I love my dogs.
Yet, I felt like a huge jerk when I took both of them from their mothers, just like how I felt like a huge jerk when I left them alone in their crate their first night away from their mothers. Unfortunately, that’s the best way we have to train our dogs, and I know that this training helped them develop their own little sanctuary in my house. In the end, what seemed cruel actually was beneficial for them.
The training, or domestication, of dogs has been going on for just about as long as there have been humans. Fun fact for you, they were essentially the only animal domesticated in North America (something I learned in a book I’m reading right now, which magically connects this back to one of my earlier editorials). Wolves were probably first domesticated for their meat, but eventually humans began to realize the hunting capabilities and the potential for companionship. All of the other animals were brought over by colonizing powers or up eventually from South America.
Since then, we’ve figured out how to domesticate everything from guinea pigs to dolphins. As impressive as that spectrum might be, the vast majority of the wild world still remains just that: wild. We’ve managed to capture many of them and coop them up in zoos (and we justify that to ourselves by saying we are keeping them for research), but beyond that ,we haven’t figured out a way to tame much of the animal kingdom.
I see zoos as an improvement over what we did to animals not so long ago. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Coliseum, where animals were not only chained in cages, but also forced to battle each other to the death. This is fairly similar to the bullfights of Spain and southern France where matadors dance with bulls until they have an opportunity to put a sword in their brain (and actually are still held today). In zoos, the most threatening things are the small amount of space and the toddlers that incessantly tap on the glass. It’s extremely different from the natural habitat that the animals would prefer, but I believe that the research gathered by zoologists and the exposure to the public does a lot to educate the masses and therefore provide a level of protection that the animal’s species wouldn’t have otherwise.
So how does that compare to the elephants of the Ringling Bros.? The circus has many claims of animal abuse brought against them and understandably so. Just as I don’t like the idea of leaving my puppy alone in her crate overnight, I’m not a huge fan of the idea of elephants being shackled together at night or prodded along with pointy sticks. I’m sure that the conditions these elephants are subjected to are far different from their natural habitat, and that probably affects their overall health. However, it is not in a circus’s best interest to ferry a troop of sickly elephants from show to show and this leads me to believe that they do what they can to keep their elephants healthy.
If you remember back a few weeks ago, you’ll recall an editorial I wrote about corporations. If you missed it, here’s a quick synopsis: companies exist to make money, and this is a good thing. Now, if you apply that theory to the circus, having elephants that are in a constant state of being sick has to be incredibly expensive. I’d have to imagine that there are relatively few doctors capable of tending to elephants, at least here in the U.S., so they can easily charge an arm and a trunk.
It is then in the circus’s best interest to do everything they can to maintain the health their elephants. This also means that they have to do what they can to protect their elephants by properly training them, which is no small feat when it comes to wild animals of their size. Hence the prods and the chains. According to Wikipedia (insert snide remark about Wikipedia as a source here), an elephant’s skin can be up to two and a half inches thick. I’m no expert, but I’d be willing to bet that it wouldn’t respond to just a gentle shove.
Now, that brings us to the question of whether or not it is even fair to bring these animals out of the habitat for something as “silly” as the circus. This is a question that the Ringling Bros. ask their audience every night, and based on the fact that they are able to attract large audiences means that the majority of the population must see some level of fairness in it. Unfortunately for some, this is how capitalism works. No matter how passionate the minority is, the majority can overrule them with cash.
The circus doesn’t use animals in their acts because they hate animals or because they want to abuse animals. I’d in fact argue that they probably care for the animals as much as any activist, and that the things they do to the animals that we perceive as being inhumane are actually done for the animal’s benefit. I’d say that rather then asking Ringling to outright stop, maybe request that they mention how in danger the elephant’s species is. Creating a win-win situation is far more likely to instigate a change, and could possibly even foster a new understanding of the specie’s condition.