Derrick Jensen’s passionate and beautifully written tribute to the animal kingdom [“Thought to Exist in the Wild,” November 2007] made me think that our mindless treatment of animals is also a reflection of the way we treat each other. When we dehumanize people, as we do in pornography, or in war, or in our penal system, our treatment of our fellow human beings is no better than our treatment of animals in zoos; if anything, it’s worse. The problem is not just that we fail to appreciate animals, but that we lack compassion. We must love all beings as if they were ourselves.
I always sensed that something was wrong at the zoo. Every time I took my children there — and, later, my grandchildren — I envisioned a cage with a family of humans in it.
It was many years before it dawned on me that, in a sense, we humans are already in a cage; the only difference is that our cage is much bigger, the size of a city. These days some cities contain 20 million or more human animals, who are so far from nature as to not know where the neatly wrapped pieces of dead animals in the supermarket come from. Our cages are made of metal, plastic, wood, and glass.
Once, I found myself beside a real jungle at night and decided to walk into its dark interior alone. It didn’t take me long to find out how civilized I was. Not even a hundred feet inside the dense greenery, I panicked at the thought that I’d soon be dead if I didn’t run back to my civilization: that hugely unnatural conglomeration of artifacts, people, and the occasional zoo.
Derrick Jensen’s essay has left a lasting impression on me. I have always taken for granted the freedom to walk along a woodland path, or sit in our gazebo and gaze over the pond as the sun sets and the insects begin their evening symphony, or feel the sun on my back as my Harley glides along a winding road — the freedom to be, to do whatever I please. I’m not confined to a cage or forced to live behind an electrified fence; nor do I have others gaping at me as I go about fulfilling my desires.
All living things have the right to freedom. Who are we to satisfy our selfish, egotistical whims at the expense of these innocent animals? What an atrocity. They are stalked, captured, and imprisoned like POWs. We are at war with nature.
I instantly recognized the giraffes pictured in your November cover photograph by Matt Nighswander. A few years back, when my oldest child was about three, I took her to the Bronx Zoo. I’m not sure why I wanted to revisit the zoo that I’d gone to as a girl. Our family stands against much of what zoos represent: we don’t eat meat; we expose our children to the real natural world; we release even the tiniest insects we catch; and we don’t visit circuses, pet shops, or rodeos.
For whatever reason, we made the two-and-a-half-hour trek that day, and I returned home feeling sorely disappointed and physically ill about the conditions of those trapped animals. The giraffe enclosure stood out to me as one of the worst, so seeing it on your cover stunned me. It also gave me hope, because it means someone else took notice of that same atrocity — and The Sun courageously placed those suffering animals on its cover so others would see the truth.
Unfortunately, this type of animal exploitation is rampant, even in educationally minded places. I recently brought my three children to a nature center in Massachusetts. All was well until we came upon an outdoor enclosure painted turquoise and white, with a concrete floor. A lone polar bear paced inside, just like the bear in Derrick Jensen’s “Thought to Exist in the Wild.” Years of frustration and insanity were etched onto her face. She stopped to gnaw on a blue plastic ball punctured with many teeth marks, then resumed pacing. It was one of the most depressing sights I have ever witnessed.
A sign nearby said that the bear had been born there and her mother had died a few years earlier. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or saddened that this bear had never known the wild. Then I realized that although this polar bear had never dipped her face into a frozen sea, nor walked hundreds of miles across ice floes, nor torn into the warm flesh of a seal for a meal, she still knows that all of that exists. After all, she is much wiser than a human and harbors ancient instincts. She will spend her entire life pacing that cage, longing for something primal and beautiful that she will never be able to obtain.
I used to love aquariums. I wouldn’t go to SeaWorld or anywhere that forced large, intelligent creatures such as whales or dolphins to live in captivity. But somehow I convinced myself that small fish weren’t “aware” of their captivity, so it was OK.
The National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, was the only thing that kept me going while I lived in that dirty, segregated, crime-filled city. While I was living in San Francisco, the Monterey Bay Aquarium introduced me to the gorgeous jellyfish called “moon jellies.”
For my thirtieth birthday, I decided to get certified for scuba diving so I could observe marine life in its natural habitat. The moment I saw my first bright orange garibaldi tucking himself inside a curtain of kelp forest that swayed all on its own, without any artificial pump, something in me changed.
