A polar bear in a small tank of water swims back and forth, back and forth, for hours. She doesn’t splash or play – basically, she paces. This is a children’s zoo, but it isn’t fun or instructive. It’s just depressing.
Kids love animals. We take them to see animals at the zoo and the circus, and to touch animals at the petting zoo. We consider it wholesome, educational entertainment.
But it’s not wholesome, and for some particularly perceptive and compassionate kids, it’s not entertainment either. Circuses are known for mistreating the animals in their care, and zoos by definition are locking animals up – sometimes in horrid conditions. Many children notice and are upset. Others accept that this is the best animals are entitled to. Either way, taking children to see imprisoned, abused animals perpetuates not just that specific abuse, but the attitudes that allow abuse generally to continue. Impressionable kids see that everyone accepts confining animals and taking them out of their natural habitats, and they learn that it is okay – the same way they learn that eating animals is okay.
Helpless Animal “Entertainers” …
The process starts with helpless animals who suffer tremendously. Circuses (evidence is everywhere), many zoos, and petting zoos are quite a few steps down in quality of life from the animals’ native habitats. Besides the obvious imprisonment against their will and the painful and abusive methods these businesses use to make animals do what people want them to, packs and families are broken apart and individuals sold off.
Circus animals also face hours or days at a time crammed into box cars or other containers to travel from one performance site to the next. In petting zoos, animals can’t escape the hands. They are grabbed, prodded, and pushed all day by children who are often not old enough or well supervised enough to know how to be gentle. For animal entertainers, there are many different kinds of hell.
Plus Innocent Child Spectators …
The primary audience for these shows is children. They don’t know about circuses and all the rest until adults tell or show them. They certainly have no innate need to watch elephants wrapped in frills perform unnatural and painfully learned choreography. For a kid, watching an elephant do her elephant thing in her native elephant home is thrilling enough – and they can do that on television or the Internet. (Though here as in all of our interactions with non-human animals, problems arise: some documentaries harass, exploit, and even harm the wildlife they feature.) It is the spectacular creatures themselves who rev kids up, not the cages they are in or the tricks they perform.
If you asked most children whether they wanted tigers to be locked up, they would say no. Same answer about the bullhooks used to “discipline” elephants. Innocent kids didn’t ask us to torture animals and wouldn’t condone it, but we do it in their names.
Animal “entertainment” businesses imprison and torture one group of innocent, helpless creatures to amuse another. It’s a twisted trade-off.
Equals Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance means believing two contradictory things at once. The classic cognitive dissonance is loving animals and eating them. Doting on a pet dog while supping on a hot dog. Cooing over video of a gamboling calf, then barbecuing her mother. You get the idea.
Carrying off cognitive dissonance can be difficult, so training is best begun in childhood. Our whole society helps parents mold their kids’ minds: commercials feature animated chickens begging viewers to eat them; pet stores advertise caged puppies born in the bowels of puppy mills as bundles of health and joy; adolescents are told to be kind to animals, then are required to slice and dice them in biology class. With all that brainwashing already going on, circuses seem like just one more way to add to the already overwhelming chorus of voices preaching that we don’t have to be morally consistent when it comes to animals.
But circuses and zoos do have a few special twists to add to the ubiquitous dissonant messages. For one thing, they feature “exotic” animals and showcase them as “the other.” Like old-time fairs that displayed native people as alien savages, zoos and circuses celebrate our ability to tame animals who do not belong to us, do not belong here, and are not meant to do what people make them do.
The more removed and different lions and tigers and bears seem, the easier it is to draw a sharp line between humans and other animals. Some individual cats and dogs may straddle the line because of our personal relationships with them, but animals raised for food are as foreign to our daily experience as elephants. They are firmly on the other side of the line, where they have no rights and deserve no moral consideration. Our only interest in them is in what they can do for us – entertain us, feed us, provide us with the challenge of capturing and taming them. Our scientists twist themselves into pretzels trying to prove that non-human animals are inferior to us, because without that foundation, we can’t take the next step: that we are justified in treating them almost any way we want. (I’m not saying that’s a logical step, but it is nearly universal.)
Children begin to absorb these contradictory messages from the day they eat their first chicken nugget. Rarely do they hear anything to the contrary.
Forging Saner Connections Between Kids and Animals
Proponents of animals in entertainment argue that these businesses teach children to care for animals. It’s tempting to dismiss this argument when it is made by people who also teach their children to eat animals. But, hypocrisy aside, they bring up an important point. If children never have an opportunity to connect with animals they don’t normally encounter, like lions and elephants, they may grow into adults who care little about preserving wildlife habitat or protecting endangered species.
Fortunately, there are better ways to forge connections between children and animals. Responsibly made television programs and documentaries that show wild animals in their natural habitats, engaging in their natural behaviors and living normal lives, are more interesting and educational than a bored and depressed polar bear. E-books are an innovative and interactive way for kids to discover wild animals. (One example is Sharks, an innovative multimedia volume by Jeff Corwin, of which – in the interest of full disclosure – I happen to be an editor.) Adopting a companion animal is one of the best ways to teach children compassion and respect for non-human beings. It sure worked on me!
Children are naturally curious about animals, and they are open to whatever we choose to teach them. Let’s make our lessons loving, compassionate, and respectful, and not torture animals to entertain children.