Many years ago, at a bird-ringing camp, I remember holding a little bird (I have even forgotten what species), that had been caught in the mist net, ringed and was now ready for release. I held my cupped palms upwards, opened them and with a whirr and a squeak (of delight?), the little bird took off to freedom, taking and freeing a little bit of myself with it. There is really no way to describe the uplifting feeling. Of course, it also made me feel smugly virtuous for the rest of the day! It made me understand why wild animal rescuers are often in tears when they release their wards (even snakes) back where they belong – never to see them again. Of course, politicians do this with white doves all the time – but for venal reasons. Others buy captive birds like (often garishly dyed) munias and release them en masse but this is to buy the approval of the Gods and only leads to the capture of more such birds (so they can be bought and freed).
A few years ago, I was given charge of a pair of goldfish that lived in yes, a small goldfish bowl. Chhotu and Motu were attractive to watch, their orange-gold colours were lovely, their movements graceful and I could understand why doctors and dentists kept large kaleidoscopic aquariums in their waiting rooms. But I used to wonder: Didn’t they go stir crazy swimming round and round in that bowl all day every day? Especially since they had begun recognising me as provider of their rations and would wait expectantly, heads up looking at me! Perhaps, they’d be happier in a larger tank, but they’d still be confined and I couldn’t possibly release them in a local pond or the river. Before I could make up my mind what to do, they died in tandem: Never again. As for keeping birds, that was out of the question. I felt very uncomfortable even in Singapore’s famous Jurong Bird Park, but, of course, I had visited the place!
But do animals, birds and reptiles and fishes and even insects understand what freedom is? Some certainly seem to: decades ago, in Bombay, we used to spend weekends at the (then deserted) beach – at Marve – much to the delight of our Boxer, Bambi. When let off the leash on the beach, she would race on the sands at top speed, her ears flapping tongue hanging out, delirious with delight. Oh yes, she knew what it meant to be free! And after two days of such exulting freedom she would spend the next two days, back at home, asleep on her sofa, paws twitching as she probably dreamt of chasing crabs on the sand!
We unfortunately, seem far better at taking away freedom than giving it: both in the animal kingdom and in our own! We’ve been capturing animals for zoos and circuses for millennia. In many zoos, the animals are confined in dark dingy cages, and promptly go mad, pacing up and down relentlessly all day, or shaking their heads up and down or side to side (it’s called stereotypical behaviour) or mutilating themselves. Even in more ‘enlightened’ zoos, where the enclosures have been specially designed and the animals given ‘toys’ to play with or made to find their food (hidden by the keepers), or puzzles to solve, to keep the boredom at bay, the bottom line that keeps bugging you is: ah, but they’re still not free! That’s true for safari parks as well as National Parks, whose borders animals do not recognise but we do.
The late Gerald Durrell once said that freedom was really not all it was made out to be. Wild, free animals had a very rough and tough life – they had territories to defend, mates to fight over (sometimes to the death), food to hunt down, babies to look after, enemies to avoid – no walk in the park. In good zoos, they were provided with all possible amenities, and even partners, even if they had a limited amount of space to roam around in. Then again, even wild free animals didn’t just roam around aimlessly: many had their clearly marked out territories which they patrolled – or if they were migratory – more or less fixed migratory routes and rest-and-recreation destinations in winter. Apart from ‘educating’ the public about the biodiversity of species, the main raison-d’etre of zoos is to preserve the population of critically endangered species. And even we have ‘territories’ – our homes, our offices, the restaurants we eat at – which are more or less fixed. As are our country’s borders.
If zoos are bad, then circuses are much worse! Fortunately, circuses using animal acts are becoming a thing of the past, but we still have grand tuskers, bedecked from head to toe, leading noisy processions (An elephant can be the most silent mover in the forest). As for animals used for research in medicine – they’re the worst off. Every time I see a beagle, or a Labrador, or even a badly behaved macaque, or a white rat, I give it a silent salutation, thanking its kind for testing the pills I take, or the pacemaker that ticks away in my chest. They have been there, done that!
Until we learn to eat rocks and stones, we will take away the freedom (and life) of the billions of animals that we consume. As we do of the quadrillions of plants which we often boil alive! Ah, and what would a bonsai banyan tree think when it sees a full grown naturally growing banyan tree in the wild?