I’ve loved animals ever since I was little. My then bedroom was home to mice, rats, turtles, fish, rabbits, and guinea pigs. And I loved visiting farms, zoos, and exhibits where I could see and touch animals. I’ve gotten a lot of pleasure over the years from meeting these animals, but I’ve come to realize that these interactions were not in the animals’ best interests. In fact, I’ve been selfish in putting my pleasure before their needs.
I recently visited Botswana, a country known for its diverse and plentiful wildlife. We spent hours watching large family groups of elephants and saw mothers caring for their babies, young bulls tussling, calves playing, and adults happily tearing lunch off the trees with their trunks. In stark contrast, elephants in zoos are often confined in too-small enclosures and are subject to crippling foot disorders and arthritis (in the wild elephants can walk up to 30 miles a day). Most die decades before their natural lifespan. Wild elephants have a rich and complex social life, but elephants in zoos are housed in unnaturally small groups, or even alone. This isolation inflicts terrible suffering—studies of human prisoners have shown that long-term solitary confinement results in severe psychiatric harm. Conditions are even worse for elephants in circuses. They are often kept chained when not performing and are forced to endure long trips between shows in cramped and barren transport cages.
For many people, a zoo or a circus is the only place they will ever see a live elephant. It’s a great joy and privilege to see one of these majestic animals up close, but we must ask ourselves: Is it acceptable for the elephants to pay such a heavy cost? Maybe we need to be content with National Geographic specials on television, showing elephants in their natural habitat.
What about companion animals? Are we selfish with them too? Horses were always my favorite animals, and my parents finally relented and bought me one when I was 12. I had a wonderful time riding, grooming, and just watching this beautiful animal. But when the time came for me to go to college, I couldn’t care for a horse anymore, so we sold him. We tried to find him a good home, but I know now that very few horses get to enjoy a peaceful old age in a field—many end up slaughtered for their meat when they are too old to ride. Keeping a horse is expensive, and most people can’t afford the expense for a horse’s lifespan of about 25 years. For all I know, all my horse got in return for giving me five fun-filled years was a trip to the slaughterhouse.
My life would be so much less without the dogs and cats I share my home with. But if it weren’t for the fact that unwanted companion animals need someone to adopt them from the animal shelter, I don’t think I could rationalize living with animals anymore. Of course, I love my animal companions, and they love me. But I wouldn’t want more dogs and cats to be born just so that I could choose new animal companions of a certain breed or color—because there’s no guarantee that all of those puppies and kittens would find loving, life-long homes.
The kindest thing we animal lovers can do for wildlife is to observe them in their natural setting or not at all. No zoos, no SeaWorld, no circuses, and no swimming with dolphins in a tank or pen. And for companion animals, the kindest choice is to adopt, never buy, and to give our animal companions a satisfying, life-long home in exchange for all the joy they give to us.
What do you think?