Thursday, June 9, 2016

Animal Stories

My daughter was watching a movie the other day called Hachi: A Dog's Tale. When I realized what she was watching, I knew I couldn't sit and watch it with her. The movie is loosely based on a true story about a dog in Tokyo who every evening walked to the local train station to meet his master as he came home from work, and continued to do so, long after the master died. The real dog Hachiko became a Japanese cultural symbol and hero. To this day there is a statue of him in front of Shibuya Staion in the neighborhood of the same name in the Japanese capital.

Like many people, I can withstand stories dealing with the most profound human suffering, misery and death, but I can't handle sad or sentimental tales about animals. Frankly, I have no idea where this feeling comes from. While I have respect for them and like animals just fine, I don't particularly consider myself an animal lover.

Perhaps my feelings come from the attributes most of us value in animals, especially our pets namely, trust, loyalty and unconditional love. Or maybe it is out of compassion for the vulnerability of all non-human animals, both domestic and in the wild, to the whims of nature and especially from their biggest threat, the most dangerous species of all, Homo sapiens.

We human beings have a peculiar relationship with the other species of life forms with whom we share this small planet. Every culture has a different philosophy regarding non-human life ranging from the profound respect found in certain Native American cultures who see all living things as kindred spirits, to many Western European cultures who took these words found in the Bible...
Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth. mean "and God said: 'the world is your oyster, do whatever the hell you please with it.'".

And Western man did just that.

For example, until well into the twentieth century, it was common for Westerners not to give a second thought about wiping out entire species of plants and animals that were considered useful, dangerous, or simply inconvenient.

That has changed drastically just in my lifetime, brought about not in a small part by the environmental movement of the sixties and seventies which warned of the catastrophic, irreparable destruction we were inflicting upon our planet. Today, most reasonable people understand that all life is connected in one way or other, and the extinction of one species will have drastic repercussions for other forms of life, something Native Americans understood for centuries.

I'd also say it is the evolution, (some might call it devolution) of Western religious thought in recent years, at least in some circles, that enables us to have a more nuanced interpretation of the word"dominion" as found in Genesis 1:28. In other words, to many contemporary Jews and Christians, the phrase "have dominion over" is now closer to "take responsibility for" rather than, "use your capricious will", regarding our fellow travelers aboard Spaceship Earth.

That said, today there is still no common ground, general standard, or set of rules governing how we should feel about or treat animals. That point was was brought home last week after a tragedy that took place at the Cincinnati Zoo. If your memory needs refreshing, a three year old boy snuck away from his mother and found his way into an enclosure which is supposed to separate human visitors from the great apes who call the enclosure home. The boy caught the attention of a 17 year old male western lowland gorilla named Harambe. At first, Harambe went over to the boy and appeared to comfort him as part of the boy's journey into the gorilla's home included a fifteen foot drop into the enclosure. Then, as humans are wont to do in situations like these. witnesses at the scene screamed and carried on, which appeared to startle Harambe who began to drag the boy by his ankles around the enclosure. Zoo officials decided there was nothing they could do but shoot the 450 pound ape to save the little boy, as no one could predict what Harambe's next move would be.

Harambe's death set off a firestorm of protest coming from every point of view along the animal rights vs human sovereignty continuum. Torn as this nation is about politics, I'd say that judging from the articles and comments I've been reading, the struggle over politics is peanuts compared to the emotions stirred by the killing of Harambe.

For starters, there was the natural reaction that questioned why zoo officials couldn't use a tranquilizer dart like they do on TV, rather than live ammunition. The reason given by the zoo made perfect sense, the tranquilizer would take time to take effect, meanwhile the gorilla might have become understandably irascible due to being shot, and take out his anger on the little boy. It's very clear to me that the zoo put every effort they could into insuring the safety of the child, even if it meant putting down one of their most treasured animals. It was a tragic but necessary decision.

