Normalizing our distorted view of wild animals
It has long been suggested that young people are growing up in a world that is increasingly sexualized and that open access to sexually explicit content on the internet, for example, is projecting warped ideas of what a "normal" and "healthy" relationship might look like. The same has long been said with regard to exposure to violence in the media. There are concerns that people become desensitized and this, in turn, may lead to negative outcomes for them and those around them. I don't profess to be any sort of expert in these fields but the principle behind the arguments is compelling and appears to be borne out in evidence: the more something is presented to us as "normal," the more normalized it becomes in our minds and in society in general.
With this in mind, is it any wonder that people don't understand that the orangutan they see dressed up in human clothing on a pop music video is a complex and immensely strong wild animal?
Is it any wonder that, when people are bombarded with images of models draped over big cats in perfume and fashion adverts, the message that these animals could, quite literally, tear you limb from limb is lost?
Is it any wonder that with endless "selfies" circulating round the internet of people smiling next to drugged up tigers, a child might think hand-feeding one of these huge predators would be a reasonable thing to do?
Is it surprising that the same people who pay a premium to cuddle a baby lion cub in a zoo might believe that the same lion when in adolescence might be just as amenable to being stroked and petted the next?
Are their answers to these questions all just "stupidity"?
Not really. No.
While the animal entertainment industry (within which I include zoos) and the exotic pet trade flourishes and continues to position wild animals in places they are simply not meant to be (i.e. in our homes, in film studios, city center zoos, and shopping malls), these ideas of our place in relation to them will continue to be warped. And, as zoos continue to seek new and exciting ways that their visitors can interact with the animals held captive there, it seems inevitable that incidents described at the outset of this piece will continue to occur.
So, the next time someone is mauled, disfigured, or worse when they try to interact with a wild animal in a zoo (and, rest assured, it will happen again), we would perhaps do well to stop ourselves before simply branding the person "stupid." Instead, it seems to me that the blame cannot be attributed to one zoo, one business or one person, but to all of those businesses and all of those individuals who continue to manipulate wild animals for gain. Every single one of these parties holds some blame in this sorry situation.
In fact, the only truly innocent parties are the animals.
Fixing the problem
In terms of how to fix the problem, it's far from simple but there is work being carried out all over the world to challenge these damaging practices and to shift the status quo towards respect and, yes, if we are being honest, a healthy fear of wild animals.
In this respect, we can all do our bit. We can refuse to watch films that use animal "actors." We can say no to posing with wild animals as photo props when we are on holiday. We can reject the keeping of wild animals as pets in our homes, boycott animal circuses, and refrain from going to zoo. None of these actions require us to make sweeping changes to our lives but they do help to combat the increasing belief that wild animals can be used as living props to amuse us.
Committing to these simple actions when it comes to our treatment of wild animals will also help to remind us that their place is not in our home, but in theirs. Their place is in the wild.