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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Do animals understand the concept of freedom?

Since time immemorial, we have kept animals prisoner to our whims and fancies.

Written by Ranjit Lal | Updated: August 15, 2020 7:53:32 am
A free bird: Animals revel in freedom just as much as we do (Source: Ranjit Lal)

Ever since the COVID-19 lockdowns kept nearly the entire population of the world incarcerated in their homes, cartoonists have had a gala time showing animals strolling “downtown”, peering into our windows and passing snide comments. There have been any number of videos also depicting much of the same — deer jaywalking on the streets, bears disporting themselves in people’s lawns, leopards sneaking around on the lookout for pet dogs and so forth. Some of us huffed and puffed indignantly — how dare these wild things infringe on our personal spaces, quite forgetting that we were the ones who turfed them out of what were their homes in the first place (I hate crocodile wranglers so much because they jump on the backs of crocs and bind them up with rope and duct tape just because they’re reclaiming someone’s swimming pool, where once a lovely marsh used to be).

But since time immemorial, we have kept animals prisoner to our whims and fancies, robbing them of their freedom (and, often, babies) for our own pleasure. Two of the main culprits in this regard have been circuses and zoos. It is easy to brainwash a child into believing that watching tutu-clad elephants walk on beach balls and tigers and lions sit on bar stools and beg are perfectly all right: as a child back in the ’60s. I could hardly wait for the circus to come to town so I could see these shows. Better sense dawned later, and, today, thank God, circuses with animal acts are either being banned or being shunned by the public. Those horrendous shows at the SeaWorld theme parks, where gigantic patent leather killer whales were made to pick piddly little sardines from the fingers of a blonde woman (and get a kiss) are, hopefully, over forever. In India, alas, you can still occasionally come across a “dancing” sloth bear, jerking to the rhythm of the dugg-duggi — not because it’s happy but because it’s in pain due to the rope or chain running through its nostrils.

Less violent, perhaps, but equally demeaning are zoos. Most zoos these days will claim that their raison d’être is the conservation of endangered species and to educate the public. Not everyone can go to the Poles to look at polar bears or penguins, or to the African rainforests to see gorillas. Many rare wild animals are captive bred to save them from extinction — all of which would make perfect sense if there was still a wild to take them back to. Besides, rehabilitating a zoo-born-and-bred animal into the wild is no easy thing. And, sadly, there are still zoos where animals are housed in dark, dingy cages, pacing up and down, crazy, with stereotypy. Some zoos do provide large “natural” enclosures — and entertaining challenges for their charges to keep them from dying of boredom. But even these can backfire: At Singapore’s famous Jurong Park, they hold shows where raptors demonstrate their hunting techniques: a hawk, kite or eagle, perched on its handler’s arm, is made to free fly some distance to another keeper holding a tidbit. The bird deftly grabs the snack in its talons, and the crowd cheers. I watched this show with mixed feelings — at least, the birds could practise their skills and flex their wings, I thought. But while wandering through the park, I later came across these same stars, manacled to their perches in leg irons all in a row (like prisoners about to be shot!), glowering away.

It seems to give us a perverse pleasure to cage and imprison animals. Ah, some might argue, but do animals understand the concept of freedom? Well, years ago in Mumbai, we used to spend weekends at the beach, where we would let our boxer Bambi off the leash. With a bark of sheer delight, she would race across the sands, paws hardly touching the ground, exultant with freedom. Oh yes, she knew what it was! So did her much younger, macho consort Chops, years later, when he would refuse to let her come out into the garden while he was there (I think his motive was to keep her from flirting with any passing roadside Romeo!)

But how much freedom do animals (or, for that matter, we) really have? Animals stake out territories and usually keep well within them, defending them to the death. They don’t go wandering around, sightseeing. (We go to our humdrum offices every day, if there’s no lockdown, that is.) The point is animals can, and, if the food runs out, will, move out. All animals (including us) are born with the urge to explore: something which drives our parents nuts until they’re convinced that their babies are now hefty louts who need to be kicked out of the parental home! In some animal families, like elephants, the girls stay with their mom and aunts helping raise new babies, while the boys are kicked out by the matriarch.
Ah, vegans must be gnashing their teeth by now! What about the billions of animals that are raised horrendously so some people can eat them? Where’s their freedom? Sure, we can do better than we are at present — but it is an “eat or be eaten” world. And what we do to plants is often a lot worse.

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