A gentle reminder that zoos are not the answer

Every now and then I comment on an Instagram post about animal issues. I do not care for the catty nature of insta-arguments, and it is heartbreaking to see how hateful people can be on social media, so I largely keep to myself. But sometimes I get inspired.

Some news outlet recently reposted a cartoon about how zoos educate children about animals not native to where they live, and thus encourage children to get involved in conservation issues when they’re older. The cartoon acknowledged how zoos aren’t the best environment for some of the animals there, but that they serve this educational/encouraging purpose and so we still need them. I found this post well-meaning but naive.

So I make the point in a comment that the problem with zoos is that the animals cannot consent to being locked up and that it is morally unfair for us to essentially imprison them for purely human objectives. Furthermore, doing so perpetuates this idea that we are lords over non-human animals and can do whatever we want with them. And, these days, zoos simply are not necessary to educate kids about wild animals, what with the technology and travel capabilities we have now. We’re past the days of menageries, people (or are we?). I learned empathy towards animals by having domesticated animals around. Elephants were important to me long before I ever saw one in person.

So anyway I made a short, sincere post and went on with my life. Well, someone responded to it. Which is fine, totally cool. Except that she had gone through my Instagram feed and brought my cat into the argument. 

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I am very protective of Nora, but that is not the point. This individual said that my cat could not consent to being locked up as my pet, and that if zoos made kids want to be conservationists then that’s a good thing. The fun part is that she did not offer any evidence that zoos do accomplish this purpose, when my explicit argument was that they do not accomplish this purpose any more than other methods. But she also erroneously connects lack of consent (which is a whole thing, it’s why we can’t marry horses) to a rescued, domesticated animal.

One depressing fact is that a lot of the elephants in India and SE Asia are domesticated, and it’s causing a huge problem figuring out what to do with them now that using them for logging has been banned, because they still need care. Similarly with dogs and cats, we domesticated them and then we were SUPER irresponsible, and now there are too many. And they need to be rescued and cared for (and spayed and neutered, I’m 100% behind that). But the fact is that shelter cats and dogs must be cared for by humans, because they cannot care for themselves. That’s what domesticated means.

So here’s how that connection is severed regarding elephants. First, some zoo elephants are captured from the wild – this ain’t okay. They cannot live healthy lives in zoo enclosures. In fact, even domesticated elephants can’t. Elephants need three things at the very least: (1) lots of room, (2) to forage for food, and (3) not to be separated from their herds or forced to cohabitate with a stranger elephant. The first point is all we need to look at to discredit the idea of zoos being okay at all for elephants. Zoos will *never* build enclosures large enough to house a family of elephants in a healthy way, because (a) they cannot afford to, and (b) the enclosures would be, essentially, sanctuaries (because we’re talking square miles rather than acres) and zoo visitors would never see the elephants and so what is the point in having them. It’s all about drawing crowds and making money.

We have videos, movies, books, semi-affordable safaris (I mean, I cannot afford them, but maybe someone who feels she is entitled to have the entire animal kingdom physically represented in her hometown can afford one). A kid does not need to see something to care about it – it’s called empathy.

Anyway, here are a few arguments for zoos and what I think about them.

“Zoos are educational and teach children about animals”

So do textbooks, videos, and the internet which is included on every single phone and now even 4-year-olds have their own phones.. I know it’s crazy, anyway thank u, next.

“It’s worth having zoos if it contributes to saving a species”

I read an interesting argument somewhere earlier (here) that submitted that a “species” in and of itself is a collection of individuals, and it’s not the existence of the species so much as it is the quality of life of the existing individuals that matters. How do we choose which individuals in a given species are unlucky enough to be subjected to a life of confinement? Again, that humans wield this power over animals and think we are “saving” them is narcissistic and, um, wrong. Like factually incorrect. Zoos do not contribute to saving a species because (a) it’s extremely difficult to reintroduce the animals into the wild, (b) zoo breeding programs are trash, and (c) it’s about money, guys.

Another problem with this one is that a lot of zoo animal species aren’t in trouble. I’ve not embarked on a study of the animals housed in every zoo but it’s not like zoos are saying, “all of the species you see here are endangered and it’s important to save them.” No, all the zoos are worried about is having exhibits with cute animal babies in them to bring in more money. Babies that likely won’t live as long (and definitely not as happily) as their wild counterparts.

The biggest problem I have with all of this is (obviously, by now) that people think they need to be able to see something to care about it, that it’s our right as humans to be able to see wild, powerful animals in the flesh because we want to. What’s with the entitlement? It’s so incredibly selfish. We take for granted the freedom we have, especially in this country, and we don’t find it necessary to bestow that same freedom on animals?

