Let’s revisit something I wrote about in my Risky Is the New Safe book, but I believe didn’t get enough attention. How we as individuals – and society as a whole – can evolve.
Some of my best memories as a child involve trips for special events: Seeing the horse races at Arlington Park, going on class field trips to the zoo, and the highlight every year, when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus came to town. I loved animals. Even as an adult, I never was that impressed with Disney, Universal and the other theme parks. For me, the best day was one spent at SeaWorld, learning more about the amazing animals from the sea.
Yet today, I would no longer enjoy any of those activities, because of my concerns for animal welfare. Which in a way, makes me very sad.
As a poor city kid, we lived in a cramped apartment and weren’t even allowed pets. Exhibitions and zoos where the only way I was ever going to see live animals. So my first visit to the Vilas Park Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin incited a life-long love for animals. And a field trip to the much larger Milwaukee County Zoo was paradigm-exploding for me. I was spellbound at the circus, watching lion tamer Gunther Gebel-Williams in amazement. (And years later, Siegfried & Roy).
In that day and time, no one (or at least no one I knew) ever gave the idea of caging and showing animals a second thought. In fact, it was encouraged and promoted as educational and enlightened. Today, that reality has changed.
Movies like Free Willy and documentaries like Blackfish have caused many of us to reevaluate how we see marine parks and zoos. That doesn’t mean it’s all black and white, as many on both sides would have you believe.
I have friends who breed and race horses and dogs. They love those animals and go to great lengths to protect them. But when a horse gets shot because he broke his legs running a race for human enjoyment, that is a tragedy. And this happens far too often. 25 horses have died at Santa Anita Park since December. (And bullfighting is simply despicable and unconscionable in my view.)
I know the San Diego Zoo is a protected haven with programs to breed and care for endangered species allowing them to reintroduce these animals to the wild and protect against extinction. SeaWorld has similar programs and has rescued and nurtured thousands of injured animals and returned them to the ocean. There are certain studies and research that would be impossible to do in the wild. I appreciate all that and know that most of the scientists and animal care staff at these parks have an overriding love of the creatures they tend to.
Yet personally I now feel that breeding animals to live in captivity and provide shows for human entertainment is immoral. This can also lead us to the debate on using animals for testing and research purposes, even whether or not to eat them.
So what is the moral, decent and prosperous way to deal with these issues?
I don’t have a clue. Actually, that’s not true. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do have a few clues…
We used to think non-heterosexuals, women, or people of certain races or religions were not deserving of the same human rights as others. (And of course, we must recognize that millions of ignorant people still hold these beliefs.) We have to recognize that human society evolves over time and what is acceptable or even enlightened behavior changes over that time.
These are the kinds of debates we need to have – but in a civil, respectful way. We must be willing to have strong beliefs, loosely held, and be willing to evolve along time.
The natural pattern is for people to become more rigid and less open-minded as they age. You have to work fiercely hard to counter that. To be willing to question premises and some of your most core foundational beliefs. Because the answers will only become more apparent as individuals evolve. And that is the only way society evolves.