Rather than offering solutions, we may be part of the problem.
By Dana Zakshevsky (Staff Writer) & Jacalyn Beales (Editor-in-Chief)
A few weeks ago, I went to a fair (the typical fried food vendors, face-painting, Ferris wheels, etc.) with some friends. There were families with little kids clinging to their newly won stuffed animals, groups of high school kids laughing, joking and planning their next ride, couples enjoying a stroll while people watching. The first thing my friends wanted to see was the sea lion show. Sea lions?! I wanted to see them too! I was just as excited as all of the little kids tugging at their parents’ sleeves. We followed the signs for the show and squeezed in together on the small set of bleachers, waiting to be entertained, myself with a big grin plastered on my face. A young woman who appeared to be a trainer soon appeared on the stage, introducing us to the sea lions and showing the audience different tricks the animals could execute. My smile rapidly fell and, before I knew it, I was crying. There I was, sitting in the middle of a crowd of sugar-hyped children, tears running down my face. You see, the first thing I felt when I heard the words “sea lion show” was pure excitement; it should have been, “Why on earth are there sea lions at a fair, hundreds of miles away from any sea or ocean?”
I sat in the sun watching these animals perform unnatural trick after trick for tiny food rewards and crowd approval. Some of these tricks were performed on podiums, others in a pool hitched to a small truck that couldn’t have been more than five feet deep and perhaps twenty feet long. My mind was racing – surely that’s not enough room for these creatures to swim! Do the cheers of the loud audience not bother them? How long do they spend in this cramped space? How do they feel while being towed on the road? Is this performance safe for them? Is it healthy for them? Are they happy?
The trainer offered began by offering a brief history of the sea lions in question, quickly explaining that these animals had been rescued from their wild habitat due to litter and pollution. What the trainer failed to mention was why, exactly, these animals couldn't have been returned to the wild, where they belong. It seemed to me that instead of offering the audience any kind of real facts or information about these sea lions, the trainer simply used the brief explanation as a quick introduction to a new trick where the sea lions were instructed to pick up empty bottles the trainer dropped in front of them and bring them to a trash can on the stage. These animals were being forced to pick up the same litter they were supposedly "saved" from.
By the time the show was over, I was so upset, I felt physically ill. It was because of my participation in this event that these animals were there performing. Because of my selfish excitement to see these fun, clever creatures, they had been removed from their natural habitat and are no longer free. Sure, their rescue story could have been legitimate, but nothing about keeping four large animals in a small pool on wheels is "okay," and the audience often has no way of substantiating the stories of the animals told to them by trainers or entertainers. The miserable feeling I experienced began to snowball and led me to inevitably consider my Internet habits. Like so many of us, I often search for cute animal videos online which I then share with my friends via social media or email to giggle and delight at. But that’s the problem or, at least, part of it. These videos are, to an extent, desensitizing us to the wild behavior of wild species and prevent us from recognizing or becoming educated about their natural environments, and the issues impacting them. These videos shouldn’t be made for our entertainment; rather, when we consume these videos, we should be thinking more about what’s actually going on with these species as opposed to how cute they look performing tricks for treats.
Of course, not all animal videos or graphics depicting animals in various situations are "bad" or "evil." In fact, many possess educational components and may even show the happy endings experienced by stray animals, wildlife rescues, etc. These media are the kinds of videos I will still watch and cherish, and possibly (probably) cry at. But the next time you see a video in which wild animals are being used for human entertainment (such as wild creatures dressed in clothes or being snuggled with for photos), take a moment to assess the situation. By doing something as innocent as “liking” a 30-second clip on Facebook or Instagram, you could be perpetuating our selfish need for animals to entertain us at any cost. Animal cruelty is still very real, and often very camouflaged, but like many issues, it will thrive as long as there is an audience to sustain it.
You can help change the situation for animal abuse in entertainment by becoming a more conscientious media consumer. Consider whether you need to watch animals perform tricks in circuses or marine shows; ask yourself if you can justify and support the abuse of animals for our entertainment, and become a responsible consumer and re-poster of social media and web content. Look into the content and premise behind the media or performance before blindly sharing a video or participating as an audience member in live animal shows. Chances are, if something doesn't feel right, it most likely isn't. Be the voice for fellow sentient beings who can't speak against abuse and exploitation for themselves. And, if you visit a facility where you believe animals and wild species are receiving less than stellar care, report it to Born Free's Zoo Check program here.
Note from the Editor:
According to DoSomething.org, utilizing wild animals in entertainment spectacles like marine shows, circuses, and zoo performances often requires removing the animals from their natural (wild) environments and forcing them to perform unnatural behaviors for our entertainment. Often, physical and/or psychological abuse takes place to ensure these animals are controlled and will properly perform for audiences. Furthermore, these animals are forced to live in unnatural, typically squalid conditions which do not even closely resemble nor mimic their wild habitats, and can lead to emotional, psychological, and physical injury to the animal. These animals are rarely returned to the wild and may never be given proper nor ethical care. Global animal welfare organization Born Free set up a Zoo Check program to ensure abuse, substandard care and animal welfare violations in facilities which utilize animals as entertainment can be reported. As a media consumer and steward of the Earth, you have a responsibility to stand up for the voiceless; please consider boycotting the use and exploitation of animals in performance shows and facilities where they are used for your entertainment.