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This little angel isn’t in a zoo, and we would never see something this endearing or playful in a zoo, I would predict. Until I can afford to travel to a reserve I am satisfied watching videos of elephants, cuddling my 3 or 4 stuffed elephants (yes I’m an adult), and encouraging any kid I come in contact with to do the same. And if I ever have a child and they beg to go to the zoo, I would take them (only once) and I would say, “these animals don’t belong in cages, but not everyone realizes that yet. Momma/Mommy/Mother/Dude (whatever the kid calls me) is working to get these animals out and back into the wild, where they belong.”

Moral of the story is do not call out my cat on Insta if you don’t know her, however if your aim is to get a response from me then that is the way to do it.

Have a good Thanksgiving and you don’t have to eat turkey if you don’t want to! Meow

Elephants, Faces, and Loneliness (and whales!)

Asha, a 35-year-old African elephant, has been at the Natural Bridge Zoo in Virginia for 22 years. Every day, for 22 years, Asha trudges through the same lonely, solitary existence. Every day, she wakes up, and her life is the exact same as it was the day before. And she’s going through it completely alone.

She’s likely been beaten into submission by the “trainers” at this awful place – in fact, a commenter on Yelp stated he’d been asked to leave when his grandson was riding Asha (problem number one) and the trainer began hitting Asha with a stick. If this zoo’s employees are so bold as to hit Asha in front of patrons, imagine what they’re capable of doing after hours? It makes me sick.

She gives rides day after day, even in the sticky, unrelenting heat, with no hope for a better life after all of her literally back-breaking work. No breaks, no proper diet, no proper medical care, no shade….. cracked feet, small quarters, back rides (I can’t) the list goes on. Any of these is reason enough to shut this stupid zoo down, but the Virginia gaming and whatever crew doesn’t know what’s best for animals anymore than the riff raff over at Natural Bridge Zoo does. In any case, to me, the worst part of Asha’s situation is that she’s completely isolated. She’s alone. Everyday, the same painful, humiliating routine. Alone.

[sign a petition for Asha]

Loneliness is scary. Our identity is wrapped up in the relationships we have with other people, and when those relationships aren’t healthy, or they fail, or we isolate ourselves from others, we question our identity. That’s a big reason for depression and other mental illnesses. I mean, how many times have you been down the Rabbit Hole of Sad (RHoS is my own invented phrase, not to be confused with “Rabbit Hole,” an actual sad movie starring Nicole Kidman), and it just takes a simple interaction with another human being who did not go down the Rabbit Hole of Sad for you to snap out of it? (I’m not talking about actual depression – I would never suggest a depressed person simply “snap out of it”). It’s so important to have other humans around you to provide perspective when you get stuck. Even serious suffering can be alleviated by shared experience – see benefits of Group TherapyBut imagine being completely isolated at the hands of a different species. Having no way out, or being powerless to change whatever is isolating you – I mean, that’s even MORE isolating.

Lately I’ve gone down the Rabbit Hole of Reading About Face Transplants because (a) my morbid curiosity always wins and (b) face transplants are f-ing AMAZING. I am blown away by the teams of surgeons that perform these procedures. The intricacy of attaching a face, the super strict time constraints (aka keeping the face alive from donor to recipient). It’s just incredible. Have you ever seen a photograph of a face… just a face… laying on a table? If you get squeamish, ever, I wouldn’t Google it. But.. I mean you should. It’s crazy.

ANYWAY – there are a hundred reasons why a face transplant could fail. The biggest reason is that the recipient’s body could reject the face, just like it could reject any other organ transplant. But a face has more attached to it – muscles, tendons, bone, blood vessels, etc – so there are more ways your body can reject a face than ways it can reject a kidney. This means the recipient has to be on a crazy intense regimen of immunosuppressive drugs, which in turn leave the body vulnerable to other types of infections, and like, cancer. wtf?

My actual point is, another surprising way face transplants can fail is that the recipient doesn’t react well psychologically. Think about it. Think about what you think about when you think about you. (if you break that sentence down, slowly, it does actually make sense).  You think about your face first, right? Our face is our identity, because you can’t identify someone by their thoughts, feelings, preferences, or relationships right off the bat. Our faces allow us to identify a person quickly, so all of the feelings we have about a person are associated with their face. Now imagine that your face is gone, and you have someone else’s face, often ill-fitting (they choose donors by blood type, not whether the face is the same size) and oh also you have to take 700 medications per day which might allow you to get cancer good luck!

So you have someone else’s face, and it probably doesn’t fit right, and it’s swollen in weird places and your eyes are droopy, and it’s just generally an uncomfortable process. And often, when someone’s face is destroyed, their eyesight is destroyed too. So you’re going through this, unable to see whatever family or friends are supporting you, unable to see your doctors, just, in the dark. And face trauma/transplants are still rare, so it’s not likely that you’re in a unit in a hospital with twenty other people with funky faces. No, it’s just you.

