As a metaphor for our relationship with animals, the Hen House is Turning, in significant in several ways. We housed and loved many animals in our 46 years in Los Alamos. They added more than one dimension to our lives.
We humans have been both friends and users of our fellow creatures over many thousands of years. Domestication has been a mixed blessing for some, like silk worms, and a remarkable partnership for others—the dog and its genetic modification from wolves, through kindness and eye-contact, being the most striking example. The birds of the Hen House were another; regarded as best friends, and capable of verbal acknowledgment and warm regard.
Some animals are still badly used, like cormorants, who are collared to prevent swallowing, then firmly held on a leash to catch fish attracted to flashing lights. Keeping animals and birds only to be hunted or forced to perform, has been all too common. But things are changing.
In the meat industry, since 2014, some states have outlawed inhumane practices, including cramped cages for pigs and chickens. Large restaurants and the food industry have encouraged suppliers to join the move toward kinder practices.
The pressure is on both food and entertainment industries because of our increasing awareness of animal sentience and individual personalities. Only a few decades ago, animal behaviorists, writing about animal emotion, were refused publication. Now, beginning with the work of animal behaviorists like Frans deWaal, empathy and awareness and emotional needs are widely recognized in animals of all kinds.
What’s in a name? We have experienced the difficulty in slaughtering an animal for food once we have named it. Zoos have learned that huge (well fed) predators will choose the company of natural prey over being kept alone in captivity.
Recently, zoos have cut back on elephant exhibits when they realize they can’t “adequately provide” for them. The California Coastal Commission has announced that Sea World can no longer capture wild animals or breed them in captivity.
Controversy continues between those who believe that captivity of any animal does not justify what others see as a 1) critical need to rescue species from extinction and 2) educating the public. It’s called “ethical conservation,” recognizing that animals are conscious beings with individual personalities. This view echoes the ancient belief called ahimsa, the intrinsic sacred value of all life.
The plight of elephants is already critical. Some have been brought here to zoos from Swaziland, where they were damaging parks. Threatened with drought, the country otherwise felt the need to kill them. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus has announced it will retire its elephant act in 2018.
The Seattle Times has reported that most of 390 elephant deaths were due to injury or disease from captivity. Of 321, half died by age 23, whereas elephants live to 60 years in the wild. Detroit Zoo and others have closed its elephant exhibit.
On the other hand, the arguments for conservation and public awareness seem valid, so that people will connect with wild animals in order to “save and care about endangered species,” says Rob Vernon of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The AZA requirements and conservation efforts are reflected in better facilities and watchful care of zoo animals. As a result, since 1989, when one half of all zoos kept elephants, only one third now keep them.
We are ever more challenged to exist peacefully with other species as the human population continues to expand. At the same time, we recognize their extreme value to us as both providers, sources of wonder, and companions. Less is more, if we can find a way — as we must.