This Will Probably Get Me In Trouble, But The Problem Isn’t Just At SeaWorld…..

OPINION ALERTI don’t think that you will be left in any doubt as to my opinions in the following piece. Civil, thought-out comments are welcome. All others will go in the virtual round file. And the protestations of those whose income relies in any way on the use of captive wild animals for profit will be taken with Upton Sinclair’s quote in mind: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on his not understanding it.I’m not out to necessarily change anyone’s mind or behavior, but if I make you uncomfortable about some assumptions you’ve had, well, I’ve done my job.

So, SeaWorld is in the news again with another “attack” by a killer whale/orca, resulting in a human death. SeaWorld is one of the public faces of Animals As Entertainment. Do not be deceived by their blather about science. They wouldn’t spend a dime on it if they didn’t need to to reassure the public that they are doing “good things” that benefit the animals. The trainers are simply enablers.

Heather Houlahan, over at her blog Raised By Wolves, has a dynamite post on the issues involved in “training” wild animals like orcas, how the so-called positive methods used have bled over into the training of domestic dogs and what really goes on in getting a five ton marine mammal to do what you want, say, to let you collect its urine.

At the intersection of humans, animals and profit, the interests of our species almost always triumph. But there’s some level of at least sub-conscious discomfort because the people involved seem to consistently insist that they love animals. But their income and the care of their families is dependent on the orca/wolf/lion etc. performing as needed. There is an inherent conflict here that the parties involved need to, no, must, ignore.

A partly hidden world of using animals to perform for profit are the game ranches that provide genetically wild animals for photographers, movies, tv and, increasingly, animal artists. When visiting them you hear the same thing as from places like SeaWorld: “Oh, they’re wild. They could hurt you. Can’t be trained by anything but positive methods.” Which means, I guess, that they aren’t actually beaten. But they live in a sensory-deprived environment, unable to express their normal behaviors and instincts and are totally dependent on humans for food…..just like the marine mammals at SeaWorld.

I’ve seen an adult snow leopard kept in a cage maybe equal to its full length (barely including the tail), only taken out for “training” and to perform. A baby bear who was allowed to shock itself on an electric wire to “teach” it to stay with in the enclosed area. A badger who could not be handled, so her claws had grown to around twice the normal length. She was kept in a cage and only brought out for photo opps at a pre-dug hole, never getting to dig herself. But, hey, she lived to over twenty, so she must have had a good life, right?

These places breed animals too. Want a cherry-red fox, a particularly desirable color variant? If you’re in that world, you know who to call. Need a white wolf/black jaguar/bobcat/lynx/grizzly cub/cougar/snow leopard/Siberian tiger/Barbary lion? They’re all out there, for a price, just waiting to become stars who make their owners (with luck, lots of) money.

And what happens to the ones who don’t want to socialize to humans or simply refuse to perform and pay their way? I have no personal knowledge, but the economics of running such a business and the fact that zoos and sanctuaries, as far as I know, won’t take these “surplus” animals is suggestive.

The animals at both the ranches that I’ve gone to are kept in enclosures that are, from what I’ve seen, the same size or smaller than the worst, crappy old-time zoo cages that you can imagine. But since the ranches are “regulated” by the Agriculture Department, they come under the heading of livestock, just like cows and pigs, so official zoo standards of care don’t apply. Sweet, uh?

If the accredited zoo standard of care for game ranch wild animals was required, these places would be out of business tomorrow. And lax state regulation and oversight is probably one reason why the ranches are located in the states they are. But I actually did hear the owner of one place complaining about the owner of another because his violations were so constant and egregious that it had brought the Feds down on him and now all the others were facing increased scrutiny. Life is SO unfair.

The motive is the same as with places like SeaWorld- using captive, genetically wild animals for profit by making them perform certain behaviors for humans as and when required. The ranches, so far, fly under the public and animal welfare radar. But pretty much every calendar and a lot of magazine articles that you see and read, with photos of snow leopards, wolves, cougars and the like, are almost certainly captive animals from these ranches. I’ve even recognized some. Oh, there’s Jimmy the cougar and Princess the snow leopard (made-up names).

I must admit to some frustration with artists who profess to care about wild animals enough to spend their professional lives painting them, but have let their desire to be physically close to them and get reference images blind them to what is going on from an animal welfare standpoint. (See above quote by Upton Sinclair) And of course the people who own the ranches are nice folks. I don’t doubt it. I’ve met some of them. I’m sure they believe it when they say that their animals are treated well. But there’s that pesky inherent conflict again.

(I’m ambivalent about zoos, too. But, as another artist put it, she sees the animals in them as the individual sacrifices necessary to save entire species. And real conservation and science goes on at most of them. So, to me, they can justify their existence, more or less. However, I’ve talked to more than one keeper who seemed very certain that they knew what a given animal in their care needed to be “happy”. But is any kind of human introduced “enrichment” or fiddling with the enclosure really enough? And how can the humans really know? See above quote by Upton Sinclair. I’ve seen a depressing amount of stereotyped behavior like pacing and paw-licking at all the “good” zoos.)

The question, to my mind, isn’t how genetically wild animals are treated in captivity when used for human entertainment and profit, but whether should they be kept at all.

(A final note: I have no use for PETA or any other animal rights organization of their ilk. PETA kills 97% of the animals that are unfortunate enough to fall into their clutches. Their agenda is to end the keeping of all animals by humans. They are batshit crazy extremists. See this post on Pet Connection for more information. My concern is animal welfare. And if you are unclear on the difference, use teh googles.)