time show in front of hundreds of people, Tillikum grabbed her, repeatedly shook and mauled her, broke her bones, bit her arm off, and bit her scalp off. Even after he had been netted by staff, he still refused to let go of her lifeless body.
SeaWorld later claimed the documentary had exaggerated and misrepresented the story. I can't speak to that. But what I do know is, orcas in the wild don't kill people. They never have. Yet SeaWorld's captive orca, Tillikum, killed the first three people he could. That says it all, in my books. Mistreatment by humans damaged an innocent animal, who in turn damaged others.
Underneath all those memories, and many others I don't have space to relate here, run intuitions...perspectives, considerations, maybe awarenesses, with a force I don't recall experiencing in my younger days. I now can't feel the relative indifference I once felt. I feel a greater gratitude and reverence for animal life than before. Maybe part of that comes from having slaughtered my own lambs while I had my little farm. It is no small thing to take a trusting little lamb in your arms, whose young life you've overseen, and then, with a knife in your hand, take its life, so that you and your family may eat. It changes you.
Anyway, all these accumulating experiences, and more, over the years have led me to wonder if we really ought to still be doing the big commercial zoo/aquarium thing. I wonder sometimes about God's charge to Adam—and by extension, all mankind—to exercise righteous dominion over the animal kingdom...and I wonder if it's really "righteous dominion" to keep hundreds of animals locked in cages for their entire lives, just so we can look at them. Maybe it's just not the right thing to do.
I acknowledge the zoos always claim they're doing "important research" on their animals. But I wonder to what extent that's really true. Even if it is true, is that research really important enough to justify keeping animals in cages for their entire lives? And what if the "important research" from the zoos is kind of like the "important research" into whether rats can distinguish Dutch from Japanese when they're both played backwards, or the $682,000 research project into how well infected shrimp perform on treadmills, or how much LSD you can give an elephant before it dies?
That is, maybe it's not really "important research" at all. I don't know. And how exactly would they measure "importance" anyway?
I close with this. Yes, I eat meat, albeit gratefully. Yes, I am fine with hunting and fishing for subsistence or conservation purposes. Yes, I am open to hearing about "important research" undertaken by zoos.
I'm just not sure I feel right anymore about zoos keeping hundreds, thousands of animals in cages their entire lives just for profit, or with me paying for that just to go look at them. Animal rescue, different story. But zoos and aquariums? Tigers and bears, chimpanzees and gorillas, rhinos and gazelles, cheetahs and wolves, all locked up forever?
Not sure it's right. Maybe we should just leave them alone, and let them live out their lives where they belong. Maybe, in the end (outside of occasionally necessary conservation efforts), that's better for all parties involved. And if I want to watch a cheetah or a turtle in action, maybe I should just watch one of the eight zillion videos now on YouTube showing them in their natural habitat. Maybe, just maybe, that's where they should all stay, for good.
I've just been thinking out loud here, so I'd love to hear readers' thoughts on this topic. Please share below.
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