March 12, 2014

Are Zoo Animals Happy?

Going to the zoo is the pastime of urban folk - it gives them a feeling of being in awe of nature and its fauna, and it is the delight of the children to point at and be able to recognise and name the various animals that occupy the fake dens, caves, pools, and homes.

For that - the falsity of their living space - is what these homes are to the wild animal, whether or not previously acquainted with natural surroundings.

I’ve always loved going to the zoo – seeing the animals is a beautiful experience. But I am always torn between supporting the zoo and its supposed conservation efforts, and wishing I could see the animals in the wild. But I have to admit that many of these animals, if they weren’t sitting sadly in their dens and cages – might have no home to go to, or might face the possibility of being completely wiped out in a few years’ time.

Apart from this, zoos are viewed as one of the fronts of conservation, but this is questionable on some points. How can an organisation that requires maximum commission promise to keep the livelihood of the animals top of mind, when they move animals from den to den, country to country, for piles of cash? How can they simply decide to split up animals and even kill them – like Marius the giraffe – because they are surplus, or unneeded, or inbred, or won’t fit into their breeding programme.

The argument for zoological gardens is that some animals really do need help, and youngsters visiting the zoo get valuable supplementary education outside of school. Some people are even inspired to devote their lives to animals, but the likelihood of this is apparently not common. According to one study, there are no – or very few – ‘long-term positiveeffects’ on the attitudes of people visiting zoos and aquariums towards animals.

The cons also include the fact that zoo and conservation publicity makes it look as though endangered animals are recovering well in the zoo. For many of these animals, there is no way that they will ever return to the wild. And their presence in a zoo doesn’t really do much to help fellow members of their species who are thinning out because of deforestation, poaching, and other problems.  

The question remains: are animals happy in the zoo?

It’s not simple for humans to determine what defines happiness for them, so it’s even more complex when trying to determine whether or not animals are happy. Humans tend to define their happiness or non-happiness on how stress-free their lives are, and so apply the same factors to determining the happiness of animals.

Apparently, there are no certain studies to uncover the truth or mistruth of animals being unhappy in a zoo, and research has shown that healthy animal behaviour is consumed by mannerisms that would be considered psychological or biological disorders if they were seen in humans – pacing, obesity, shorter lifespans, and self-mutilation.

Other studies have found that, while domesticated animals not only naturally have lower stress levels – because of their evolution as domesticated animals - but they also react better to stressful situations than their wild counterparts. And if we think stress levels are an indication of happiness, this would mean that domesticated animals such as guinea pigs and hamsters are happier despite being trapped in cages.

If this is true, then wild animals are significantly less happy simply because they are wild animals, and whether or not they come straight from the wild, have higher stress levels, and so react with even higher stress levels. From this we can infer that wild animals might not be happy in their artificial caves, dens, and cages. Especially if they don’t have enough space, food, water, or stimulation.

This would imply that they would be happier – although not as happy as domesticated animals – in captivity as long as their basic needs were met. This is all well and good, but a good many zoos fail to provide sufficient space for a wild animal, and many others fail to give the basic care they need for mere survival, nevermind happiness.

The image used above is the perfect one to supplement this post. Regardless of the science, of the evidence of stress levels, of every possible need possibly met, the evidence is clear. Does this animal look happy?

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March 9, 2014

Book Review || The Ancient World by IA Tenen

Published in 1955, The Ancient World by IA Tenen history of the ancient world is a school textbook. I thought that I would try to read more non-fiction books to supplement the world of my imagination.

What I found interesting about the book was how much it will differ from a similar history published more recently. There is no mention made of southern Africa at all, and Africa only figures in story as much as it was necessary for it to be colonised and pilfered by the Greek and Roman empires.

Even Asia is largely left out of the history, except for Asia Minor, which was likewise conquered for resources and riches. Ancient China is only mentioned in passing, and it is clear that the history views the origins of civilisation as starting in central Europe, despite its admission that more civilised dwellings, sanitation, and construction were copied from Asia Minor and the Far East.

The Neanderthals are introduced as they were in the early Stone Age - no mention is made of the fact that they most likely came from southern Africa, and evolution does not even figure in any explanations. This is, however, because it is a history and not a scientific document.

The history also makes it pretty clear that any religion other than Christianity is simply not worth much time. The Greek and Roman gods are only mentioned in passing as a step towards the more civilised religion of the Christian believers.

It is interesting that it takes the Old Testament as historical fact, while it wasn't until someone found evidence of the city of Minos that anyone dreamt the myth could have been true. This despite admitting, "It is a strange thing that no Egyptian records tell us anything of these events."

