One of the things I hate most about reading books and articles by zookeepers and other zoo boosters is their smugness, their self-righteousness stemming from the authors’ entirely unexamined belief that humans are superior to and fundamentally different and separate from “the animals.” Animals are animals and humans are not animals. An impermeable wall stands between.
Humans, they say, are intelligent. Animals—by which is meant all animals except humans—are not, or if they do have any sort of intelligence, it is dim, rudimentary, just sufficient to allow them to meaninglessly navigate their meaningless physical surroundings, just enough to allow them to be “enriched” by paper bags and cardboard boxes.
Human behavior is based on conscious, rational choices (except when it comes to attempting to dominate everyone and everything around us and destroying all that is wild, in which case it must be insisted that all humans—and maybe all animals—are hardwired to dominate and destroy, meaning the massive destruction all around us—yes, thatmassive destruction, the massive destruction we pretend we don’t see—is driven by a biological and not a cultural imperative).
Animal behavior, they say, is fully driven by instinct. Animals—by which is meant all animals except humans—do not make conscious, rational decisions. They do not plan. They do not think. They are essentially machines made of DNA, guts, and fur, feathers, or scales.
Humans, they say, feel a wide range of emotions. Animals—by which is meant all animals except humans—do not. They do not grieve the loss of a mother, of freedom, of a world. They do not feel sorrow. They do not feel joy. They do not feel homesickness. They do not feel humiliated. They are essentially machines made of DNA, guts, and fur, feathers, or scales.
This culture believes that humans feel physical pain, but as with intelligence, animals—by which is meant all animals except humans—feel only a rudimentary pain, just sufficient to allow them to meaninglessly navigate their meaningless physical surroundings. Not long ago scientists conducted an experiment in which they injected bee venom or acetic acid into the lips of fish, after which “anomalous behaviors were exhibited.” The scientists tortured fish to find out what we would all know if we paid any attention: that fish feel pain. The response by Bruno Broughton, a spokesperson for the United Kingdom’s National Angling Alliance, was: “I doubt that it will come as much of a shock to anglers to learn that fish have an elaborate system of sensory cells around their mouths. . . . However, it is an entirely different matter to draw conclusions about the ability of fish to feel pain, a psychological experience for which they literally do not have the brains.” And just today I saw a news article about a videotape that was smuggled out of a kosher slaughterhouse. It reads: “Each animal is placed in a rotating drum so it [sic] can be killed while upside down, as required by Orthodox rabbis in Israel. Immediately after the ritual slaughterer, or shochet, has slit the throat, another worker tears open each steer’s neck with a hook and pulls out the trachea and esophagus. The drum turns, and the steer is dumped on the floor. One after another, animals with dangling windpipes stand up or try to; in one case, death takes three minutes.” The point? On seeing the tape, Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, one of the chief experts for the Orthodox Union, stated that the killings were certainly kosher, and moreover it was clear to him that each of the animals “felt nothing and that any motions it [sic] made were involuntary.”
This culture thinks that human life is sacred (at least some human life is sacred, but the lives of the poor, the non-white, the indigenous, as well as the lives of any who oppose the wishes of those in power are only a little sacred, or sometimes not sacred at all), but animal life is not sacred. In fact the entire animate world is not sacred.
Humans are the sole bearers of meaning, the sole definers of value, the only creatures capable of moral behavior. The lives of animals—all animals except humans—are utterly devoid of meaning. Their lives have no inherent value, in fact no value at all except insofar as that value is assigned to them by humans. This value is almost always strictly utilitarian. Most often this value is monetary, and more often than not this value is based not on their lives but on the price of their carcasses. And of course animals are incapable of moral behavior.
Finally, this culture constantly stresses that all that is human is good: humans have humanity and are humane, the civilized are civil. Human traits are to be loved. Animal traits are to be hated, or rather hated traits are projected onto animals. Bad humans are animals, brutes, beasts, creatures. My Roget’s thesaurus lists five synonyms for animal: inferior, mindless, unthinking, intemperate, sensualist. Mr. Roget forgot the word it: the words whoor whom are almost never used for nonhuman animals, for the steer that (read who) is strapped to a rotating drum while its (read his) esophagus is ripped out, for the grizzly bears that (read who) will spend the rest of their lives in a tiny habitat (read cage) because they ate corn valued by humans at $20, for the rhinoceros mother that (read who) dies trying to protect its (read her) child.
The last bastion of defenders of zoos is nearly always the insistence that we must never anthropomorphize, that is, we must never “attribute human characteristics” to animals (by which is meant all animals except humans). This doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t perceive them as eagerly awaiting us. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t perceive them as being “bad girls” for “invading territory not their own.” It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t perceive them as “couch potatoes.” It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t perceive them as resembling “estate owners.” It doesn’t mean that the gorillas in ape heaven don’t want to meet you. It means, quite simply, that we must do everything within our power to blind ourselves to their intelligence, their awareness, their feelings, their joys, their desires. It means we must blind ourselves to their beingness, their individuality, to them, to who they are, and to their value entirely independent of our own uses for them. It means most especially in this case that we must blind ourselves to their suffering.