- Published on Tuesday, 28 February 2012 10:00
- Written by Simon Kennedy
When I was younger, The Lion King was my favourite movie. “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” never failed to get me singing along, and I begged my parents for a pet lion. I didn’t get one. But one day they came home with a Labrador puppy.
They claimed it was a lion cub, but I was sceptical. I compromised, and We named him “Sam” and he was still a lion in my eyes.
I thought he was happy. Plentiful food and constant tummy rubs were a daily occurrence. And for Sam, tennis balls and butterflies were his daily companions. But one day he ran away. He obviously didn’t like chasing his tennis balls as much as I enjoyed throwing them.
The recent attack by a lioness on a 65-year-old zookeeper at a zoo in Parys made me think of Sam.
The lioness’ pent-up frustration at being kept in an unfamiliar environment sounds all too familiar. Although Sam was a domestic animal, he was obviously yearning for freedom and comfort of some sort, beyond the Kennedy household.
Zoos have been a central institution in society for decades. They provide an escape from the bustle of city life into a world where eating leaves and smelling each others’ bums are acceptable. What’s not to love?
At face value, the intentions of zoos are admirable. They offer protection for endangered species. In today’s world, this is pivotal, as factors such as poaching are causing the decline of species. Zoos also offer education to people of all social and financial backgrounds.
The reality, however, is different. Cages are crowded, food is foreign and life is steel and grey. We are offered an artificial and misleading view of wildlife. One of the most important points to note, however, is that animals lose their spark – that which makes them wild. And you can see it in their eyes.
It’s the same thing as putting one of us in a foreign environment. For instance, if we were locked in a Stellenbosch lecture hall, we would suffer from psychological distress and display abnormal or self-destructive behaviour. And like the lioness with the zoo keeper, we too might attack our handler – the lecturer.
In all seriousness, animals should be observed from a distance, and in the right manner. Zoos are meant for the benefit of the animals, with our concerns secondary. A pudgy, pimply 12-year-old throwing Nik-Naks at a chimpanzee, shouting at it to “do something funny” makes my hair stand on end. Imagine what it must be like for poor old Chimpo.
It is sad that we question the ethics of keeping animals in captivity only once it has an effect on us. I mean, we’re talking about this issue only because a human was affected by a lioness in a zoo. We need to examine the purposes of zoos, and whether these purposes are fulfilled.
Can animals exist in zoos without cruelty? Surely the best way to learn about animals and how to protect them would be to observe them in their natural habitats? J.M. Coetzee hit the nail on the head in his book, Disgrace: “no animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts.”