Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Expanding Circles

One of the stories making headlines in the past couple of days is about a tiger escaping from a zoo and killing a person.

I think the question screaming at us here is: Is it ethical keeping animals caged in zoos, away from their natural environment, just for our mere pleasure? I realize that many people think of hunting/caging animals as no big deal. But to put in perspective, 200 years ago, hunting/caging/enslaving people of races supposedly "inferior" to your own was no big deal either. Case in point, check out this instance which seems utterly horrifying today: In 1906, an African man from the Belgian Congo was caged with an orangutan at Bronx Zoo.

Thankfully, things are improving in the long run. Check out Amit Varma's column on "Expanding Circles", a concept first introduced by WEH Lecky in 1869: .
Lecky wrote that the number of people we consider worthy of our moral consideration has expanded through history like a circle. “At one time,” he explained, “the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world.”

I'm glad that we have come a long way since 1906. And I'm sure with the global boundaries falling fast, we will continue on this path for a long time to come. We just need to be aware of the bigger picture and do our bit to keep the circles of sympathy and benevolence "expanding".

Update: A similar incident.
As an aside, the article is pretty poorly written, which is surprising coming from the BBC. "The dog was destroyed....."?? And how about "The death follows the unlawful killing of five-year-old Ellie Lawrenson who was killed by her uncle's dog......". Unlawful killing by a dog?? You gotta be kidding me.


Sailesh Ganesh said...

When was the last time you had chicken for lunch/dinner?

Gaurav Kane said...

I think he is talking abt enclosing animals for human pleasure B. Thats just wrong.

Nikhil said...

Yeah that's what I meant... Thanks Kane :).

Also I was trying to make general observations. Didn't want the post to come off as a personal propaganda or anything.

Gypsy said...

hmmm, dunno whether its relevant here but what do u think abt putting people in jail or death penalty for disobeying 'the law' enforced by other humans or even 'restricted freedom' for people in a mental asylum?

Nikhil said...

If it's 'the law' you are talking about, it is debatable whether all the things considered 'unlawful' today should really be unlawful. This is what I think the lawmakers should base their laws on: Libertarian policy.

But then, I guess some form of punishment is necessary for crimes. It also serves as a deterrent for that individual and other people trying to commit similar acts in the future.

Gaurav Kane said...

Yep.. I agree that the libertarian policy is the best you can adopt. In fact Ron Paul is a libertarian who is a presidential candidate for 2008. Alas no one has even heard abt him....

Nikhil said...

Ron Paul is a libertarian and pro-life. Thats kinda contradictory...

Gaurav Kane said...

Yeah hehe.It is weird right? All his other policies are good though. Maybe 'pro-life' (anti-abortion) is a pre-requisite to stand as a republican (Guiliani is an exception though)

Nandan said...

Here is a very long excerpt from Yann Martel's 'Life of Pi'; and I think he raises quite a few good points in the defence of the zoos. Worth reading --

but misinformed people think animals in the wild are "happy" because they are "free". These people
usually have a large, handsome predator in mind, a lion or a cheetah (the life of a gnu or of an
aardvark is rarely exalted). They imagine this wild animal roaming about the savannah on digestive
walks after eating a prey that accepted its lot piously, or going for callisthenic runs to stay slim
after overindulging. They imagine this animal overseeing its offspring proudly and tenderly, the
whole family watching the setting of the sun from the limbs of trees with sighs of pleasure. The life
of the wild animal is simple, noble and meaningful, they imagine. Then it is captured by wicked
men and thrown into tiny jails. Its "happiness" is dashed. It yearns mightily for "freedom" and does
all it can to escape. Being denied its "freedom" for too long, the animal becomes a shadow of itself,
its spirit broken. So some people imagine.

This is not the way it is.

Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy
in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low and where territory
must constantly be defended and parasites forever endured. What is the meaning of freedom in such
a context? Animals in the wild are, in practice, free neither in space nor in time, nor in their
personal relations. In theory—that is, as a simple physical possibility—an animal could pick up and
go, flaunting all the social conventions and boundaries proper to its species. But such an event is
less likely to happen than for a member of our own species, say a shopkeeper with all the usual
ties—to family, to friends, to society—to drop everything and walk away from his life with only
the spare change in his pockets and the clothes on his frame. If a man, boldest and most intelligent
of creatures, won't wander from place to place, a stranger to all, beholden to none, why would an
animal, which is by temperament far more conservative? For that is what animals are, conservative,
one might even say reactionary. The smallest changes can upset them. They want things to be just
so, day after day, month after month. Surprises are highly disagreeable to them. You see this in
their spatial relations. An animal inhabits its space, whether in a zoo or in the wild, in the same way
chess pieces move about a chessboard—significantly. There is no more happenstance, no more
"freedom", involved in the whereabouts of a lizard or a bear or a deer than in the location of a
knight on a chessboard. Both speak of pattern and purpose. In the wild, animals stick to the same
paths for the same pressing reasons, season after season. In a zoo, if an animal is not in its normal
place in its regular posture at the usual hour, it means something. It may be the reflection of nothing
more than a minor change in the environment. A coiled hose left out by a keeper has made a
menacing impression. A puddle has formed that bothers the animal. A ladder is making a shadow.
But it could mean something more. At its worst, it could be that most dreaded thing to a zoo
director: a symptom, a herald of trouble to come, a reason to inspect the dung, to cross-examine the
keeper, to summon the vet. All this because a stork is not standing where it usually stands!

But let me pursue for a moment only one aspect of the question.