I understand completely when Jensen says that seeing a wolverine in a cage isn’t seeing a wolverine. I’d seen hundreds of sea otters in Monterey and San Francisco, but I’d never really seen a sea otter until I did my first night dive and one spiraled out of nowhere just a foot shy of my mask, blowing bubbles and checking me out.
I haven’t been to an aquarium since.
I have powerfully mixed feelings about Derrick Jensen’s essay “Thought to Exist in the Wild.” There is little in it with which I disagree, but I’m mystified by the apparent absence of humility in his thinking. The essay is not self-effacing enough to be thoughtful, as he seems to condemn all who may disagree with him.
Jensen writes well, but, as much as I appreciate the views he expresses, I can’t seem to get past the barrier of self-righteousness that he erects. Didactic pieces like this do not invite the kind of dialogue it will take to encourage change and more-responsible life choices.
As Derrick Jensen points out, holding animals in captivity for public display communicates false notions of human supremacy. I was surprised, then, to read the author’s anecdote about his dog. His dog. How is the institution of keeping pets — wherein human beings claim ownership over certain animals, severely limit their contact with others of their species, and deny them the right to act as independent, adult creatures — qualitatively different from what happens in zoos? To my mind, to say what Jensen says about zoos and then claim a nonhuman animal as “his” — however much the pet may be loved and however well he may care for it — seems inconsistent at best.
Derrick Jensen responds:
I’m grateful to all the letter writers. In response to Aaron Smith’s complaint that I lack humility: I actually think my essay is about being humble — humble enough not to want to imprison nonhumans for pleasure, entertainment, and money. I can think of little that is more arrogant than to believe that humans have the right to imprison wild beings or to destroy wild nature. Smith writes, “Didactic pieces like this do not invite the kind of dialogue it will take to encourage change and more-responsible life choices.” It’s fine that he doesn’t like “didactic pieces” — I would describe my essay as stating a strong opinion that differs from the status quo, and if I were kidnapped and imprisoned, I’d want my advocates to argue strongly on my behalf — but the other letter writers seem to show that his statement is false. The piece has already encouraged change.
Jeffrey Sharlein complains of an inconsistency on my part because I said a dog was “mine.” It is important to recognize that there are many meanings of the word my, including those that are purely relational: when I say, “my mother,” it doesn’t mean that I own her; it merely establishes that we are in a relationship with each other. Likewise with the dog: he is my dog, and I am his human, with no hierarchy implied. I admit my relationship with the dog is different from my relationship with the wild bears I see regularly, but the dog wasn’t born wild: he is a domesticated creature whom I acquired from the pound. The choice was not between letting him live in a wild community or putting him in a cage; the choice was between bringing him home to live with me or letting him be killed at the pound. Sure, I could refuse to share my life with domesticated dogs in an attempt to make a political statement or to be philosophically pure, but I would rather give this dog a wonderful home than make a statement, and purity doesn’t interest me in the slightest. What interests me is stopping this culture from incarcerating nonhumans and destroying the world. Whether I am humble, or whether I share my life with dogs, has absolutely no bearing on the truth of what I wrote. The real point is the nonhuman animals, not me.
As a dog owner, I thoroughly enjoyed the November 2007 issue’s focus on animals. The Sunbeams, however, left a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t read The Sun to be preached at. I am an omnivore and perfectly content with my choice. I applaud the convictions of vegetarians and vegans, but I have convictions of my own. I raise my two dogs in a loving home, I volunteer at a local animal shelter, and I try my best to choose meats that are organic or free-range or both.
Please don’t allow the Sunbeams, which are usually so diverse, to become a platform for one ideology.
Varley O’Connor’s essay “Suki” [October 2007], about a cat she once abandoned, depressed me for days and made me hate the author. I am fully educated in the cruelty of human nature and have rescued such animals and advocated for animal welfare and rights. O’Connor might gain catharsis by writing about the precious being she allowed to suffer, but publishing her essay in your magazine doesn’t change the ugliness.
Varley O’Connor responds:
With so many people out there who propagate animal cruelty yet deny their part in it, I wonder why Diane Venberg would choose to “hate” someone who fully admits her own complicity? I was only twenty years old at the time, and thirty years later I still cared enough to consider what might have happened to Suki and to write a careful inquiry intended to honor her and bring attention to her suffering and the suffering of others like her. Venberg and I are not on opposing sides.