And even if it’s not just you, the trauma of losing your face, your identity, is so deeply personal that it can be isolating even if you meet others with the same issue. Some face transplant recipients have a hard time adjusting – like Isabelle Dinoire, who, three years after her transplant, said she didn’t know who she was (like in a existential sense, not in an amnesiac sense). And her new face actually looked really good! Nevertheless, she had a hard time coping with essentially having a new identity. Also, a few years ago her body started rejecting her new face and then she passed away from cancer.

Another transplant recipient literally went crazy after his transplant and committed suicide – although it was a previous suicide attempt that took his face in the first place – despite teams of psychiatrists finding him to be healthy enough to handle a transplant.

Anyway – loneliness, identity, coping, health, blah blah blah. That’s my point. Loneliness is the worst and it’s bad for you, healthwise and for purposes of morale. It’s always better to have a buddy.

Back to Asha. What I am NOT doing is suggesting that Natural Bridge Zoo get a second elephant. No sir. What I am suggesting is that part of the reason zoos are evil is because elephants are isolated. Even within groups of elephants held in zoos, elephants isolate themselves because their fellow inmates are not members of the elephant’s family. Zoo groups are usually brought together in a piece meal manner and it just doesn’t work.

Elephants exhibit signs of loneliness. They are highly social animals that cannot thrive in solitary confinement (who knew?!). They can literally die from the effects of being lonely – they stop eating, don’t get enough nutrients, and die of infection.

But Asha doesn’t even have the option of interacting with another elephant. She just has idiot kids ranting and raving about riding her, and idiot “trainers” that hit her when she does something wrong normal. Basically, everyone is an idiot.

I can’t even sleep properly (poor me!!) imagining what her life must be like. It’s sad and infuriating, and shame on the state of Virginia for allowing this carnival of death and evil to continue operating.

I don’t quite know what to do other than email/write letters/call both the zoo and whoever is in charge in Virginia and hit them with facts. We could organize a protest? I think my organs would shut down if I got within 100 yards of this place. Umm… tell your friends not to ride elephants? Mkay yes thank you.

From the permit application it looks like collectionpermits@dgif.virginia.gov is a valid email. BRB gonna send them my feelings on the matter…

And now ~ back to the ABCs of Endangered Species.

Today’s featured celebrity is… TA DA…

the Blue Whale

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Bio:

OTHER NAMES

baleine bleue in French. Quel charme!

HABITAT

blue_whale_range_map

lol, everywhere 

IUCN says they live in every ocean except the arctic. More populous in Southern Chile, Gulf of California, and the Coral Triangle.

POPULATION

10,000 to 25,000

SIGNIFICANCE

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look at dat faaaace (this is not a blue whale)

So blue whales weigh – wait for it – THIRTY. THREE. ELEPHANTS. They literally weigh the same as 33 elephants. WHat. The largest animal on the planet and it’s louder than a jet. I can hear a jet now (I live near an airport) annnnd, let’s just say I ain’t wanna be near a blue whale when it gets mad. That is just crazy. Like, SeaWorld isn’t even gonna try to cram one of these things in one of its pathetic prison tanks. Imagine airlifting 33 elephants at a time? Omg.

So the significance of whales is that, well, first of all they exist and they have every right to exist just as much as we do. Also they are at the top of the food chain and therefore significantly impact marine ecosystems. Sort of like when my supervisor leaves for the week no one goes to work (is that just me?).

THREATS

Uhhhhh climate change? Habitat loss, toxins from all the trash we throw in the water (seriously littering should be a capital offense it is NOT hard to throw your stuff away and throwing your trash in water? what is wrong with people), toxins from other things like, idk, oil I would imagine. Also they can get into trouble with boats and get tangled up in fishing gear. I can’t imagine how puny fishing gear would be any match for one of these 33-elephant-fish but apparently it’s a serious threat to them. Also they eat krill and krill is disappearing. But let me clarify – they eat 4 tons of krill EACH. PER DAY. They eat four tons of food per day?! So jealous

Also pollution from big ships like barges harms whales by dirtying the oxygen they breath and the water they live in.

THE HELPERS

Sooo for one, World Wildlife Fund and other groups are tracking these babies and documenting the routes they take, so that hopefully those routes can become protected areas where no fishing is allowed. There is also the International Whaling Commission that big groups like WWF lobby for better protections for whales.

Also this group of helpers is encouraging big boats to slow down to help protect the whales. That’s neat.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Unfortunately eating fish/seafood contributes to the problems whales face. The fishing industry often harms bigger fish when it rounds up the tiny fish for us to eat. I’m not like, preaching at you I’m just saying

You could symbolically adopt a whale through Defenders of Wildlife although I interviewed for a law school internship with them and didn’t get hired so can we really trust them

not bitter i swear

Help however you want. Tell your friends! Tell your cat if you prefer to spend time with your cat over humans. No judgment here.  Spread empathy, that may be a good place to start! Also do not throw your trash in the water or I will find you ~

Thanks for reading!