I just finished watching a couple episodes of Preposterous Pets, an Animal Planet show about people who have exotic animals as pets. It reminds me of another show I used to watch, Fatal Attractions, which had the same premise but was specifically about people who had been killed by those pets. No matter how amazingly cute the elephant or polar bear or tiger is, it is still a wild animal at heart and one that is large and can harm the human that feels compelled to care for it. Right?
I’m trying to gather thoughts around a bigger topic in my head, here, and the thoughts are still kind of murky and incohesive. When I was in Belize, I kept trying to wrap my mind around the idea that what we were seeing there were animals in the wild. On one of our boat rides, the guides fed a ham and cheese sandwich to a spider monkey sitting in a tree on the bank. When we went snorkeling, we were told not to reach out and touch the animals we were swimming next to but with hundreds of people in the water it was inevitable that someone either wouldn’t listen or would inevitably brush against one of the creatures, potentially harming them with sunscreen and bug spray and human oils. I would say that the animals were in their natural habitat but I’m not sure I could really say that they were “in the wild”.
I’ve just started reading a book called Zooburbia that touches on this topic. It looks at the intersection between wild animals and those that have been domesticated, the animals that live somewhat on their own terms but in a world that’s increasingly overtaken by humans. It’s written by someone who lives here in Oakland, California but the descriptions of what she sees remind me more of what it was like growing up in Tucson, Arizona where coyotes and roadrunners and quail regularly crossed the street in front of us, javalina pigs foraged in our trash cans for food and scorpions and tarantula occasionally crawled down the walls inside our home. They’re all wild and certainly weren’t animals we took in as pets but they were living in our space, making do with the world that we had created that overtook their own.
This all makes me think about the book I mentioned previously, Animal Madness, and the idea that animals of all kinds can suffer from mental illness. And it makes me think about zoos and how I’ve never really been able to figure out how I feel about them. I know that as a human visitor I really enjoy zoos and like the magic of seeing the animals. I’ve never really determined what I think about the morality of having zoos. I guess I think that in an ideal world there would be enough space for the animals to live on their natural land and not be in zoos but I also accept that this isn’t the case in our world and think that perhaps the best we can aim for is to have zoos and sanctuaries and homes for these animals that are kind and compassionate and intellectually stimulating and consider the mental health of the creatures.
In those episodes of Preposterous Pets there was a man who swims with his buffalo, a woman who bathes and diapers her five macaque monkeys, a polar bear living in a backyard … and none of this seems right somehow. The bear that gets taken to a bar where it drinks beer and the monkeys that get sugary candies at the supermarket certainly don’t seem right. And yet, the animals are loved and cared for … so is this better or worse than a zoo? Better or worse than leaving the animals in their natural habitat but then slowly encroaching on that habitat with our own homes. I don’t have an answer. I don’t even have a clear decision about what I think about this. I just know that it’s been on my mind a lot lately, in this sort of vague at-the-edges kind of way, and I intend to keep immersing myself in more related reading and show-watching in order to see where this train of thought might take me.