By Jill Howard-Church,
Society Institute (ASI)
I recently had the amazing privilege of going to Africa for the first time and seeing native wildlife in their natural habitats. All my favorites were there: elephants, big cats, monkeys and more.
I visited three national parks in Tanzania in as many days and was treated to a spectacle I could only have imagined after watching countless documentaries and movies that, try as they might, cannot come close to replicating the feeling you get when you're really there.
Seeing animals in their real environments shouldn't be that much of a novelty. It's really the most normal circumstance possible. But in the 21st century, after hundreds of years of colonization, urbanization and population growth, these iconic animals have lost most of their natural range to human need and greed. They must survive in what space they have left.
But although the lions, giraffes, elephants and other animals I saw were within park boundaries, they were still free to roam across very large areas. They moved where they wanted to, slept when they felt like it, grazed and hunted at will, and generally ignored the relatively few human beings in their midst.
I was a guest in their world, and extremely aware of how rare and precious each of their lives is. It's not utopia, but it's freedom.
But I no sooner arrived back in the States than there across the TV screen in my living room were images of the circus soon coming to my town. The booming advertisements touted the imminent presence of exotic animals at my downtown arena, promising "fun" and "excitement." I couldn't hit the "off" button fast enough.
Having just seen such animals in the wild, where they belong, made the notion of captivity and crude entertainment even more repugnant than ever.
I had seen elephants strolling through green hills, browsing at their leisure. I had seen vast herds of zebras, many with new foals, visiting water holes. I had watched a magnificent male lion stroll through the tall grass to join his family for a nap in the hot summer sun.
And while of course their lives aren't totally carefree - one of the lions stalked a zebra right in front of me, and another later caught and killed a young warthog - their lives were still their own. They didn't languish in cages, they weren't chained to the ground, they weren't dressed in silly costumes or whipped and prodded into stupid stunts.
I saw two entire families of elephants, and not once did they stand on their hind legs in a conga line. The zebras didn't run in circles, much less with anyone balancing on their backs. No one paced or rocked back and forth. And nobody dared tell the lions to do anything they didn't darn well please.
It occurred to me that the circusgoers might think they're being treated to some sort of wondrous spectacle, but they're not. They might watch elephants and lions and zebras from a fairly close distance, but they won't really see them. They will never know them. They won't see mother zebras standing guard over their sleeping young, they won't see how high an elephant can reach into a tree with his trunk, and they won't see how lions divvy up a kill.
They will learn nothing of what these animals are really like, where they really (are supposed to) live, and what makes them unique. All they will see is a twisted caricature of something that looks like a wild animal but cannot behave as one (unless, as happened recently in Mexico, one of the animals finally snaps and has a go at a trainer).
I was lucky to have seen the animals I did, and I know that's an experience many people will never have. But you don't have to go to all the way to Africa to understand that such animals don't belong in a circus (or a zoo for that matter). The distance between your heart and your head is the only journey you need to make.
Jill Howard-Church is a writer and editor who specializes in animal issues. She serves as the part-time communications director for the Animals and Society Institute, and is the volunteer president of the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.