The Colosseum of ancient Rome is one of history’s most famous monuments. It is remembered for it’s phenomenal architecture, and for the legendary gladiators who fought there. The gladiators — many of them slaves — were made to do battle for the entertainment of the spectators. But it wasn’t just men (and women) who fought in the arena. Animals, too, were made to shed their blood for the amusement of the Roman citizens.
Today, we look back this as a barbaric practice. But around the world, animals are still forced to perform for our amusement in unnatural conditions. These animals, kept in captivity and usually forced by threat of physical violence, suffer tremendously for no reason other than our own fleeting amusement.
In every zoo, circus, and marine park we force intelligent, social creatures to perform stunts and feats for us, while we watch and laugh. When these incarcerated animals strike back, as has been the case famously with whales at Sea World, it briefly generates a media sensation. But the slow, regular and methodical mistreatment and suffering of these creatures that lead up to these outbursts rarely receive much media attention.
Even in zoos, which many regard as being humane institutions, animals are kept in cages or enclosures which can never even approximate their natural environments. While there have been advances in limiting some of the more egregious forms of animal abuse, the widespread mistreatment and exploitation of our fellow creatures continues all over the globe. It’s time that we end this barbaric practice.
Forced to Perform
For centuries, people have made a living showing captive bears, tigers lions, and other exotic animals perform stunts or tricks for audiences. These shows have long been the primary attraction of the circus. Circuses and carnivals around the world continue this practice today. But these performances are obviously nothing like the behavior these animals display in the wild. These animals have to be trained to perform — and this training inevitably involves starvation, beating, confinement, and terror. Once animals have been “broken” and know the routines, they are still subject to the stresses and deprivations of life on the road, not to mention complete isolation from their own kind and their natural environment. Circuses should be fun for everyone — no one should be forced to perform, whether they are human or any other animal.
Animals in Zoos
Studies of elephants in zoos have found that most of them are overweight, suffer various health complications, and suffer from apparent mental disorders. Similar behavioral anomalies have been observed in captive orcas and whales. While we can be delighted by the beauty and intelligence of these creatures when we see them in zoo, the reality is that — just like humans — being kept in artificial enclosures is damaging to them — mentally and physically. Lions in zoos often spend up to half of their waking hours pacing — a clear sign of mental distress. The difficulty most zoos have in maintaining animal populations through breeding programs without importing new captured animals speaks to the difficult living conditions captive animals have to deal with.
Even zoos that want to provide adequate conditions for their captive animals face insurmountable challenges. Animals like elephants or whales are supposed to travel great distances, exposing themselves to a diverse range of experiences, and developing rich and complex social lives in and out of their immediate families. Zoos can never replicate the intricacies of a natural environment, and in many cases they don’t even try. Our inability to appreciate the complex emotional and intellectual lives of other animals has led to a great many misunderstandings over the years. In the 17th century, the famous philosopher Descartes argued that, unlike humans, animals were incapable of experience, and that the squeals and shrieks they exhibited when he performed experiments on them were mere physical reactions to stimuli. He believed this because animals, unlike humans, have no soul.
Today, that argument by Descartes seems ridiculous to most of us. But the idea that only humans are capable of complex experience is still very much with us. Everyone is familiar with the concept of alpha wolves, who establish dominance over their packs through aggression and intimidation to become the leader. This theory informs much of our strategies for training dogs. But not many people know that this theory has been abandoned by biologists, as it was based entirely on observation of wolves kept in captivity in an artificial environment. Wolves in the wild do not exhibit this behavior at all — social groups are structured around families, with two parents and 1-3 generations of their offspring forming a pack. The aggressive, alpha behavior is a response to being torn from their natural family structure and environment, much like the types of hierarchies which form in prison populations.
It’s not difficult to see that animals do not want to be kept behind glass and bars, being gawked at and photographed all day by laughing and smiling strangers, day after monotonous day. Underlying all these practices, from zoos to circuses, is the assumption that we have a right to exploit other beings for our own amusement. Many practices which used to be considered normal have been abandoned as the conscience of our civilization has grown. It is time that we stop the practice of forcing animals to entertain us.
For more information on ways you can help create a cruelty free world, visit our Ways to Help page.