Sunday, March 27, 2011

We love our pets. Does that translate into respect for all animals?

Like many millions of pet owners, my heart breaks when a pet dies. I lost my gentle collie, Ali’i, to a brain tumor in 2009. My gentle 3-legged cat Mele died when she was 17 years old, last fall.

Is it my imagination, or were pets were more disposable back in the 1950s and 60s? My zookeeper dad certainly didn’t try to instill a love of animals in his children.
We had a puppy named Star. I barely remember him. He ran out into the street and got hit by a car.
I remember my Chicken Little. Back in the 1950s, getting a baby chick or a baby duck for Easter was a wonderful surprise, even in Clawson, Michigan, a suburb outside Detroit, where houses were packed in pretty close. Pet stores carried these delicate little darlings for suburban kids, with no thought of what we’d do when the chick or duckling became a chicken or a duck… if they were lucky enough to make it to adulthood.
Chicken Little stole my heart. I’d come home from school, step inside the front door, kneel down and knock on the floor, and she would come running to me, quick as anything. One day, I came home, and knocked on the floor. Nothing. Knock, knock. No Chicken Little. I found mom, to tell her something was wrong. Mom told me that Chicken Little had jumped into the toilet and drowned that afternoon, while I was at school. I was distraught, in tears, but I had no reason to disbelieve my mother. As a 6-year-old, I thought it was perfectly normal for a tiny chick to leap into the air, for no apparent reason, and land inside a toilet bowl and die. I never saw the dead chick.

I'm playing with my kitten in 1958.

There was another strange animal disappearance. My kitten was only with us a couple of weeks. One day, she was gone. It wasn’t until last month that my sister told me she saw dad throw the kitten against the wall. She thought I knew.
And then there was the time my family drove “to the country” (as suburban kids used to say) and dad saw a snapping turtle next to a pond. He stopped the car, ran and caught the turtle. After holding it up to show us kids, he killed it, for no reason, just the utter joy of being master of the universe. Animals were pretty disposable around my dad.
Why would dad think animals were anything that deserved human respect and compassion? In his job as a chimp trainer, he knew the disposability of zoo animals.
Most of the zoo chimps back in the 1940s and 50s were wild born in Africa, taken forcefully from their mothers (who were usually killed), and brought by a dealer to the U.S., where they were sold as 1- or 2-year-olds to zoos. The show chimps generally lasted only two, three, or maybe five years “on stage,” before they were unceremoniously dumped into medical research programs or breeding facilities, where they would live in inhumane conditions for 20 or 30 years. And the zoo would just order new chimps from the dealers.
Michael Jackson abandoned
Bubbles when the chimp grew up.
Ah, you’re thinking, those were the bad old days. Thank goodness, people don’t dump unwanted apes today! Ummmm…
You may remember Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s beloved chimp. Whatever happened to Bubbles? He is in a sanctuary now, the Center for Great Apes, where he is receiving all the love and care a chimp in captivity could want… with no thanks to the Jackson estate, I believe. Michael’s estate reportedly earned $756 million in the year after his death, but Bubbles’ upkeep depends on the kindness and contributions of strangers.
I don’t have any psychological training, but it seems to me that unthinking disregard and manifestations of superiority over animals are passed down through the generations, unless someone or something breaks the link. As an adult, my brother would flick his finger at a dog’s most sensitive nose area, for no reason, just so the dog – which he didn’t even own, by the way -- would know that my brother was boss. It seems likely that he learned this trick of abusive control from my dad – or from someone like him.
So, what do we do?
Zoos today are much better at keeping their chimpanzees for their full 30 or 40 or 50 years on this earth, but – and here I’ll probably tick off my zoo friends – I am conflicted. Most accredited zoos try to give chimps enrichment to fight boredom and to stimulate healthy behaviors, but it still seems insufficient to me. I wish zoos would stop reproduction in captive chimp populations. I love seeing a cute baby chimp as much as the next person, but I’m not sure we should have the right to breed them just to subject them to cement, cages, and human dominance for "exhibition" purposes for their entire life.
Many show business ape trainers today are still living in yesterday’s world, training animals with little thought to their emotional health. Great apes have the same rights as a piece of furniture. I believe great apes deserve rights to a dignified existence, but you can decide for yourself. This blog from National Geographic lays out some arguments.
Is someone around you abusing animals? The ASPCA can help.
And the complicated human part? Where we engrain animal abuse into the psyche of the next generation of abused children? We need to rescue those kids, and instill in them a respect for life that, as victims, they can’t totally buy into. If you know or suspect a child is being abused, go to Prevent Child Abuse America. Now.

UPDATE, 3/30/2011: Read how a chimp expert challenged my long-held beliefs. Steve Ross changed my mind.

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