When we use our fellow animals for entertainment, such as in the case of rodeos, races, and circuses, innocent victims are forced to “perform” to their owners’ standards, often with beatings, intimidation, and torture, and always under the threat of death for poor performance. Every aspect of their lives, from “training” to transportation, is controlled to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs to their owners, so that their interests are ignored, except for the minimum necessary to keep them alive and performing. The result is a short life of stress, hunger, extreme boredom from long periods of confinement, and physical distress from extreme heat or cold. When their ability to perform begins to wane, they are usually “thanked” with a death sentence at a young age. This is what it means to be owned and unprotected by legal rights in a speciesist world.
Zoos purport to be benefactors to the animals in their control and bastions of conservation to the many species of animals humans have endangered. This gloss is a misleading distortion at best. Some zoos may cite their breeding programs in order to bolster the credibility of their claims of conservation and animal stewardship. However, these breeding programs are unable to provide the genetic diversity that would preserve a species in any meaningful way. And very few of these animals will ever be released back into their natural habitats, remaining entrenched in a system that views animals as objects of entertainment.
We must also consider that the conservation argument, specious as it proves to be, does not grant individual animals rights to autonomy and lives outside of human control.
The story of Ned the elephant demonstrates both the ineffectiveness of the United States’ weak-hearted animal protection laws and the total subjugation of individuals to the self-perpetuating system of animal use and objectification. Ned was born in 1987 to elephants captured in Southeast Asia and legal property of Roman Schmitt, an elephant trainer and manager of the Busch Gardens elephant breeding program. When he was two, Ned was sold into a circus and sold again to another circus ten years later. It was at this point his deteriorating condition and emaciated frame became so evident, he was confiscated by the USDA in 2008 and placed in a sanctuary. Despite the best efforts to revive him, Ned died after only six months.
Even in the most well-funded zoos, animals who require wild and expansive habitats are excessively confined. But the most egregious of these is the bafflingly legal existence of roadside attractions and small, unaccredited zoos. Chain link fence enclosures, cement floors, social isolation, and grossly inadequate medical care are banal marks of these lingering grotesqueries of Americana. The sole purpose of these ‘attractions’ is to bring in paying customers to gawk at animals who clearly do not belong in these regions or habitats. The animals’ well-being is a consideration only inasmuch as the barest life is necessary to sustain the enterprise. Roadside zoos draw back the veil on what zoos and other institutions are genuinely about: profit-generating equations in which animals can only have the value we attribute to objects, completely stripped of the moral value of thinking, feeling beings.
Zoos are prisons for innocents who have done nothing to deserve the life sentence behind bars or in small enclosures, far in nature and distance from their natural habitat. Extreme boredom and the lack of a natural, social environment among their own species generally results in severe psychological pain and insanity over many years. For public relations purposes, zoos often claim they are educational centers, but watching other species in small enclosures is only a poor “education” in a spectacle of cruelty, even if children don’t realize the agony and unnatural conditions in which these innocent beings live. We can educate about other species and their natural environments in far more effective ways, and without unnecessarily harming other animals, by abolishing zoos and using videography and documentaries showing other species free in their natural environments.
The racing industry hijacks the bodies of horses and dogs, reducing suffering and death to mere financial considerations, and pushing these animals to physical extremes even as they endure neglect, abuse, and excessive confinement.
Horses used for racing are often overmedicated, masking and then compounding the pain of their injuries as they continue to run. The amount of drugs horses are forced to ingest may also contribute to significantly higher death rates at American tracks, where drug use is a much more entrenched practice. If an injury impedes performance, horses may be “euthanized” or sold to slaughterhouses where they will be killed for meat. In 2006, well-regarded trainer Steve Asmussen was suspended after one of the horses under his care was found to have 750 times the legal limit of anesthetic in her system. Asmussen, who has won over $214 million in purses, was also the subject of a 2014 undercover investigation. In the resulting video, he is seen discussing the severe pain of the animals in his care, referencing the use of electric shock, or “buzzing,” in training, and overseeing the overmedication of injured horses.
