Time to re-examine how we deal with wildlife.
In the wake of the horrible misfortune at the Cincinnati zoo and the upcoming Florida bear hunt (sic), it is high time we re-examine how we, the human race, treat the wildlife that lives on our planet. Why? The moral arc is clearly trending towards an awareness and creation of animal rights and protections, yet just as clearly we have such a long way to go.
Virginia Morel spells it out most eloquently: ”No matter how different our morphology, we animals are basically alike because of our shared evolutionary past. But animal bodies are equipped with sensory cells and brains…What do the minds of animals tell us about ourselves? That, like us, they think and feel and experience the world. They have moments of anger, and sorrow, and love. Their animal minds tell us that they are our kin. Now that we know this, will our relationship with them change?”
It must change, and here is a suggestion for a way forward. In my view, this change requires both a micro and a macro approach. First let’s apply the micro approach to Cincinnati and Florida.
The micro approach informs (or should inform) human behavior regarding interactions with a single animal or a small group of animals. The most useful approach is one advanced a century ago by Dr. Albert Schweitzer and not much improved upon since then; namely, a reverence for life. Dr. Schweitzer further defines this reverence as:
“Man’s ethics must not end with man, but should extend to the universe. He must regain the consciousness of the great chain of life from which he cannot be separated. He must understand that all creation has its value. Life should only be negated when it is for a higher value and purpose — not merely in selfish or thoughtless actions. What then results for man is not only a deepening of relationships, but a widening of relationships.”
Examining the Cincinnati tragedy against this standard, it seems clear that a reverence for life was followed. While we may question the care provided by the parents and the safety standards followed by the zoo, once the child had fallen into the gorilla enclosure an immediate decision was required. That the gorilla, even without malice, could have easily injured or killed the child is not in question, and given the need for quick action, only the taking of the gorilla’s life could have saved the child. It was a necessity that could not have been avoided, and certainly zoo officials acted with great thoughtfulness and regret before euthanizing the gorilla.
As for the sanctioned slaughter of a Florida bear, that activity does not pass muster under a reverence for life standard. There is no necessity here that could not have been avoided, and the proposed slaughter resembles far more a thoughtless trophy hunt for a small group of humans rather than the result of thorough research and deliberation. The arguments against the bear killing have all been made and merrily ignored by the state of Florida. But as hope springs eternal, and as I have not yet given up the belief that there is still some compassion left in human hearts, here they are again:
The killing of a bear in this situation is the antithesis of a reverence for life, as there is no higher value or purpose served—this is killing for the sake and enjoyment of killing;
The killing allows humans to escape responsibility for a problem we created;
The killing underscores and reinforces the notion that violence is an acceptable solution to our problems; and
It flies in the face of the Florida charter to teach humane education and act accordingly.
On a micro level, Schweitzer’s reverence for life is the proper moral principle to guide our actions viz-a-viz encounters with single or small groups of wildlife. We run into difficulties, however, trying to apply this philosophy to a broader spectrum of human/wildlife interactions. At the macro level, an ethos with more breadth is indicated, and the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare seem to fit the bill nicely.
The five freedoms as currently expressed are:
- Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor
- Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
- Freedom to express (most) normal behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind
- Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering
With the five freedoms as our moral guide, let’s take a satellite view of zoos and bear hunts.
For any zoo, there will be problems and issues in meeting freedoms 2, 4 and 5, and as such it is now time to discuss and assess whether zoos serve any useful purpose at all. We must view wildlife, all animals, as possessing some basic rights of existence, not solely as an entertainment venue for us. Even though most zoos have moved beyond simply caging animals in small, barred enclosures, the “natural” habitats in which most zoo species are now housed are only a small inmprovement. Let’s face it, zoos exist primarily to enable humans to gawk at other species in captivity and for few other reasons, and the time has come to switch zoos out and replace them with large, open animal preserves. These preserves will have 2 functions:
- to allow the animals within the preserve to enjoy as many of the five freedoms as possible and to the greatest extent, and
- to teach the human animal about our place in the biosphere and the need for intelligent, compassionate stewardship.
As to the bear hunt, when measured against the five freedoms it is an unmitigated disaster. We in Florida have sanctioned an event that will violate all five principles. What is needed is not slaughter, but rather large tracts of land, including wildlife corridors where bears (and the myriad other creatures who share their environment) can roam freely and safely.
The time has come to rethink and redefine how we interact with and treat wildlife. For micro interactions, a reverence for life shows the way. For macro interactions, applying the five freedoms provides the moral rationale to guide our conduct. As with all human maxims, they are imperfect and will require thoughtful and careful implementation. That said, they share one key human value that needs to come to the fore: they encourage a compassionate stewardship towards our fellow creatures, a realization that this planet is not our sandbox but rather an environment that we share and for which we are now responsible. As earth’s most intelligent, advanced, and organized dwellers, we owe our fellow denizens nothing less.
Robert M. Echols
For Our Friends the Animals Foundation