The facility where wild animals are housed for exhibition

Have you ever been to a zoo? I have, but not for many years. It’s a place where you can see animals, birds, insects, reptiles, and fish at close hand, in a safe environment. I was amazed by the giraffes, the bears, the tarantulas, the monkeys, and seals. They had every type of creature imaginable.

Schools often make trips there so the children can see the animals. Most adults, let alone children, would never get the chance to see a parrot from south america, a bear from china, or a penguin from antarctica, so zoos are an important part of the education process.

Zoos started several hundred years ago with the explorers bringing back exotic species to their own countries. They studied them, labelled them, and put them on view for the public. Of course, the public were in awe of these magnificent creatures, and it gave the scientists a lot of prestige for discovering new species. Today, millions of people learn about creatures they have not seen before, and scientists breed animals in captivity who would otherwise go extinct. They also protect endangered species.

So is there anything wrong with zoos? They all seem to be doing a pretty good job – until you see it from the animal perspective.
I am not saying that these animals are not cared for or loved by the people who look after them, but recently, I started to think about the animals in the zoo in england I had seen, all thousands of miles away from their natural habitat. Elephants in concrete pens, tarantulas behind glass, parrots behind bars, and I wondered how free they would feel back in their home. I imagined the elephant running across the plains of africa with her herd, the spider creating her web and catching prey, and the parrot stretching her wings, and flying through the treetops. Then I thought back to the dull man-made environment we had created for them. For our pleasure, not theirs.

We say: “They’re not unhappy, they like it here,” but we can’t know that. If I was used to being able to fly in the treetops, a cage would come a pretty poor second, don’t you think?

We say: “They haven’t known anything else, they were born here,” but animals belong in the wild. We say: “If they were in the wild, they would become extinct,” but it isn’t our job to save all animals from extinction – natural selection takes care of that complex task.

On first inspection, it would seem that we care deeply about the living world around us, but if we look more closely, we see that once again, it is our need to control our environment. We can’t work with it, we don’t understand it, so we capture it, lock it up, study it, and charge people to see it.

We have internet, we have books, we have tours, we have film. We have so many resources available to us if we wish to study nature in its own habitat, but we’re too lazy, we prefer to have the entire natural world arranged for us in an exhibition that takes no longer than two hours to get round. Think about it. Are you that interested in nature that you would fly or cycle around the world to see it, even if you had enough money? I doubt it.

If it’s easy we’re interested. If someone else lays it all on for us, we’ll go, but don’t ask us to go to the amazon to study the bird in its natural habitat; (a) it’s much too difficult (b) we’d probably want to open a new hotel there, and (c) as the dominant species on the planet, it is our right to do whatever we want!

But just imagine for a moment that we weren’t the dominant species on the planet, and there was a species that was smarter and stronger than us, and wanted to collect us, study and exhibit us.

Imagine being stuck behind a glass cage, with something strange looking at you, all day, every day; or imagine being stuck behind bars so you couldn’t run, or locked in a concrete pen every night away from your family and kind. Even if you were born there, even if they say you would become extinct out in the wild again, wouldn’t you want to be free in your natural environment?

Pet Shop

A shop where pet animals can be purchased

For me personally, pet shops are similar to zoos, in that they have a voyeuristic quality to them.
How many times have you gone into a pet shop – as a child or an adult – to look at all the “cute” animals? We look at all the different kind of pets, which you remember are “a domesticated animal kept for companionship or amusement,” choose one, and hand over money. At this point we become the owner of the pet. It is ours by law, and anyone who takes it from us can be prosecuted for theft.

Think about the word “owner.” We apply it to everything we possess, except the items we normally own are not alive and do not feel pain or distress. We always want to own things, to possess them. we want to accumulate “things” and animals become part of this desire. We want them and we shall have them! All we need to do is come up with £2.00 for a mouse, £8.00 for a guinea pig, £10.00 for a rabbit, £200.00 for a cat, or £300.00 for a dog. How much are you worth? £10.00? £200.00? £1,000? £100,000?
This discussion is not about money though, it’s about how we humans place a monetary value on everything. Everything becomes for sale. It doesn’t matter if it’s a table, a tv, or a south american parrot.

Everything is just a commodity to us. We just can’t see the planet as a whole; we still cannot see animals, birds, spiders, and fish as being part of our world, in the same way we are part of theirs. We isolate ourselves from them, and isolate them from each other by keeping them in our homes.

We have domesticated some species to such an extent that they are now dependent on us for food and water, and in return, they keep us amused, until they do something wrong or we grow tired of them.

How many of you have owned a dog? I had a golden labrador. He was very amusing, but ate his way through most of my apartment, including shoes, clothes, furniture, and a good selection of electrical cables. I loved him to bits, but he was so uncontrollable; I didn’t train him right and he used to run off whenever he felt like it, or eat food off the table. I used to hit him every time he did that, but he still kept wagging his tail. I used to get so angry when he didn’t do as he was told, why couldn’t he just listen to me?

The problem is, we blame the animal for behaving in an animal like way, when in actual fact we want them to be like us. We want them to know it is wrong to go to the toilet on the carpet (what’s a carpet?) or eat food from the dinner table (what’s a dinner table?). We want them to behave (behave?) and obey us (obey?).

You see dogs can’t understand these concepts, but we still expect them to, and when they don’t understand (as they are animals who don’t speak our language), we get frustrated, and show this physically in the form of anger at the poor dog. If it becomes too much you can always give him away, or if he becomes a bit “aggressive” you can always “put him to sleep” (have him killed) as someone I know did.

Before I went travelling around the world I gave my labrador away as I couldn’t take him with me. It was a good home, and he was probably well looked after, but I can’t help thinking I treated him in the same way as I treated my sofa and tables and chairs. I just gave him away like I would any other possession, with no respect for the fact that he was a living creature, and that’s the problem with keeping pets. They are just for our amusement. Not because we love nature. Not because we are deeply interested in dogs, cats, reptiles or birds; but just because we can have them and we have some money to buy them.

Whatever our reason for keeping animals out of their natural environment, whether it be scientific, because we want to protect them, or just look at them whether in a zoo or at home; if you have to keep something in a cage to stop it from running away, it probably doesn’t want to be there.

Let’s hope no future intelligent species decides to keep humans as pets otherwise we’ve got an unhappy future ahead of us, with a collar attached to a metal lead stuck in a cage, with one meal a day and a bowl of water with people looking at us all day. At least cats and dogs have come so far in domestication that we can leave them to run around freely; you couldn’t do that with a human, he would keep trying to escape.

So next time you look into your bird cage, watch your fish swimming in the tank, admire your reptile, or visit the zoo, imagine the land where they came from, and imagine them back in the wild, free where they belong.

by alan macmillan orr

“The natural mind- waking up”



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