Friday, June 10, 2011

One More Dead Wolf

On the morning of June 8th, a Mexican gray wolf escaped from his cage at the Minnesota Zoo. He walked slowly on a path, and people quickly moved away from him. The zoo staff decided that they should shoot to kill instead of tranquilize. Their rationale was that the wolf was a danger to zoo patrons and a tranquilizer dart, according to zoo officials, "can take 10-15 minutes to fully take effect on an animal."

So a choice had to be made by the zoo: either tranquilize the wolf and risk him injuring or killing patrons, or kill the wolf  and deal with the negative publicity that would be sure to follow. They chose to kill.

I have often said that if a tiger broke into my house and seemed intent on eating my children, I would not be opposed to killing her if that's what it took to save my kids. (I should note here that I would do the same if a human broke into my house and she seemed intent on eating (or just killing, I guess) my children. What I would do in this situation says nothing about what we should routinely do to animals.)

My point is, I'm not sure that the zoo necessarily made the wrong choice in this specific instance, though I think they should have more ways to catch an animal unharmed than by just using tranquilizer darts. The process they have in place for things like this should rule out killing an animal except for in the most extreme cases. Their emergency reaction plans don't take the non-human animal lives at the zoo into as much consideration as they should. But since they didn't have adequate protocol and their options were truly kill or tranquilize (as the zoo claims), I can understand why they chose kill.

The big wrong choice the zoo made was when it chose to be a zoo. Zoos are inherently unjust places, tiny pale facsimiles of animals' natural habitats, places where animals go senile, places where animals are merely a commodity to be used to entertain and, ostensibly, educate.

So in my view, the real question isn't whether or not the zoo should have shot the wolf, it's whether or not the wolf should have been there in the first place. It's obvious to me that the answer is no. We can't justify imprisioning these animals for our entertainment or even for (again, ostensibly) our education. And the fact that they escape (and they do quite a bit ... oh and let's not forget this), and then zoos are often caused to weigh the non-human animals' lives against the potential of harm to paying customers ... it seems like a recipe for disaster.

Of course, news outlets jumped all over this story. And there were plenty of outraged citizens, saying the zoo acted rashly and should have done more to capture the wolf alive. I agree. But I think it misses the point of the institutionally entrenched problem of speciesism, which allows horrible situations like this to happen.

That's an It. He's an It. Not a He.

On Minnesota Public Radio, they wrote:
"Zoo officials said no people were in immediate danger but they decided to shoot the wolf because they couldn't predict where it would go or whether it would hurt people visiting the Northern Trail." (link)
Elsewhere in the story, Tony Fisher, the zoo's "animal collection manager" refers to this wolf as a "he." I can't for the life of me understand why MPR would refer to him as "it." The rest of the news outlets, of course, also referred to the wolf as "it," even though he was identified as male within their stories.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press managed to gender and neuter the wolf in the same paragraph:
"The 8-year-old male wolf slipped through the gaps of a fence in the keeper area of its exhibit into a secondary enclosure where it jumped an 8-foot fence, said animal collections manager Tony Fisher." (link)
And the Star Tribune did the same thing (in fact, the combination of the words "male that" is the shortest distance possible between gendering and neutering):
"The wolf, an 8-year-old male that was born at the zoo, is one of an endangered subspecies with only a few dozen living in the wild. There were three Mexican gray wolves at the zoo, but this one was not on exhibit because it didn't get along with the other two, Fisher said." (link)
The AP went there, too. They did correctly attribute one gendered pronoun to the wolf, but then decided to neuter him anyway:
"Tony Fisher, MN Zoo animal collection manager, told KARE 11 the ordeal began around 10 a.m. when the male wolf escaped his primary display area. Vets and zookeepers armed with tranquilizers started gathering and preparing to recapture the wolf but it jumped a secondary barrier and ran out among the public walking on the zoo's Northern Trail." (link)
I've got to hand it to Tony Fisher though, in all the quotes I saw from him, he referred to the wolf by the proper pronoun. I wish the reporting media would have followed suit. I don't have my AP Style Guide handy, but I wonder if there's something in there that says you have to refer to a non-human animal as "it" even if you know his or her gender. Any reporters out there want to help me out here? Are there style guidelines on this?

This bothers me, as you can tell. Animals are not its, they are hes and shes (or in the case of hermaphroditic animals, the generic, but non-objectifying, "they"). By routinely refusing to attribute a gender to them, we reduce them to the level of things. Things are "its." We don't have to care about things. We don't really care about animals so we refer to them at "its." And we refer to them as "its" to make it easier to not care about them.

It's pervasive, it's insidious and I really, really want it to stop. Regardless of how you feel about animals, you should at least recognize them as beings who are not mere things. That recognition should be reflected in your language.

Precious Species, Worthless Lives

The Minnesota Zoo released a note on their Facebook page which explains why they shot the wolf instead of tranquilizing him. One of the comments on this note sums up what I think a lot of people are feeling:
"I am disappointed that this extreme action had to take place. A precious life had to end today because the zoo we support did not do its job to keep the animals safe. While I don't want to see any humans injured better safeguards should have been in place. I have been a long time member and contributor but am rethinking my support."
First of all, this extreme action didn't have to take place. This is a dilemma that was created by the zoo. If there was no zoo, this dilemma would not have existed.

