On our recent trip to Harbin, we visited Polarland. This was Joseph’s choice of activity, as it was his seventh birthday, and he loves animals. In the aquarium section, the boys enjoyed marvelling at the fish, and I enjoyed watching the wonder on their faces. However as the visit went on I found myself more and more uncomfortable.
To see arctic wolves, which in the wild roam over a territory tens of kilometers across, languishing in a tank some fifty meters square was depressing. The polar bears appeared distressed, pacing and shaking their heads. When we reached the arctic foxes, one of Joseph’s favorite animals, he refused even to look at them.
The intended climax of a visit to Polarland is the sea lion show. A walrus and a sea lion performed the familiar tricks, clapping, catching rings, turning somersaults, mimicking human gestures with their flippers. The boys were hugely entertained, there appeared to be genuine affection between the trainers and the animals, which were rewarded with fish throughout. Nonetheless I felt queasy.
Obviously it’s not “natural” for mammals to repeat these activities on cue, four times a day. But humans are part of “nature”, and if the animals have adapted to these behaviors in exchange for being safe and well-fed, then it’s no weirder than many other cross-species relationships. Yet I was left with a sense that in some way, their behavior was not “dignified”.
From here, all sorts of difficult questions arise. Do animals have “dignity”, or is the idea anthropomorphic, in the same way that the walrus appears to be embarrassed when it puts its flipper over its eyes? Is there any rational basis for my feeling that fish in tanks are OK, but mammals aren’t?
Zoos defend their existence on the basis of educational value, and because they are preserving endangered animals. As a parent there is a selfish imperative to instill an understanding of the natural world in our children, and an even more selfish pleasure in watching their joy. Is it fair to deprive them of these experiences, or are we just making excuses to indulge ourselves?
Anybody who doesn’t follow a strict vegan lifestyle has to make decisions, about how they treat animals, or allow animals to be treated for their benefit. As I’ve written before, I have little sympathy with anyone who is squeamish about eating insects but buys eggs from battery hens. I am aware though that the lines I draw are more than a little arbitrary.
I was left with many questions but no answers. Towards the end of our visit, we came to the beluga whales. There are many who believe that cetaceans (whales and dolphins) should be legally recognised as people, granted the same rights and protections as human beings. One whale came to look at us through the glass, apparently displaying the same curiosity that motivated us. I was glad my children had the opportunity to see these beautiful creatures. But we didn’t stay to see them perform.