Pictured above: Training by reward: grain treat time
I can’t imagine why, but lately I’ve been feeling that culture, civility and caring are in retreat, and are being replaced by a frenzied glorification of dog eat dog. So accustomed am I to seeing the world through this lens that my first instinct, when hearing that Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey circus was closing down, was to see this as yet another loss of a valued cultural institution. Not that I was ever a big fan of the three ring circus — too chaotic and big and loud for my taste and increasingly corporate and cold. Peter and I always preferred the hominess of the late lamented Big Apple Circus, with its trained pink pigs sporting silken wings. But still, I thought nostalgically of the charming Ringling Brothers performing elephants. The discontinuance of their act was, unfortunately, a major factor in reducing attendance and making the circus unprofitable.
I suspected that clamping down on the elephant acts was another example of animal welfare run amok. I thought the animals seemed to enjoy their act and earning treats by performing. I set out to write a lament for the end of an era.
But first I thought I’d better do some research into how circus elephants were trained and the life they enjoyed. What I found on line was a raft of criticism of Ringling Brothers, going back several years. It seems that the reason they had discontinued the elephant acts, leading to the demise of the circus overall, was public outcry after severe and justified exposées by animal welfare groups, showing the cruelty of their training practices and the impoverished physical and emotional life of the circus elephants. For instance, training started at a very young age, which meant that elephant calves were taken from their mothers and family groups and isolated, inflicting a horrible psychological injury on these very social and family oriented animals. The physical positions they were forced to learn were unnatural for them, and the only way they were induced to learn them in many cases involved tying them up and then occasionally punishing them for noncompliance with prods by painful sharp “bullhooks.”
Further, once trained and on the road, if the stories are accurate, during circus season the elephants spend most of their time confined in a sort of solitary confinement in box cars as they are transported from city to city. They are for extended periods outside any environment resembling their native one, deprived of their social context, and bored almost literally out of their minds. Sometimes this results in severe antisocial behavior by the animal.
Much as I like watching them perform, I became convinced that the life of the circus, which is weird even for the humans who voluntarily choose it or do it because they are part of circus families, is cruel when forced on animals who have no choice in the matter.
As a raiser of livestock myself, I long ago accepted the idea that it is justifiable to raise animals to serve human purposes. In that regard, perhaps I have failed as a post-humanist. But I only found it justifiable if the animals were raised in a way that allows them to express their social instincts, create social structures, and engage in activities they choose. That is, I would only raise them in what I consider a “humane” environment. Take, for example, our turkeys. The safe, cushy and ultimately happily social environment we provide on our farm is one we think the turkeys thoroughly enjoy. If I were a turkey, I think it would be a reasonable life to live, as opposed to a life of scarcity and danger in the wild. Even if it meant I would face certain death in my prime for the Thanksgiving table.
I think it’s also acceptable to confine wild animals like elephants, if it is done in zoos that provide a natural environment mirroring their life in the wild, and a social life appropriate to their species. That, to me, is humane. The Ringling Brothers circus model is not.
If it is acceptable to confine animals, is it also acceptable to train them to do our bidding? Here, too, I would say yes, but again only providing we do it humanely. One aspect of humaneness our own society has embraced is that training through physical punishment is inhumane and training through reward is preferred. That was not the case until recently. Peter has told me of his being whacked hard across the palm of his hand by a teacher wielding a large bamboo cane as a five year old in Cardiff, Wales. His crime was being late to school, even though his tardiness was caused by being up all night in a German bombing attack. Similarly, in Hebrew school in London in the early 1960s I was rapped on the knuckles with a ruler for mistakes in translation. As a sign of the change that was on the horizon, this so offended my parents’ American sensibilities, which had been transformed by the ethos of Dr. Spock, that they took me out of Hebrew school and arranged private tutoring for my bar mitzvah. By the time my generation had become adults, it seemed to have become broadly accepted that corporal punishment of children is inhumane.
Animal welfare groups have taken that understanding and applied it to our relations to the animal world. Even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), or at least its Indian branch, has endorsed a method of training elephants they call “protected contact’ based on positive reinforcement rather than punishment. I agree with PETA that if we are training animals it should be through methods that respect the animals’ psychological integrity and which avoid using pain as a method of persuasion. This is how our sheep have been trained in a twice a day ritual of performance and reward. When we enter the barn, they have learned to file out dutifully, but to wait outside the door because they know that once the barn is empty we will portion out a grain mix in their feed bowls and that they will be let back in for their treat.
I don’t want to suggest that we and PETA are entirely on the same page. PETA believes humans should not use or dominate animals at all, whereas a farm like ours presupposes that we can ethically raise animals for our own purposes even if the purpose is ultimately to eat them.
How we reconcile humane treatment with the ultimate fate of the animals is a thorny question worthy of a much longer discussion, but let me summarize. In part, we feel our eating of animals seems justified precisely because we are ourselves animals in a world predicated on a hierarchy of life forms, each devouring those either smaller or less clever than them. In part, too, it is because our standard farm livestock are largely a human creation, bred over centuries to serve particular human needs. Their existence is a legacy of our history on earth as a species. Were these animals not needed for their meat or fiber and, therefore, being raised as our dependent wards, they would simply not exist. Most of them would have no possibility of “natural” life in the wild; they would quickly be devoured by other species or die because they could not learn to find food themselves. They thrive and have purpose only because they are food; eating them, as we often point out when marketing our heritage breed turkeys, is ironically the way we ensure the continued survival of their species.
This is going to sound like a weirdly conservative perspective for me, but were our animals more “human,” they might resent their state of dependence. A recent legal case I was involved in highlighted for me how humans who live on the largesse of others may come to chafe at their state of dependence. They may start with “an attitude of gratitude” but these feelings metamorphose over time to resentment, as they come to perceive the generosity they have enjoyed as somehow an instrument of their oppression. Last week, Peter described a chorus of moos, oinks,baas and clucks as the animals agreed with his post-humanist acknowledgment that we all share the universe as creatures with consciousness. If the animals were resentful dependents, they might instead be sitting around grumbling about why we have the big house and they are stuck out in the barn. Thus Orwell’s fable, Animal Farm, in which the pigs lead a livestock revolution that ousts Farmer Brown.
Perhaps I’m grossly unperceptive, but I don’t think our livestock are grumbling. They are sentient and conscious, but their consciousness is not the same as ours and they do not seem to be aware of themselves as victims of their dependence. I get the sense that the sheep do their grain treat ritual happily and without resentment, as their coming back in is also the occasion for petting, nuzzling and mutual expressions of affection between us and them. It seems overall a mutually beneficial relationship, and a mutually respectful one. But maybe I, like Farmer Brown, am in for a nasty surprise.