If you went to a home, kicked down the front door, chased the people who lived there out into the
street and said, "Go! You are free! Free as a bird! Go! Go!"—do you think they would shout and
dance for joy? They wouldn't. Birds are not free. The people you've just evicted would sputter,
"With what right do you throw us out? This is our home. We own it. We have lived here for years.
We're calling the police, you scoundrel."

Don't we say, "There's no place like home"? That's certainly what animals feel. Animals are
territorial. That is the key to their minds. Only a familiar territory will allow them to fulfill the two
relentless imperatives of the wild: the avoidance of enemies and the getting of food and water. A
biologically sound zoo enclosure—whether cage, pit, moated island, corral, terrarium, aviary or
aquarium—is just another territory, peculiar only in its size and in its proximity to human territory.
That it is so much smaller than what it would be in nature stands to reason. Territories in the wild
are large not as a matter of taste but of necessity. In a zoo, we do for animals what we have done
for ourselves with houses: we bring together in a small space what in the wild is spread out.
Whereas before for us the cave was here, the river over there, the hunting grounds a mile that way,
the lookout next to it, the berries somewhere else—all of them infested with lions, snakes, ants,
leeches and poison ivy—now the river flows through taps at hand's reach and we can wash next to
where we sleep, we can eat where we have cooked, and we can surround the whole with a
protective wall and keep it clean and warm. A house is a compressed territory where our basic
needs can be fulfilled close by and safely. A sound zoo enclosure is the equivalent for an animal
(with the noteworthy absence of a fireplace or the like, present in every human habitation). Finding
within it all the places it needs—a lookout, a place for resting, for eating and drinking, for bathing,
for grooming, etc.—and finding that there is no need to go hunting, food appearing six days a
week, an animal will take possession of its zoo space in the same way it would lay claim to a new
space in the wild, exploring it and marking it out in the normal ways of its species, with sprays of
urine perhaps. Once this moving-in ritual is done and the animal has settled, it will not feel like a
nervous tenant, and even less like a prisoner, but rather like a landholder, and it will behave in the
same way within its enclosure as it would in its territory in the wild, including defending it tooth
and nail should it be invaded. Such an enclosure is subjectively neither better nor worse for an
animal than its condition in the wild; so long as it fulfills the animal's needs, a territory, natural or
constructed, simply is, without judgment, a given, like the spots on a leopard. One might even
argue that if an animal could choose with intelligence, it would opt for living in a zoo, since the
major difference between a zoo and the wild is the absence of parasites and enemies and the
abundance of food in the first, and their respective abundance and scarcity in the second. Think
about it yourself. Would you rather be put up at the Ritz with free room service and unlimited
access to a doctor or be homeless without a soul to care for you? But animals are incapable of such
discernment. Within the limits of their nature, they make do with what they have.

A good zoo is a place of carefully worked-out coincidence: exactly where an animal says to us,
"Stay out!" with its urine or other secretion, we say to it, "Stay in!" with our barriers. Under such
conditions of diplomatic peace, all animals are content and we can relax and have a look at each

In the literature can be found legions of examples of animals that could escape but did not, or did
and returned. There is the case of the chimpanzee whose cage door was left unlocked and had
swung open. Increasingly anxious, the chimp began to shriek and to slam the door shut
repeatedly—with a deafening clang each time—until the keeper, notified by a visitor, hurried over
to remedy the situation. A herd of roe-deer in a European zoo stepped out of their corral when the
gate was left open. Frightened by visitors, the deer bolted for the nearby forest, which had its own
herd of wild roe-deer and could support more. Nonetheless, the zoo roe-deer quickly returned to
their corral. In another zoo a worker was walking to his work site at an early hour, carrying planks
of wood, when, to his horror, a bear emerged from the morning mist, heading straight for him at a
confident pace. The man dropped the planks and ran for his life. The zoo staff immediately started
searching for the escaped bear. They found it back in its enclosure, having climbed down into its pit
the way it had climbed out, by way of a tree that had fallen over. It was thought that the noise of the
planks of wood falling to the ground had frightened it.

Nikhil said...

I think the above para is a long philosophical attempt at proving a point. I do not see any scientific approach taken towards reaching these conclusions. For e.g. he does not even consider counterexamples.

I gave up on reading "Life of Pi" after only a few pages because of these kind of long arguments going nowhere. So I might be biased against it...

Sailesh Ganesh said...

@Nikhil, Kane:

Enclosing animals for human pleasure is wrong you say. But eating them (for pleasure, presumably) is not! Sorry, but I see a contradiction there.

(Before you start jumping on me, let me put my hand up and admit that I am guilty of the same thing.)

I am reminded of something I read somewhere (don't remember where): Suppose aliens that are far more intelligent than humans come to earth with the aim of killing humans for food. What argument can you advance for the aliens to stop killing humans that will not implicate humans themselves?

Gypsy said...

ok, again there is a difference between caging animals for fun/pleasure and eating them as food, even if there is an option to be a vegetarian I dont see anything wrong in consumption of meat, if other animals/aliens want to eat humans they can try and we will have to use our distinctive defense mechanism (eg human brain), its the law of the jungle. have u ever seen a tiger or lion keeping some monkey or birds in its den for entertainment??

Nikhil said...

I guess it is between natural vs. unnatural, evolved instincts vs. nurtured behavior.

Eating animals for food is natural for humans, which we have been doing since a really long time. In fact the hunter-gatherer lifestyle phase is when we can say we became distinctly "human". Actually vegetarianism is a relatively recent concept.

And caging animals for pleasure is something which is unnatural for both the animals and for us.

Kiran Vyakaranam said...

I think "evolved instinct" is behavior nurtured by nature :)

But I agree with you that vegetarianism is relatively a new "concept", it is a conscious choice and not a naturally evolved behavior. The human body as it is now is designed to eat and digest meat.