That logic was not accepted by scores of individuals who  were appalled by the willful taking of Harambe's life. Some went so far as to say that every effort should have been made to protect the gorilla, even if it meant sacrificing the child. Along those lines, there has been a groundswell of public opinion stating that the mother of the boy should be held liable for Harambe's death. After all, the gorilla did nothing wrong, it was the mother who failed to watch her child properly, or so they say. An online petition called "Justice for Harrambe" was circulated by the organization and was signed by hundreds of thousands of individuals. The petition states:
This beautiful gorilla lost his life because the boy's parents did not keep a closer watch on the child. We the undersigned believe that the child would not have been able to enter the enclosure under proper parental supervision. Witnesses claim that they heard the child state that he wished to go into the enclosure and was actively trying to breach the barriers. This should have prompted the parents to immediately remove the child from the vicinity. It is believed that the situation was caused by parental negligence and the zoo is not responsible for the child's injuries and possible trauma.We the undersigned want the parents to be held accountable for the lack of supervision and negligence that caused Harambe to lose his life.
Other individuals blame the zoo for failing to make the enclosure, which apparently has been around many years without incident. more secure. Still others claim the very existence of zoos in the first place is cruel and unnecessary. 

On the other side are the folks who are appalled that so much attention was given to the death of a gorilla. Many are using this story as a jumping off point for advancing their own agenda. Father Michael Pfleger of Chicago, never one to miss an opportunity to get attention, publicly expressed disgust that the death of a gorilla was getting more press than the shooting deaths of scores of young Chicagoans, (I'm not so sure that is true). Pro-lifers are taking the opportunity to say that people are more concerned about one gorilla than the tens of thousands of un-born children who are aborted each year. Even the Black Lives Matter folks have gotten in on the act claiming (in my opinion rightfully so) that the animal rights people seem to value the life of the gorilla more than the little boy, who happened to be black. They go on to condemn the creation of the "Justice for Harambe" petition for its being in their opinion, racially motivated, an idea which I think is absurd.

Mona Charen wrote an article in the conservative publication National Review titled: A Gorilla "Tragedy". The quotes around the word tragedy should tip the reader off that the writer believes tragedy in this case, is a poor choice of words. For Charen, we are "confusing animals with people" and that shame would be a better word to describe what befell Harambe. The fact that Ms. Charen took pains to point out that President Obama called Harambe's death a tragedy, leads me to believe that her concern here is more her own political agenda than philosophy or semantics.

She does make some interesting points however. Here's how she ends her piece:
Concern for animal welfare is not decadent. Some serious people argue that zoos and aquariums are inherently cruel, and they deserve a hearing. What’s so off about the reactions to this sad tale is the confusion about who has moral standing. “Justice” is not something to which animals are entitled, because animals are not moral agents. Those demanding “justice” for a gorilla are saying something nonsensical. Suppose the gorilla had climbed out of the enclosure and grabbed the boy? Would his advocates demand that he be tried for assault? Of course not. The gorilla cannot be held legally or morally liable for his actions, because he is a dumb beast. By the same token, he cannot receive “justice” from anyone. Animals can and should be treated humanely not because they are humane but because we are.
I agree with everything she says in her conclusion with the exception of her own poor choice of these words: "because he is a dumb beast." Here she is using this hopelessly outdated and intentionally provocative expression, in order to taunt certain (i.e.: liberal) readers whom she knew would find the term objectionable and yes, politically incorrect. Indeed it worked, several comments to the article slammed her use of that term.

Yet she is on to something here, namely the issue of justice for animals. It is no accident that our symbol for justice is a blindfolded woman holding a scale, the message being that all under the law are equal. It hasn't always worked that way in practice but that is the very foundation of our system of jurisprudence. 

Simply put, it is impossible to equate the lives of animals with the lives of human beings. If we did, I would be spending my life behind bars charged with, and admittedly guilty of the serial murder of countless creepy crawly animals in my home. You might argue that a gorilla is not the same as a cockroach. With this I agree, but that argument only serves to prove my point. Either all species are equal, or they are not. If in our eyes, the life of a gorilla is as valuable as the life of a human being, why then isn't the life of a cockroach equal to the life of a gorilla? Where do we draw the line?

Harambe - REUTERS/Cincinnati Zoo/Handout via Reuters
Animal lovers in fact are always drawing lines. Harambe has been described over and over again in the most superlative of terms, beautiful, magnificent, majestic, intelligent, and so on. Much has been made of the fact that members of Harambe's species are seriously endangered in the wild. If a child found himself inside say a hyena enclosure and zoo officials decided to shoot one or two of those animals to save that child, would there have been even a fraction of the outrage that resulted after Harambe's death?

