Friday, September 5, 2008

We continue to deny animals their freedom

Animals are deprived of a right we cherish so much we go to war for it

The Standard - Thursday September 4, 2008


captivity, n., the state or period of being held, imprisoned, enslaved or confined; servitude or bondage; imprisonment - Webster’s College Dictionary

Until very recently in our history, a lot of caring, compassionate and fairly intelligent people have enslaved other caring, compassionate and fairly intelligent people for a multitude of reasons.

Not long ago, individuals from other cultures were caged and put on display for entertainment and scientific study. Exploitation and confinement of human beings by other human beings continued into the 20th century as some circuses and carnivals exhibited so-called “freaks of nature” including the lion-faced man, the 602-pound woman, conjoined twins and other people born without various body parts, or perhaps possessing too many. Even little people, or "midgets", were degraded for the amusement of others.

Although remnants of these shows still exist, both around the world and close to home, they are for the most part despised and even considered a violation of human rights by today’s more “enlightened” society.

So when the circus rolled into Niagara Falls this summer, a lot of caring, compassionate and fairly intelligent people went to see the elephants and other animal acts, with little concern about their exploitation and confinement. And while a small number of activists attempted to raise awareness of the plight of animals in circuses, they were mostly dismissed as well-meaning but misguided extremists.

Circus patrons assume the animals are treated humanely. Otherwise, they reason, the circuses wouldn’t be allowed to keep them. The Shriners, who organized the event, also claim they have never witnessed animal abuse while the circus is in town. One Shriner, who asked to remain anonymous, said he didn’t know how the animals are treated. “We don’t see the mistreatment; we’re just trying to make money for the hospitals.”

Indeed, it’s hard for the Shriners to know if the animals are, or have ever been abused, given that the circus is only in town one or two days a year. But animal activists maintain that suffering comes in many forms.

They argue that keeping elephants and other animals chained, tethered or caged for long periods of time, such as when the circus is on the road, is a form of abuse.

Critics also point to undercover videos taken by animal rights groups as evidence of animal cruelty. Footage includes trainers striking the animals repeatedly with various implements, including baseball bats and bull hooks.

But do all circuses abuse their animals? It would seem counter-productive to jeopardize the well being of their star attractions. Or has the unregulated trade in exotic animals made it that much easier to replace them?

According to John Sakars, a local activist trying to educate the public about animal exploitation, “Because the circus is profiting from the animals, they have a vested interest in saying what they have to say to get the people in the doors.” John adds that, “For every act of cruelty caught on camera, how many are not?”

Since the training of elephants, bears, primates and other wild, performing animals takes place behind closed doors, the public may never know which circuses abuse, or don’t abuse their animals.

But as John points out, “Even if they’re not abusing the animals, I’m against animal circuses. Use without consent is slavery.”

And that’s the most compelling argument by those who are against using animals in circuses and other venues. It’s also something that each of us cherish with every fiber of our being: freedom.

We value it more than anything; we even go to war to protect it. Yet we deprive animals of it every day, often claiming they are better off in captivity, where they don’t have to face the daily struggles other wild animals do. But captivity isn’t something that any of us would desire. It’s where we put criminals to punish them.

Whether in circuses, marine parks or zoos, we accept, even support, the captivity of other animals for entertainment. We deny them the very freedom we value so much. We “trust” that they are happy and treated properly and hope there are laws in place to protect them.

But wouldn’t the animals be happier if they were free, as nature intended? And how would we like it if we found ourselves in their place?

For an American soldier who was held hostage during the first Gulf War, he viewed his time in captivity this way. When asked if he had been abused, he responded: “Well, they took me from my home and family and freedom, and there is no greater abuse to anyone.”

Dan Wilson is a vegan, environmentalist, animal rights activist and public education director for the Niagara Centre for Animal Rights Awareness. He is a member of The Standard's community editorial board.

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