Secondly, this wolf's life is no more precious than the chicken's life which became your last meal of McNuggets.

Thirdly, support for the zoo should not occur if you truly regard the lives there as precious. I know that this wolf is a member of an endangered species, but that doesn't mean his individual life is intrinsically more precious than any other animal's.

And let's not forget the reason this species is on extinction's door: human hunting of wolves. Speciesism feeds speciesism. On the one hand, humans have nearly eradicated Mexican gray wolves. On the other hand, humans are confining Mexican gray wolves in hopes of saving the species.

But what good is a species?  A species is a concept. A species doesn't have feelings. A species doesn't care if it's extinct.

What matters - who matters - are the individual members of species. But it's the individual members who are routinely confined, abused and killed. We confine them in zoos. We further encroach on their habitats with  urban sprawl. We clear-cut rain forests so we can have cheap cow flesh (and we kill cows for flesh). We kill 23 million individual chickens per day in the United States alone.

Looking at the patterns of abuse and disregard, it's obvious that the overwhelming majority of we humans could care less about individual members of species. It's almost comical to me then, that we go to such lengths to save species.

Anna and the Aquarium

Needless to say, my family doesn't go to zoos. The potential for escaped carnivores doesn't really come in to play when we make that choice; the right of animals to live free from ownership and exploitation does. Our sense of justice does.

That said, a few weeks ago Anna's class took a field trip to the Mall of America's underground aquarium, Minnesota Sea Life. We talked with Anna about it before hand and told her that she could go if she wants, or she could stay home. She said she wanted to go. She said she thought fish shouldn't be in cages, but she also wanted to go to see what it's like. She said she would maybe ask the people who worked there if they could let the fish go.

But she was sick that day. So she didn't go after all.

Her teacher and I were talking about it today and she said she was glad Anna wasn't there. There were a lot of dead animals that the kids could look at up close. Like a dead turtle, for example.

How many kids wondered what the turtle's life was like? What lessons did they learn by gazing upon this deceased individual's lifeless form?

What lessons did they learn by looking at the living beings trapped behind glass?

Further Reading

After writing this post, I looked online for critiques of zoos from an animal rights perspective. The following pieces are worth taking a look at (note: I don't necessarily endorse all views expressed on the sites at the other end of these links):

Should Zoos Keep Endangered Species? by Doris Lin
What's Wrong With Zoos? by Gary Yourofsky
Zoos by Wanda Embar at Vegan Peace

UPDATE: The Animal Rights Coalition has released a statement in regard to the shooting of the wolf. You can read it here.


mindy said...

I would have been interested in what Anna thought of the aquarium. Too bad she couldn't go.

This wolf business really makes me angry. That's about all I can say about that. Really profound, I know. You're welcome.

NIH said...

Hi Al,
I just visited a zoo with my daughter last week. And it was with very conflicted thoughts and emotions about the whole thing. I haven't been to a zoo since I started my vegan journey about 18 months ago.

The value I see in zoos is their educational and research value. A lot of people who work in zoos are tackling some pretty serious conservation/biodiversity problems, and working so hard to raise awareness of them. (for example, Toronto Zoo's "Adopt a Pond" program:

Furs, skeletons, teeth, shells, and other animal parts are very real and tangible to visitors. I think that if the zoo has them, and offers access to them, they provide a way for visitors to develop a deeper understanding of other species. See how those bones are formed, where the eyes are positioned, how large or small the teeth are and what that tells us about what the animal eats, the same basic bone structure of a bat's wing and a primate's hand. Feel how light a bird's skeleton is. Stand right next to a whale vertebrae. All of this gives people experience with other species that they might not otherwise get. And, if it's done well, it can inspire awe and respect for other species. That's the effect my zoo visit last week had on me, anyways.

Al said...

Hi Nadia,

I understand your points in favor of zoos. The piece by Wanda Embar that I linked to at the end of my post responds to most of what you said.

As far as looking at dead animal parts goes, I do find it morbid. It makes me uncomfortable much in the same way an exhibit of human body parts would. The idea of the skin of a human hanging on the wall for kids to touch strikes me as creepy (even if the human consented before death, which an animal cannot do). But maybe that's just a cultural hang-up that I have. Maybe there shouldn't be anything creepy about it. But since there is, and it's so ingrained in us that the bodies of dead humans are to be treated with respect, then I feel that same respect should be paid to animals.

Another thing to consider is what kind of lives these animals had before they died and their bodies/body parts were put on display. Were they killed just for that purpose? If the animals died of natural causes in nature, then wouldn't it be best to leave the bodies there so that they can nourish the soil, bugs and scavengers?

Oh, the questions we ask!

Anonymous said...

AP Style Book: Do not apply a personal pronoun to an animal unless its sex has been established or the animal has a name.

Al said...

Thank you, Anon. Since the sex of this wolf was firmly established, then we can conclude that those reporting this story don't have a firm grasp of AP style.