Like everyone else this week, I was saddened and discouraged by the tragic death of Harambe, a silverback Western lowland gorilla, who was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo. Even without making a judgement about the actions of the zoo officials, the parents or the child, it is impossible not to wish there had been another solution.
However, this was not the first time this week that I was shocked and horrified by the killing of an animal. Have you been following the story about the “tiger monastery” in Thailand? The Thai authorities have been trying to remove the tigers from the Buddhist temple [Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua], because they believe that the temple is involved in illegal wildlife trading. The temple keeps tigers on its grounds that tourists can pay to bathe, pet and feed. The story broke yesterday that 40 dead tiger cubs were found in a freezer at the temple; this came in the midst of the authorities removing dozens and dozens of tigers from the property for their own safety and protection. It was another terrible story–especially because it involved Buddhist monks. [Read about it here: 40 dead tiger cubs]
Both of these stories point to the harsh reality that we simply cannot ignore, which is that humans have irrevocably [and often cruelly] inserted themselves into the lives of wild animals, necessitating new ways of interaction that, even when well-intentioned, too often end up exploitative, manipulative and abusive. Some people think we should get rid of zoos altogether; but the reality is, for many critically endangered species, zoo breeding programs are the only hope they have of maintaining genetically diverse populations. [And what about the long list of animals that are extinct in the wild and survive only in zoos?] Some people want to get rid of animal parks, but the reality is, money from safaris [and even big game hunts, which I strongly oppose] fund conservation work and anti-poaching patrols. There are few easy answers, especially when the wild spaces into which animals could be released are often very fragile insecure, and leave those animals vulnerable to human predation as well as starvation.
This doesn’t mean that things shouldn’t be done differently. Orcas, for example, simply do not belong in captivity, period: no human-made structure can’t replicate the ocean. [Cheetahs are another animal that doesn’t do well in captivity….] Elephants, bears and big cats don’t belong in circuses–they need to be freed. And, we need to push for better, larger, more humane and more “natural” enclosures for ALL animals, everywhere, and protest those zoos and parks that clearly do not have animal welfare first and foremost in mind at all times. We need to be more vigilant when it comes to illegal wildlife trade, and we need to stop eating animals that are mistreated, endangered or threatened–shark fin soup is just one example. [Maybe we should stop eating all animals, but you know how I feel about that….]
Human animal /non-human animal relationships are deeply fraught, and scarred by tragic misuse, abuse, neglect and exploitation. [That’s sin, people]. We can’t go back to Eden, we can only go forward. And that means doing all that we can, in every situation we can, to try to make things better, protecting animal habitats, as well as animals themselves–in your town, in your state, in your world. They all matter–frogs to kingfishers to pandas. We simply have to do better–for Harambe, for the tigers, and for ourselves.