Let's face it, plentiful, ugly animals always get the short shrift when it comes to PR, even among animal lovers.

What about the mother, did she neglect her responsibility to keep her child out of harm's way? I don't know, I wasn't there. The same witnesses who were cited in the "Justice for Harambe" petition were also quoted elsewhere as saying the child went from declaring his intention to descend into the gorilla enclosure to actually being there, in the blink of an eye. "The mother was not negligent" were the emphatic words of the people who were actually there. A few days ago Hamilton County prosecutor Joseph Deters declined to press any charges against the mother. 

What I can say as a parent, is that two times my daughter was involved in accidents requiring a visit to the hospital, both of which took place literally right under my nose. In both cases she zigged when she should have zagged, but I'd be lying to you if I claimed there was nothing I could have done to prevent those accidents. What I could have done was prevent her from exploring the world,  from expanding her boundaries, from acting upon her creativity, and from having fun, but I didn't. Unfortunately, accidents happen, it's the way if the world. 

Likewise the little boy's mother could have prevented him from falling into Harambe's enclosure. Had she only tethered him to a leash so she could tend to her other children while preventing him from straying too far away, none of this would have happened. Short of that, she could have wrapped him head to toe in a bubble wrap suit so if he did manage to get away and roll or bounce into the enclosure, Harrambe's dragging him around his confines like a rag doll wouldn't have injured him, and he could have been rescued without the gorilla having to die. Of course the most effective thing the mother could have done was to stay home.

Because this incident concluded with the death of Harambe, people feel the need to blame someone. Had the ending been different, as it was in Chicago a few years ago when a child ended up in the arms of a female gorilla in a similar enclosure who tended to him and gently carried the child to the zookeepers, the attitude of the public would have been, no harm, no foul. That incident, exactly the same situation with a much different result, became the feel good story of the year, so no one batted an eye about those parents' supposed neglect.

Finally, what about our complicated relationship with animals? Is it possible to respect animals and still confine them to zoos, use them for scientific experiments, or eat them? I believe the answer lies in understanding our own place in nature. As I've stated before in this space, nature itself has no value system, nature simply reacts.

As the most successful species we know of, humans now have the power to destroy virtually all life on Planet Earth. We also have the power to save our planet from ourselves. A small part of that is the effort to bring species of plants and animals back from the verge of extinction. Conservatories and zoos play a huge role in that effort through education, research, fund raising and to a lesser extent, reintroducing captive members of an endangered species back into the wild. Zoos are important institutions because they teach us and future generations about animals, their role (and ours) in nature, and the necessity of conservation. All of the nature documentaries in the world can't hold a candle to the impact of seeing a gorilla or lion or any wild animal up close, looking at you straight in the eye. Nature doesn't care about the fate of species of plants and animals. Nature simply adapts, human beings either care, or they don't.

Like it or not, humans are among the animals on this planet who eat other animals. True, unlike certain meat eating animals, we don't have to eat meat in order to survive and it certainly would benefit many of us to eat less of it. As it's part of our nature however, I don't have a moral issue with eating meat. Nor by the same token, do I have a problem with using animals for responsible scientific research. 

The one caveat I would add in regards to our treatment of animals in captivity can be summed up in one word, respect. We need to learn from Native Americans who prayed for the souls of the animals they took for food. We need to be constantly vigilant to insure that the animals we use for our food or for research are treated humanely during their lifetimes. We must remember that everything we eat, plant or animal, was once alive, and we must teach ourselves to be thankful to those living things for giving up their lives so that we may live. Again, nature doesn't care if we live or die, any more than it cares about the lives of the plants and animals we eat. But human beings do care, or at least they should. The word humane sums up all the positive attributes that define us as human beings.

I believe it is not only right, but our moral imperative to take responsibility for the welfare of our world. Integral to that is to treat all life, plant and animal with respect, and to treat all animals, especially those whom we put into our service, be they housed in zoos, laboratories, farms or our homes, humanely. 

If we fail at this, then we are the ones who are the dumb beasts.

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