Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Elephant in the Drawing Room

I work with animals in captivity, and I love it.  There are things about it that make me uncomfortable, and I've been wrestling with them for a while now.  I found a movie on Netflix called The Elephant in the Living Room which told the story of a pretty impoverished guy who kept a lion as a pet.  My first reaction to the idea of a guy keeping a pet lion in Ohio was, "That's horrible!"  The movie also followed the activity of a police officer who responds when exotic animals kept in situations like that get into trouble.  He was portrayed as the enlightened savior, the reasonable one.

Then I got to thinking that there are lions at "my zoo" whose lives aren't very much like the lives of wild lions.  What makes it so much better for a zoo to keep an exotic animal than for some schlub in middle America to do that?  He's not a zoologist or vet, but that doesn't mean he's not a clever and sensitive guy with a sense for what animals need.  My intuition tells me that he can't provide for a lion what it needs (namely, space and other lions).  I'm just curious about how much of my intuitive revulsion at the idea of keeping a lion as a pet is informed by my social class.  My experience among animal lovers tends to have been that the more affluent an animal-lover, the more they feel like an animal needs its space.  But even people who take the hardest line against pettification of animals have a hard time resisting nuzzles from an animal who's giving them.

Overall, the movie really seemed like a study in class-differentiated attitudes towards animals among Americans.

The thing that blew my mind was when Lambert's owner ended up taking in a female lion, and since he didn't really have the right facilities for Lambert (the original lion he'd raised) and the female, he ended up keeping them in a grimy horse trailer for a period of time.  The female lion got pregnant and ended up having a healthy baby.  I was shocked that things turned out so seemingly well in what looked like deplorable conditions.

The real shock came when Lambert was accidentally electrocuted.  The movie depicted this, and it was sickening and terrible.  I think it just goes to show that caring for exotic animals requires a lot of resources.  Accidents happen, but the rules that accrediting agencies come up with will help prevent them.

I don't think wild animals should be treated like pets and hand-raised to be human companions.  People really get excited about animals, and want to snuggle them and keep them as pets.  I don't believe that an animal necessarily needs to be in its natural environment to be "happy."  It's a difficult thing, when the natural environments aren't as available as animals need them to be.

Then there's the issue of access to the animals: I think zoos do a good service in giving people the chance to see animals close-up and really understand what it is we're working to conserve in the wild.  There are lots of people out there who are driven to be up close and personal with wild animals, and I'd prefer they do something like get educated and maybe become a vet or find a wildlife sanctuary to work at.  But there are people who don't have access to that kind of thing and will do things like bring home a lion cub.  I'm glad that the law doesn't side with them, but I just wish that the man in this movie had a better outlet for his desire to be with animals.        

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