No travel guides or television specials can prepare one for the indescribable wonderment of seeing the Grand Canyon. Its sheer immensity leaves visitors breathless – nature at its most spectacular.
And many are equally impressed by something else commonly seen near the canyon: Huge elk, often grazing mere feet from the road. Life slows to a standstill for those in awe of one of North America’s most majestic animals.
How times have changed, because just over 100 years ago, there were no elk left in Arizona. They had been slaughtered to near extinction.
Similarly, an incredibly humbling moment is coming face-to-face with the world’s greatest leviathans: Whales. And millions do, being within arm’s length of humpbacks and orcas through eco-tourism whale-watching trips. But this wasn’t always the case, as unchecked hunting drove many away from the coasts, and left several species on the verge of extinction. While it’s certainly not clear sailing, whale numbers have been steadily climbing.
And one of America’s top tourist attractions are wild bison, legendary symbol of our Old West history. But the buffalo almost went the way of the dodo, as 60 million strong, with herds sometimes taking several days to pass, were reduced to just a few hundred in only three decades.
So why the change in attitude in a relatively short time frame? What evolved in our collective psyche to make us go from accepting full-bore killing sprees to championing conservation?
Leadership, as Teddy Roosevelt demonstrated. His unbridled desire to protect America’s natural resources, especially our animals, paved the way to seeing wildlife in a whole new perspective. Instead of targets, we came to see them as treasures worth protecting.
But there is another, more powerful reason for the change: Seeing these animals in zoos, aquatic parks, and yes, circuses. Yet that experience is quickly becoming more endangered than the animals themselves, courtesy of an extremist animal-rights movement that has a cow over animals in captivity, and bullies any entity that showcases them.
Aggressive tactics by the animal-rights faction, combined with a deer-in-the-headlights response by corporate P.R. departments, have led to something many thought impossible: The Ringling Brothers’ circus no longer features elephants, and SeaWorld has discontinued its killer whale breeding program, thereby ensuring that the world-famous orca shows will be permanently discontinued in the coming years. But at the risk of being politically incorrect (again), these decisions were not necessarily the right ones, especially for the animals.
Ironically, those "victories" ring hollow, as they will have counter-productive, and perhaps catastrophic, effects on the very animals purportedly being "saved."
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In "The Silence Of The Lambs," Hannibal Lecter presciently explained, "We covet what we see." He was right, which makes one thing certain: If younger generations never have the opportunity to see these animals "up close and personal," they will never covet them. And if they don’t, their eyes will never grow wide with the unparalleled excitement that only comes from seeing, firsthand, bigger-than-life animals do amazing things. In the absence of that "love," which cannot be replicated in picture books, empathy for their well-being will quickly evaporate. That’s not casting judgment, but is simply a human trait: out of sight, out of mind.
If we are to truly "save the whales" (and elephants), we have to take on the misguided and often disingenuous animal rights movement, and talk about what’s best for the animals – both those in captivity and the wild.
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Last year there was international outrage over the killing of the iconic Cecil the lion, so much so that the American who claimed it was a legal kill went into hiding for fear of his own life. Three months later, one of the largest elephants in Africa was gunned down by a German hunter. And just last week, there was a headline story that Scarface, America’s most beloved grizzly bear, had been killed.
Not long ago, many would have blown off such things with an "I-don’t-care" shrug. But because we have come to "know" these types of animals, courtesy of fact-filled interactive exhibits in zoos and circus demonstrations (both of which "humanize" the animals and increase our affinity for them), people took offense to the senseless killings.
But take away that special "bond," and demand for animals’ welfare will wane dramatically.
Consider the following:
1) Think the animal-rights movement is content? Think again. It will never stop until circuses are devoid of all animals, zoos are shut down, and aquatic parks (and even aquariums) are but a distant memory. Enough is enough.
2) There is a clear correlation between animal populations rebounding and the rise in popularity of zoos and aquatic parks. SeaWorld opened in 1964, and it’s no coincidence that, after two decades of treating people to the wonders (and plight) of whales, a moratorium on whaling was instituted by 89 nations in 1986. Unquestionably, such a ban would not have taken place had the will of the people not been behind it. We thank you, SeaWorld, as do the whales.
3) Should there be additional oversight (or at least better enforcement of existing regulations) on how animals here are trained and treated? Absolutely. If bullhooks used to train elephants hurt the animals, ban them. But since there’s more than one way to skin a cat, let’s focus on no-pain, humane methods to train these intelligent animals. Just as proper dog-training doesn’t involve physical abuse, so it can be with elephants.
4) Why not limit the service life of circus elephants to five or 10 years, after which they can "retire" to animal preserves? That way, everybody wins: People, especially children, see and learn about the animals, and the "performers" can live the majority of their lives in huge, wide-open areas. How can anyone have a beef with that?
5) Let’s start espousing the tremendous benefits that zoos and aquatic parks provide. SeaWorld, for starters, teaches millions about sea life, saves countless sea creatures through its rescue efforts, and lobbies for more marine conservation. And its employees are on the frontlines in the fight to rejuvenate our polluted and overfished oceans.
If we don’t showcase the magnificence of wildlife to our young minds, then their imaginations will never be ignited, and the fire to protect animals will be left to others. Translation: It won’t happen. How’s that in the best interest of "animal rights?"
It’s time to stop ducking the elephant in the room – that animal-rights extremists are actually the biggest threat to animals – and whale the tar out of those hell-bent on disenfranchising future generations. Otherwise, as David Attenborough asked, "Are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book?"
Let’s hope not.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. His column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected].