Not only journalists and copywriters are narcissists. Unfortunately we live in an entire culture suffering from narcissism, or to be more precise, we live in an entire world suffering from this culture’s narcissism. Zoo proponents are especially prone to narcissism; they have to be or they couldn’t rationalize zoos. In the book Zoo Culture: The Book About Watching People Watch Animals, Bob Mullan and Garry Marvin ask, “Why preserve wildlife at all? One might well respond that the world would be impoverished if the animals under threat of extinction were allowed [sic] to die out. But who precisely would be impoverished?” They then answer their own question in a way that makes this narcissism especially clear: “Our answer is that the human world would be impoverished, for animals are preserved solely for human benefit, because human beings have decided they want them to exist for human pleasure. The notion that they are preserved for their sakes is a peculiar one, for it implies that animals might wish a certain condition to endure. It is, however, nonsensical for humans to imagine that animals might want to continue the existence of their species.” It is obvious that neither of these authors has ever known any real wild animals, and certainly has never bothered to ask these animals—either literally or metaphorically—whether they want to survive. Of course an utter disinterest in the perspective of the other is one of the defining characteristics of narcissism. Far worse than a disinterest, however, is this denial that the other’s perspective even exists.
Contrast their words with those of Bill Frank Jr., Chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, who stated, “If the salmon could speak, he would ask us to help him survive. This is something we must tackle together.” And I would say that the salmon are already speaking, if only we would listen. Mullan and Marvin continue, “Animals other than man [sic] cannot have a sense of species identity; they cannot reflect on the nature of their collective identity; nor can they have a sense that it would be a good thing for them to continue in existence.” The authors’ assertions are unsupportable, arrogant, and absolutely necessary to justify the continuation of the extermination of nonhumans. Again they continue, “The desire for a species to continue is merely a projection on the part of human beings.” Once again unsupported, unsupportable, and necessary. Again: “The preservation of the natural world is only a preservation for our benefit.”
The authors also argue against giving zoo animals larger cages, saying that because animals generally stay in one part of the cage, they don’t need a larger territory. They cite another zoo proponent’s quip that cheetahs stay in only one part of their cage because “unlike Jogging Man, they saw no point in needlessly expending all that energy.” Mullan and Marvin add, “The desire for space, in other words, is the public’s desire, not the animals’. According to Dick van Dam, of Blijdorp Zoo, Rotterdam, ‘The animals don’t need the space but the public of course wants to see them roam on the big plain.’” Professor H. Hediger of the Zurich Zoo expands on these same ideas: “The cage used to be something in which a wild animal was incarcerated against its will, chiefly to prevent its escape. Wild animals lived in cages like convicts in prison. This led to the idea, largely extinct today but still smouldering among some people with little knowledge of animals, that animals in the zoo were indeed convicts and innocent convicts at that, pining away in grief, sorrow, and resentment at the loss of their ‘golden freedom’ and frequently dying of homesickness.” Hediger is saying that if we believe that animals feel—and remember, humans are animals, too—then we must have “little knowledge of animals.” He continues, “Today the idea that zoo animals are in any way like innocent convicts is just as fanciful as the belief that the voices in the radio emanate from little men imprisoned in the box.” Now if we believe animals feel—and remember, humans are animals, too—then according to Dr. Hediger, we must be crazy. He keeps going: “Wild animals in the zoo rather resemble estate owners. Far from desiring to escape and regain their freedom, they are only bent on defending the space they inhabit and on keeping it safe from intrusion.” Need I comment on this, or is it as obvious to you as it is to me that this way of thinking is insane? Time and again we see the same rationale with slightly different words. Here are the words of yet another zookeeper: “If you had to spend a weekend in a superdome without contact with other people, you would be going up the wall with boredom by Monday morning. But if I locked you in this office (a small one) for the weekend, and gave you a radio, books, pencils and so forth, you would keep yourself occupied.”
I’m sure you can see the fallacies. First, these animals are not locked in these cages only over a weekend, but for their lives. Second, the options are not solely whether the animals should be locked in a small cage or a large one—an office or a superdome. The zookeeper ignores the third option: to blow up both the office and the superdome, the small cage and the large one, and let the animals go. Or even better: to not capture the animals in the first place. Next, if the animals need only a small space and do not wish to roam—or, as Hediger put it, the animals have ceased “desiring to escape and regain their freedom”—then surely there would be no need for bars, moats, or electrified fences. Again, I can tell again that none of these zookeepers has ever had a meaningful relationship with—or, for that matter, even truly seen—any wild animal. Have they never seen sea lions surfing, or seagulls playing in the wind? Haven’t they seen wolfpacks playing together, and deer prancing and playing from joy? Have they never seen squirrels racing up and down trees, teasing each other and teasing dogs and others who cannot climb to catch them? I used to raise chickens, and on cold nights I would bring the motherless chicks inside. Each morning when I’d take them back into the sun they would leap and dance and turn pirouettes. They would play. Both wild and domestic animals—and this is the birthright of all of us, including humans, though civilized humans have been forced to forget this—spend a tremendous amount of time playing. It’s a lot of what we do. It’s a lot of why we’re here.