By Gay Bradshaw
Today’s headlines tell a very different story than they did a few years back.
"Bolivia outlawing circus performances by all animals, wild and domestic.”
“Elephants, tigers and other wild animals will be banned from the family circuses in Britain.”
"Greece bans the use of wild animals.”
The most astonishing news comes from India. Renowned for its millennial old tradition of elephant “breaking” (the violent capture and torture of elephants for captivity), India startled the world when newspapers announced this year: “Elephants to be banished from zoos.” Shortly thereafter, again breaking precedence, Indian courts ordered the confiscation of a young male elephant from temple owners on grounds of abuse. The bull now lives in sanctuary as will the rest of his pachyderm compatriots when zoo exhibits close.
Times are indeed changing. Animal captivity has ceased to be an assumed, legitimate institution. As zoo doors close one by one, we are witnessing the profound transformation of human culture. At the same time, science is making an equally radical move. By declaring human-animal mental comparability, science has set in motion its own paradigm shift.
Everything that once seemed to distinguish humans is now found in other species. Elephants have ancient cultures, ants show empathy, octopi delight with diverse personalities, and bonobos and parrots exhibit linguistic fluency that has overturned humans’ monopoly on language. Neuroscientists affirm that from chickens to Chinese, antelope to Americans, and dolphins to Danes, all animals share the same brain parts and processes. From both within and without, species differences are fast fading. The ancient barrier separating humans from the rest of nature, what historian Calvin Luther Martin refers to as "Adam's Wall," is crumbling.
The passing of captivity as a cultural institution represents a pivotal epistemic, political, ontological, and psychological event. By recognizing parity among species, human identity is no longer a given and we are tasked to rediscover what being human means— and there is no better moment than the present.
While nations are joining to close zoos and abolish circuses, wildlife has never been as imperiled. Scientists predict that the awesome elephant will be gone in less than fifteen years unless their slaughter can be stopped. Other species are not far behind. It was only recently that the Yangtze river dolphin left this planet for good.
Humans are betwixt and between past and the future, one hand reconciling differences while the other causes mass extinctions. Can the change of heart that has unlocked zoo gates now extend to animals who walk and swim free? Hopefully humans will recreate a new identity by discovering what true humanity really means: compassion and service to animal kin.
Gay Bradshaw is a contributor to Metamorphoses of the Zoo: Animal Encounter after Noah.