Of course, discoveries of various other texts, tablets, and archaeological evidence later confirmed that at least some of the stories of the Old Testament had some basis in truth, such as the existence of cities like Jericho, Dan, Meggido, Beersheba, and others, Shishak’s invasion of Judah, and more.

However, others claim that there is no evidence for events in the Bible – such as the exodus from Egypt or the Ten Plagues, for example – at all.

Meanwhile, the history also makes it clear that any population group was only considered civilised – was only considered as making a ‘great advance’ – if it believed in a single god. Initially, the Christian god was thought of as being a ‘tribal’ god who abandoned its people, and some people believed that Jeremiah taught that worshipping God was more of an attitude toward the Divine Spirit than it should have been worship limited to a specific place or people.

It was only near the end of the Roman Empire – when Constantine declared Christianity the national religion – that it inspired masses of followers and became more organised hierarchically. In this history, the Greeks are considered as a sort of pinnacle for a perfect civilisation, because they questioned and thought about everything, except for the fact that their religion was not worthy of their spirit. All the different gods made it ‘obvious that their origin lies in the worship of various natural forces and the oldest arts’.

In essence, my point about writing about this history is just to point out how knowledge of the world and civilisation has expanded since the earliest histories. Greek historians mentioned Atlantis as though it was something real, and it is difficult for us to tell whether its supposed existence was mixed up with mythological oral stories or if it was utterly true, especially since Atlantis remains as yet undiscovered.

If one thinks about the expanding knowledge and consciousness of humanity, it is inspiring to think that if you had to travel back in time with your Smartphone just seventy years, any single person you encounter would never believe that in your pocket you have access to the entirety of human knowledge, right at your fingertips.
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March 3, 2014

The Pistorius Trial (And Celebrity) Sickens Me

The trial of Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, who allegedly accidentally shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, starts today. I have a feeling of dread about it.

Perhaps it is because, as a member of the media, I'm going to be covering it closely for the expected duration of the trial. I feel much sympathy, though, for those journalists who are not blessed with online work and are - as I wrote this last night - camped outside the North Gauteng Court prepping their equipment and probably gorging themselves on piping hot coffee on such a cold evening just to keep their sanity.

Perhaps it is this media frenzy that sickens me. I agree that Oscar is a global icon - he was an inspiration for many before and after being the first paraplegic to compete against able-bodied athletes in the Olympic Games - but it saddens me that there are at least 43 murders in South Africa every day, and yet this trial is singled-out for 24-hour broadcast, the gathering of statements and opinions of dozens of law experts - including the likes of Robert Shapiro, American footballer OJ Simpson's defense attorney, and the trial by television and Twitter that will inevitably follow such elaborate coverage.

I certainly understand that the crazed attention has to do with the fact that Pistorius is a public personality, and that the coverage of a high-profile trial such as this one will help to educate South Africans about the legal and justice system of the country. However, I think there are most definitely things more important people should be concerned about.

I've heard a saying recently that the reason bad men prevail is because most people have absolute knowledge about how many goals their football team scored last night, or whether Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are married yet, but have no idea how the politics of their country works, who's actually in charge of it, where the money is going, and what is planned for the country as a whole. It is the age-old debate of the importance of celebrity and popular culture to the population. I think an important part of this popular culture is to distract - Oscar Pistorius is a distraction (for those able to afford DStv and view the 24-hour channel, and for those who can afford Internet connections and newspapers) from issues such as the escalation of service delivery protests, the obvious and seemingly catastrophic changes to global weather systems, the current military action by Russia on the Ukraine, the mass rape and murder of our young children, and even Nkandla itself will no longer be an issue. All eyes will be on the Pistorius trial for the immediate future.

What concerns me about this situation is that, while South Africa's middle-class - who hold the economic muscle in the country - watch Twitter, Facebook, DStv, SABC, eNCA, and whoever else is covering the 'event' with bated breath to hear word-by-word, moment-by-moment, what is taking place in the courtroom, and those journalists who usually cover the news are seated tweeting and updating websites with up-to-the-minute action from the trial, important occurrences might be missed. What will be able to be swept under the carpet as the nation's eyes are glued to Oscar? How many more protesters will be killed by police? How many more teens will be killed in apparent rituals? How many more young children will be sexually assaulted as they attend a church service?

And on the eve of Oscar's trial, the world is distracted by an Oscar of a different sort - the Academy Awards absorb the attention of the world as the elite pat each other on their backs for their talents while the citizens of the Ukraine are most likely planning how best to escape possible death at the hands of Russia. Or vice versa.

This while people who can hardly afford a loaf of bread a day have only the strength to look forward one more day, to make it one more day.

{Image source: Wikimedia Commons\David Jones}
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