Greyhounds face many of the same abuses. In Florida, state records indicate that 483 greyhounds have died on the track or in kennels since 2013, following broken necks, heart attacks or electrocution from the high-voltage lures used to bait the dogs. Greyhounds may be confined for up to 20 hours a day then forced to run in excessive heat. Retired animals may find themselves sold to breeding facilities where their bodies continue to be instrumentalized, perpetuating this system of abuse. Not all those born in breeding facilities will go on to race. After reviewing data kept by the National Greyhound Association, the advocacy organization GREY2K found that over 8,000 puppies went unaccounted for between 2012 and 2014.
Circuses subject wild animals to confinement, violent training practices, stress and anguish for the petty amusement of a human audience. Many of the animals forced into crates and cages require open spaces to exercise their natural behaviors. Social animals, like elephants, require the interaction, stimulation and support of their communities and are diminished by social isolation. Exacerbating these circumstances, circuses travel constantly, as much as eleven months out of the year. The stress and discomfort of these conditions take an enormous toll on wild animals who are meant to have access to dynamic spaces in their natural habitats. The psychological anguish this causes is painfully evident when lions and tigers are seen obsessively pacing in their enclosures, an image that will be familiar to many. This trauma is experienced viscerally as well. Capture myopathy is a disease associated with the capture and containment of wild animals that causes muscle damage, cardiac stress and, in some cases, sudden death.
The excessive restrictions to free movement and bodily autonomy extend to forcing these animals to perform unnatural behaviors day after day. As these behaviors do not come easily, the training process may become violent and abusive. The use of bullhooks is a common component of training elephants. The sharp instruments jab, prod, and coerce the animals to perform out of fear and pain.
Given these conditions, it is not surprising that many animals have attacked their trainers or sought to escape their captivity, only to be met with further violence or recapture. The escape of Tyke the elephant may be one of the most iconic and tragic of these instances. In 1994, the twenty year old elephant escaped during a show in Honolulu, killing her trainer and severely injuring a groomer. Police chased her through the city until she finally succumbed to her injuries. She had been shot 87 times.
In addition to the extreme anxiety caused to horses as a result of the over-stimulation from city sights, sounds and smells, there are many issues with horse-drawn carriages that may not be so readily apparent, but which add up to a living nightmare for the animals involved.
Horses are “flight” animals by nature, meaning they are easily startled, and instinctively flee from a perceived threat, rather than stand and fight it. In crowded and noisy city streets, this can easily lead to incidents of frightened horses running uncontrollably, sometimes with passengers in the carriage, putting both horse and human lives at risk.
If a horse is ultimately hit by a car, it is just as serious as it would be for a pedestrian, as a horse does not have any protection from an oncoming vehicle. Human bystanders, and the passengers of both cars and carriages alike, can also suffer grave bodily harm, or worse.
While stuck in heavy traffic, and forced to walk or stand behind running vehicles, horses breathe exhaust and other toxic fumes day in and day out, which can eventually cause serious and potentially fatal respiratory issues down the line.
Constantly walking on hard pavement (as opposed to grasslands, dirt, and other natural surfaces) puts major stress on the bones, muscles, joints, and hooves of the horses, and frequently leads to injuries or lameness.
Many carriage drivers also exacerbate an already bad situation by treating their horses like machines; forcing them to work in all weather/temperature extremes, and even denying them water so that they will not have to urinate. Combining hot weather with fluid restriction can lead to severe dehydration and heat exhaustion.
Just as in the racing industry, a horse who can’t work or perform is seen as a financial burden. Since a horse who isn’t earning money isn’t worth keeping, those who are slowing, aging or injured will either be “euthanized” or sent to the slaughterhouse to be sold as meat for human consumption.
Many cities, such as New York, have attempted to ban or impose limits on this outdated practice, but that has not come without pushback from carriage drivers and special interests with a financial stake in horse-drawn carriages. Even some celebrities have spoken out in favor of keeping them. Some drivers argue that their industry represents a living connection with the past, and needs to be protected as a means of historical preservation. However, that same flawed logic could be used to justify maintaining any wrongdoing of our past, whether it be killing whales for their oil or keeping other human beings as slaves.