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Our distorted view of wild animals

In the last fortnight, there have been no less than four separate incidents reported where people have been seriously injured following attempts to interact with dangerous wild animals in zoos.

A woman from the United States had the end of a finger ripped off by a lion when she allegedly tried to pet him. A few days later and it was reported that a young boy had had to have his whole arm amputated after he attempted to feed meat to a tiger in a Brazilian zoo. Reports suggest that the boy's father had encouraged the youngster to approach the animal. A volunteer apparently attempting to interact with an orang-utan in Mexico also lost a finger and a report from Chile on the same day confirmed that another child had a finger partially bitten off by a monkey in a zoo.

Last month a young girl in Russia had her entire hand bitten off by a bear as she posed in front of his cage for a photo and poked her hand through the bars when her mother turned her back for a moment. She too, like the little boy from Brazil, is now adapting to life following this devastating injury.

Screenshot of The Huffington Post

It would be easy to blame those that have suffered the injuries and, indeed, reading through some of the comments online in relation to the stories reported in press, this is a common response. While I think many of us would agree that a child might not be able to recognize the dangers inherent in trying to pet a huge wild animal, surely the two adults should know better? And in the case of the children, their parents or guardians should be held responsible. To some extent, this response seems perfectly reasonable.

But I think the answer to "what would possess someone to try to stroke a lion" runs deeper than the flippant response we see so often of "stupidity."

Instead, I think the answer may lie in the way in which wild animals, and their position in the world in relation to people, has become distorted over the years as a result of a number of different influences.

Our changing view of where wild animals fit into our world
In recent years, the zoo industry has made a number of changes to its practices. One of the most noticeable has been the removal of bars separating visitors from animals. Some zoos argue that this benefits the animals, who are now kept in "more naturalistic" enclosures (not a claim I plan to tackle in this particular post, but suffice to say this claim is contentious). Equally, zoos also recognize that these "naturalistic" and "barrier free" enclosures are for the benefit of visitors who get the sensation of being able to get closer than ever before to the animals.

A firm of zoo architects describes this trend:

The concept of immersion design is to immerse animals and guests in the same re-created theme area, habitat or landscape. Animals and visitors are separated by hidden barriers

As well as a change in design of zoos which offers the illusion of being closer to the animals, there appears to have been a recent increase in zoos and other animal-use companies explicitly encouraging and promoting direct interaction with animals via feeding experiences, "keeper for a day" experiences and handling experiences, both with large predators and smaller animals. In addition, "walk through" enclosures are becoming a staple feature of many zoos.

Use of wild animals as "photo props" both inside and outside of zoos has been highlighted by a number of animal welfare organizations around the world as damaging to the individual animals and to conservation, and poses a direct threat to the people having their photos taken. Recent criticism of the trend of taking "selfies" with tigers (animals who are allegedly drugged or heavily restrained) has reached such proportions that photos of this ilk have been threatened with a legislative ban in parts of the United States.

The use of wild animal "actors" in films such as the Hangover, Night at the Museum and Water for Elephants, as well as in promotional stunts by zoos and in both television and print adverts have (either intentionally or otherwise) promoted the direct interaction between dangerous wild animals and people. Research has shown that the use of animals in this way can affect the perception that members of the public have of the conservation status of these animals.

The portrayal of wild animals alongside people is commonplace in fashion promotion

The increase in exotic pet ownership over the last few decades, including dangerous animals such as big cats and great apes (particularly in the United States), has further served to position wild animals in domestic human settings (both literally and psychologically).

It could be argued that these types of events (particularly the use of "photo prop" animals and handling or photo sessions in zoos) have been around for a very long time. This is true, but in the age of the internet, social media and (often multiple) televisions in each household, a photograph or video can be sent around the world and viewed by millions in a matter of moments. The problem of people interacting with wild animals is perhaps not new, but it is certainly more visible than it ever has been before. I know I have numerous friends on various social media platforms who have posted photographs of themselves with wild animals on holiday or during zoo trips. I am sure many of you reading this do too.

Perhaps the most famous "wild animal selfie," Rihanna with an endangered loris

Photo source

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.