A Look at Man Through the Vapid Eyes of His Captives

Disturbingly recent exceptions aside, civilized nations now agree
that burning fellow human beings at the stake, torturing them or
enslaving them is inhuman. The day will come when civilized nations
will agree that imprisoning wild animals in zoos, whipping them about
in circus acts from city to city or forcing them to do tricks for our
amusement in such places as SeaWorld, Marineland and Epcot is as cruel
to the animals as it is lewd of the people watching them.

That day is far off, no doubt. Pulling profits and emoting power
over weaker creatures, vicariously enjoyed by those audiences that
delight in the safe splashing of a killer whale or the harmlessness of
a caged animal, are strong impulses. Too strong to be outdone by
notions of rights for beasts that don't speak English or pay taxes.

Until then, handlers of animals forced into unnatural situations
will continue to die, as SeaWorld's Dawn Brancheau did in February when
a killer whale dragged her underwater after turning the tables and
making her its plaything. I keep reading references to Brancheau's
death as "tragic." What lazy news writers mean is that her death was
sad, unfortunate, avoidable and, from the spectators' (but not the
whale's) perspective, lurid, as it was for SeaWorld's PR.

Brancheau's death was foretold. Besides practicing drills by
coaching their prisoners to follow a script, trainers like her practice
not getting killed for a reason. They presume at every moment to outwit
a predator's instincts. They can't outwit the law of averages. For a
brief moment, the whale that killed Brancheau went off script. It acted
in character. Mauling her might have been the most natural thing the
whale had done in years. If it's an education spectators wanted, they
finally got an authentic one.

I don't mind the work with animals of people like the late Steve
Irwin, the Australian of "Crocodile Hunter" fame killed by a stingray
in 2006. Irwin had his moments of cruelty when he wanted to prove that
he could best a beast bigger, bitier or faster than him. But mostly he
worked on the animals' turf, on their terms. He did not rearrange their
nature for our amusement. He risked his life to show us how wild these
animals are, and how freely noble and untamable they should remain.

This isn't to argue against domestication or even the slaughtering
of animals. We are animals and predators. But domesticating an animal
for help or companionship and certainly killing an animal for
sustenance will always be more morally defensible than taming one for
entertainment or "education." (The less defensible gobs of cruelty in
the chicken farms and the feedlots of the West, where cattle are turned
into walking mummies of drugs and fat, have more to do with a nation's
gluttony than sustenance. But that's another story.)

Places like SeaWorld love to claim that their shows give people a
close-up of something unique that fosters an appreciation for nature
and conservation. Florida residents give the lie to that invention.
They've been converging on SeaWorld from subdivisions that have plowed
under entire ecosystems and obliterated the habitats of 111 plants and
animals (at last count). That's not about to change.

"The sensational Shamu show" itself plows under the killer whales'
natural instincts to make them fit human conceits. It doesn't honor the
killer whales or their place in nature, since that place is nowhere at
SeaWorld, so much as it pumps up man's capacity to synchronize dives,
sentimental music and greeting-card philosophy with 5-ton creatures.

The show, called "Believe," is motivational splashing. And in an age
when entire cable channels and other media by the ant pile are devoted
to natural science, there's no justification anymore for amusement-park
animal exploitation. A minute's worth of a nature show like "Planet
Earth," even on a television screen -- which takes the viewer to untold
places with an intimacy and humility that really does put humans'
insignificance in perspective -- does more to inspire reverence for
nature as it really is than any Shamu schmoozing that mostly warms up
your gift shop's cockles.

As for zoos, I've visited some of the great ones in the country.
I've also walked the wards of several jails and prisons, including
death row in Nashville, Tenn. In both places I saw the identical
shuffling lethargy and vapid look of captivity. Criminals are
presumably imprisoned as a result of their own misdeeds. Animals
aren't. The crime of their captivity, reflected in their eyes, is ours
every time we visit a zoo or clap like dopes at a mud-wrestling show
whenever Shamu flips. Forget Willie. Free them all.

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© 2023 Pierre Tristam