Thursday, June 23, 2011

Of Zoos - Human and Animal

A colleague told me something recently that astonished me.

He's researching a project on the history of the Berlin Zoo (a.k.a., the Berlin Zoological Garden), which opened its doors in 1844 and has evolved in very interesting ways over the decades. He told me that back in the day - and now we're talking late 1800s, early 1900s - there used to be a section of the zoo dedicated to human exhibits.

This happened at a time when racism was pervasive, when the European powers and the United States were scrambling to divvy up the rest of the globe for imperial domination, and when Westerners developed an interest in all things "exotic" (read: non-white).

The Berlin Zoo, like many other zoos, started having human inmates of the dark-skinned variety. Curious Germans would plunk down their hard-earned money to see people from different parts of the world - Asians, Africans, South Sea Islanders - in their natural habitats.

The zoo in Berlin wasn't alone in this practice, I found out. Lots of zoos in European countries and even in the United States hosted similar exhibitions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

I bring this up because I read in a recent article about the deplorable living conditions that animals are enduring in the Dubai Zoo in the United Arab Emirates.

An article days ago in the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National discussed the controversy over the poor treatment of animals in the Dubai Zoo. A lengthy highlight:

On Monday, when temperatures reached 41°C,(105.8 degrees Fahrenheit), several animals were clearly struggling in the heat.

A brown bear paced in a central enclosure, its fur matted with sweat. The cage resembled a prison cell with a concrete floor and rusted jail bars.

The story was the same across the public zoo, which is thought to be about 20,000 square metres. In one pen, a gorilla sat in the centre of a dusty exhibit; in another, a lioness gulped hard with what looked to be dehydration; and in a small cage an Arabian fox walked in circles.

One visitor, a 31-year-old Indian shop worker who gave his name as Shiraj, said he was disturbed by the conditions.

"Some of the animals are doing OK but some of them are too hot," he said. "They look very sad."

All over the zoo animals appeared to be crowded into small enclosures. In one small cage, about 20 baboons fought for space. In another, as many as 30 flamingos huddled together next to a puddle of brown water.

The lack of space is evident throughout the zoo. Several ostriches in the collection are scattered throughout enclosures populated by other animals. One was placed with a herd of Barbary sheep, another with a large community of tortoises.

The pattern was repeated elsewhere - flamingos with a wallaby and a goldfish tank inside a lizard exhibit.

What, you may be wondering, does this have to do with those human zoos I mentioned at the start of this Blog Entry?

At a certain point, sometime around World War I (or not long thereafter), reformers arrived at the conclusion that exhibiting human beings in zoos was immoral. It robbed them of their dignity. It confined them illegally. It was a violation of their basic human rights. No human being should have to be confined to a small space and gawked at by other human beings.

States also outlawed infamous "freak shows," where human "exhibits" with severe deformities were displayed in much the same manner as humans in zoos. Over time, as science came to explain deformities, people began to sympathize with the so-called "freaks of nature." Hence, by the second half of the 20th Century, many states had adopted laws outlawing "freak shows." Michigan law, for example, outlaws the "exhibition [of] any deformed human being or human monstrosity, except as used for scientific purposes."

So if we, as a human race, recognize that it is wrong to exhibit human beings in zoos, why haven't we reached the stage in our thinking where we believe the same thing about animals?

Presumably they don't like to be confined to small spaces, gawked at, pointed at, laughed at, filmed with video cameras, photographed with cameras. No privacy. No consent from the animals. Only a limited space to run free.

Not all zoos are created equal. And it is true that many of them - including most in North America - take far better care of their animals than the zookeepers at the Dubai Zoo.

Yet we inevitably return to the question that most of us pose before going vegan: What right do we have to use these animals for our entertainment? To control them? To confine them?

I used human zoos as an example because the concept of being confined and observed is so unsettling to us as human beings. There's an old episode of The Twilight Zone, that great allegorical science fiction TV program from the late 1950s and early 1960s, titled "People Are Alike All Over" (it aired March 25 1960) - and DON'T READ ON IF YOU HATE SPOILERS - but it stars Roddy McDowall as an astronaut named Conrad who eventually becomes an exhibit in a Martian zoo.

It is a powerful episode, with a teleplay by the late, great Rod Serling, and it served as a thought-provoking commentary on the desire of human beings to confine and scrutinize other living beings, even if it robs them of their dignity. Serling, to my knowledge, wasn't an animal rights activist, yet he was able to hit a powerful message home to a Cold War era audience. Conrad (McDowall) realizes that Martians, who look just like earthlings in this episode (and dress like ancient Romans) are no different from their counterparts on the next planet. They're ultimately cruel, heartless, and have no respect for the rights of other living beings.

Sound familiar?

1 comment:

  1. Twilight Zone? Wow, I was seriously impacted by a number of episodes, Mr. Serling didn't flinch at exploring all kinds of boundaries or at poking at all kinds of conventions.

    You know what is really spooky to contemplate? Right now, as far as I know, human slavery is illegal in all countries (I know it exists but "officially" it is illegal everywhere I think). Assuming that is has not been true very long...wikipedia says some country abolished it in 1981...that's only 30 years ago. Considering the thousands of years it went on that is an astonishingly brief period of time that it has been done away with.

    We seem to be a terribly slow learning bunch of animals and I'm beginning to think that maybe the big achievement is to have gotten as far as we have. I wonder if all our self-congratulatory, self-adulation rhetoric hasn't blinded us to the reality of our seriously deficient social behaviors. It may be that we are the species that pulls down the average insofar as acceptable and desirable intraspecies social behavior goes.