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Thrown to the lions

The Chinese zoos that allow patrons to buy live chickens, goats and cows and toss them into the lion enclosure so that people can enjoy them being ripped apart has been a lead story in many local and international newspapers this month (also see Saturday Star, p13, January 19 2008).


Zoo patrons are allowed to buy animals and feed them to the lions in a variety of ways. Chickens are tied to “fishing rods” and dipped into the midst of hungry lions that leap at them and tear them apart. Live goats are hurled off the top of a high wall to the lions below and terrified cows are released into the cage and ripped to pieces slowly and painfully by predators that no longer know how to kill prey quickly. Chinese people, their children and party officials approvingly watch the spectacle from a restaurant that is famous for serving not only dog but also endangered tiger meat.

Question: Is this kind of thing really morally wrong and, if so, why?

Lions are carnivores that need to eat meat. Somebody has to take an animal and either kill it and feed it to the lions or simply toss it into the enclosure and let the lions do the dirty work themselves. Isn’t it better if the lions do the killing instead of the humans? Why is there outrage that this is being done by visitors to the zoo instead of zoo employees in camera after hours? Surely one can’t argue that keeping captive lions for our viewing pleasure should include hiding us from the sensibilities involved in feeding the creatures? Surely we should accept the true nature of the animal we want to see? Lions are killers and nature is cruel.

This is not just a Chinese moral dilemma. Presumably lions at the Jozi zoo also need to feed on animal flesh. How are those animals killed? I have taken foreign tourists to the Lion and Rhino Park in northern Johannesburg and happened to arrive at feeding time when chunks of already very dead animal were tossed unceremoniously off the back of a moving bakkie to hungry lions loping along behind it. I have witnessed the feeding of cheetah at De Wildt research centre in exactly the same way. How did they die?

We have all watched lions or cheetahs kill actual antelope on TV or even during real-life visits to game parks. Programmes involving the eventual release of predators back into the wild usually include the introduction of live prey into enclosures to ensure that the creatures are able to hunt. Is that acceptable?

How are these forms of animal consumption any different from the Chinese zoo? An animal must die to feed a carnivore. Does it really matter how that animal dies when death is the end result anyway?

Call me a bunny-hugger if you like, but I think it really does matter how and why that animal dies. It matters not only to the animal, but it should also matter greatly to us, the people involved, because it affects our greater humanity and the way we treat each other. We see ourselves in animals. They hold a kaleidoscopic mirror up to us and we are reflected in all of its complex facets because we too are animals.

This is aptly illustrated by our frequent attempts at animal anthropomorphism, our attempts to communicate with them (I bark at dogs — there, I said it) and the fact that we keep them in zoos, love them as pets, study them and are fascinated by watching them in TV documentaries. I also believe it is no coincidence that the abolition of slavery in 1807 and the foundation of the SPCA in 1824, both in Britain, happened at the same time and place in history. It was an awakening to what we are and how we all fit into the bigger picture. Our humanity is measured by the way we treat all living things.

Everything that is alive today is a supreme survivor. Should only one of its millions of ancestors have died before reproducing, the organism would quite literally not exist. Every living thing therefore belongs to an elite club with pretty damn tough entry criteria, and has battled against the odds through the millennia to be alive at this moment. The club allows for multiple crazy strategies of gaining membership, but once a member, I believe some respect is due — especially from those who administer the club, who should be the most responsible of all the members. I believe this because without the varied inputs of all the other members, our little club would quickly fold. Each creature has a role to play and a niche to fill, otherwise they would not exist. This incidentally applies in both an evolutionary and even a religious creationist sense, should you stubbornly insist on clinging to that muck in the year 2008.

Within the crazy mix of life on Earth, I view myself as a mammal lucky enough to have opposable thumbs and a large brain, but a mammal all the same. It’s a bit like a kid lucky enough to be born into a wealthy family. Every other mammal species I can think of has individual abilities that I could not hope to match. Most can outpace me, virtually all can out-hear and out-smell me, most have better eyesight, especially at night, and some have certainly got a better memory (mine is shocking!). I, on the other hand, can out-think most of them most of the time in most situations, and I can make tools.

In the game of life at this time on Earth, we have a minor yet critical advantage over our other planetary companions. We hold the scissors to their paper and the rock to their scissors and the paper to their rock. Does that mean we should treat them like worthless, second-rate citizens of our planet? Should we impose human apartheid on the animals? Are we truly their masters? Certain bacteria and some viruses might take exception to that kind of arrogant rhetoric from a being they can sometimes fell fairly easily in great numbers, but even them we can dominate most of the time. So should we respect or dismiss animals as fellow beings?

One of the most compelling reasons to take respect for animals seriously, even if you think they are lesser beings and simply here as fodder for humans in every way, is the link between animal abuse and human abuse, especially child abuse: PageServer?pagename=lk_about index.cfm?function=showarticle&id=373 NEWS/2000/200003.HTM

For those of you who couldn’t be bothered to read the links, I hear you and here is an excerpt from the last one:

Jeffrey Dahmer. Son of Sam. Ted Bundy. The boys who gunned down their classmates at school. The shooter of US Capitol security guards. These men and boys had something in common beyond their acts of terrifying violence: All had abused animals long before they went on to destroy the lives of other people.

Animal cruelty, which begins showing up as early as age six, is one of the earliest and most reliable predictors of later violent behaviour.

So abuse of and cruelty to animals is a sign for likely abuse against humans in later life. That puts a whole new sheen on the tossing of live, screaming goats into lions’ dens by Chinese children. It’s not just about feeding lions; it is a training camp for societal institutionalised cruelty to living beings. That’s just not very nice.

The whole debate becomes tricky, however, because we all need to eat living organisms to survive and they all eat each other. On top of that, we are predators, as evidenced by our tooth structure and the fact that our eyes are on the front of our face and not the sides — we stalk prey looking straight ahead. That prey includes our close relatives, our fellow mammals as well as birds and fish, all of which are much smarter and aware than most people think they are (fish can feel pain, by the way). Although we can limit ourselves to vegetarian nutrition, we did not evolve that way and to remove meat from our diet comes with consequences to our health.

If, however, we could agree that we not only need to eat our fellow mammals, fish, birds and other species but should also have respect for them and treat them as humanely as possible, surely this would provide a blueprint for how we could behave towards them? That blueprint would say that in the event that we need to take the life of any animal, as we unfortunately do from time to time, we do so with respect, understanding and allow the creature dignity in its death (this is the basis of animal welfare). We should make the experience as humane, painless and quick as possible because that is the way we would want our own deaths to be, should we find ourselves in the same terminal, non-negotiable predicament. I doubt that any of us would see the funny side of ending our days being dangled over a pride of hungry lion on the end of a stick for the amusement of a motley herd of bleating goats.

So how would our blueprint guide us in the case of the Chinese zoos? Assuming the lions need to be there in the first place, which is highly debatable, animals need to be fed to them. Can’t fault them there! I don’t think we would be able to fault them for the species of animals fed to lions, since we eat them too. Where they seem to have dropped the ball horribly is on the whole issue of respecting the animals being used for the feeding. Is there any need to take beings that are capable of suffering and pain, create entertainment scenarios out of their deaths and proceed to torture them in front of children? From a country that gave the world Taoism, I can’t help but be staggered by the regression to barbaric, Roman-style entertainment.

If cruelty and a lack of respect to animals do indeed translate into parallel treatment of humans, I just got a little less comfortable with the idea of the glorious Chinese century that has been predicted.