While visiting Indiana, I went to the Indianapolis Zoo with my 2- and 4-year-old grandchildren. There was a lot of excitement about cheetahs wrestling with each other, orangutans swinging from ropes, and dolphins performing athletic tricks. It's always fun to be with them, but I found the visit depressing.
As a kid, my parents took us to the Bronx Zoo, at that time a world-class zoo. Since then, zoos have transformed themselves from exotic animal incarceration facilities to thoughtful educational institutions, replacing cages with landscapes, building environments which mimic natural settings, and rescuing instead of capturing wild animals. The headline on the Bronx Zoo’s website says “Saving Wildlife and Wild Places”. Still, I can’t get over seeing eagles confined to enclosures barely large enough for one beat of their wings, observing fellow primates behind glass with nothing to do, and clapping for dolphins as a circus act.
I have not forced myself toward a firm position on animal rights, but I no longer get a thrill from the human ability to put wild and wonderful creatures on display for our viewing pleasure.
The educational messaging of the Indianapolis Zoo was the most depressing aspect of my visit. Over and over again, at many, perhaps most stations with carefully worded signs, we were told in plain language about the predictable results of our murderous heedlessness toward other life forms. Humans kill large, complex animals just for “fun”. Rich men pay enormous sums to fly to faraway places, so they can sneak up on unsuspecting animals and shoot them.
I find that impulse sickening.
But big game trophy hunters are not the main problem for the world’s wildlife. Elephants and rhinos are regularly hunted for their tusks and horns, which some people believe have magical curative powers. Extinction is on its way.
Even more destructive are the normal human processes of making land “useful”, cutting down rain forests to create farms and grazing land. Signs all over the Indianapolis Zoo repeated the warning that animal habitats are being transformed into human habitats, driving the Earth’s living diversity toward irreversible extinction.
Human heedlessness, or better selfishness, is demonstrated every day by the unnecessary pollution of the atmosphere and the oceans. These vast reservoirs of life-giving resources have been human garbage dumps from the earliest societies until the most “advanced”. Now that our “civilization” has developed more technologically sophisticated methods to promote human convenience, now that humans have multiplied beyond sustainability, we are not only killing the world’s animals, but are hurtling toward mass suicide.
Humans have the unique capacity to rationalize the mass killing even of our own species. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is merely the latest instance among countless human wars against ourselves, never about survival, always about human hatred for other humans, justified by the most elaborate systems of “moral” or “religious” belief. “Useful” always means useful for us, regardless of earthly consequences.
I am not trying to be cute with quotation marks. The words I have modified in that way are tendentious, although I have taken a long time to recognize that fact. Moralities can rationalize mass murder with abstract syllogisms. Religions whose texts condemn killing in plain language find ways to bless murderous enterprises on a grand scale. Other ways of thinking are possible.
The uniquely human creation over the past few centuries of a detailed understanding of the world we inhabit appears to be no match for much older stories that humans have made up about how our inherent superiority allows us total control over all forms of life and death. The messages the Earth is sending us are no less clear than the printed signs at the Indianapolis Zoo about what “human impact” means for all life forms.
As the plastic pollution of our oceans threatens us on land, as the modern great extinction picks up speed, as the weather predictably endangers life and property, the biggest adherents of divine human right are barely discomfited by the clash of reality with belief. The zoo should remind us that humans have the power over life and death for everything on Earth. Thus far our species has not been pro-life.