I get a fair stream of animal rights propaganda in my inbox and on social media – that platform for hashtag warriors and armchair activists – as I’m sure everybody does. It blends into the general background noise of liberal life, a form of the choir endlessly preaching to itself. Liberals are never quite so unified as all that, though, and each has their own tolerance for the wrongness around them and the steps provided to correct it.
Two news stories of late have sparked a bit of controversy in that regard, both related to New York City. The first is, of course, the ongoing fight as to whether the city should forbid any proprietors of horse-drawn carriages from plying their trade in upper Midtown and Central Park. The second is the city’s refusal to admit UniverSoul Circus in town due to the way it cages its animals. In each case, the ideal is pitted against the practical.
Animal rights activists complained that putting workhorses on New York City streets amounts to unwarranted cruelty that they should not have to abide. The owners of those horses and the men who worked with them argued back that the horses were fed well, given regular checkups with veterinarians and granted lots of attention; all of which was paid for by their service as workhorses.
Of course, horses are domesticated animals, which is why we put them to work in the first place: Even should the carriages disappear, riot horses that the NYPD use will still be a common sight around Times Square and during parades. The question to ask, however, is what happens to the horses if the trade is banned? The care of hundreds of workhorses would require a great amount of space and millions of dollars annually in feed and medical care, which, divorced from an income, would be untenable.
This is, in a way, the great conundrum of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the activist group that strongly advocates against negligent and cruel animal shelters and pet shops yet has been criticized for having one of the highest rates of euthanization of the animals under its care, for not only is the group’s stated mantra that “they are better off dead than abused” but, well, it’s cheaper that way. The money matter makes a difference.
It’s this money matter that makes each organization question the other’s motives. In the case of UniverSoul Circus, PETA was one of the loudest critics of their animal handling, and I personally am inclined to agree that circuses with names that don’t end in “du Soleil” are relics of a bygone era – though some organizations tend to overstate the case, as with the controversy over the ASPCA having to pay damages for falsifying evidence about animal cruelty against Ringling Bros’ Circus - but I’m also a great proponent of the work that the Wildlife Conservation Society does when it runs, among other institutions, the Bronx Zoo.
There are, however, critics of the WCS and similar institutions like the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, which runs out of the National Zoo in Washington, DC – foremost among them Born Free USA and the International Fund for Animal Welfare – who believe that no wild animal should be enclosed, no matter the size of the enclosure, and that the zoos themselves are also cruel anachronisms in our modern age. The work of the biologists and zoologists in these institutions, they argue, are hypocrites for their work, which I found rather difficult to believe as nobody becomes a zoologist unless they deeply believe in their work.
The divide, however, boils down to money. Organizations like Born Free USA and the IFAW are outperformed by an order of magnitude when it comes to fundraising by those like the WCS, and spend close to half their budgets on overhead rather than the programs themselves. Without the draw of real exhibits, it is difficult to garner attention and solicit donations to promote habitat preservation and wildlife conservation at home and abroad, and in promoting awareness, zoos have the inside track.
Even the Safari Club, a hunting organization, has jumped on the bandwagon to show that it outperforms such charities when it comes to wildlife habitat preservation. Their argument is simple: Nothing beats an entity with a vested economic interest in a species’ preservation when it comes to ensuring that species’ preservation. Call it the Teddy Roosevelt School of Nature Conservancy: If we hunt these animals to extinction, we have nothing left to hunt.
The scary matter is, they may have a point. Ironically enough, it was the Endangered Species Act that may have endangered the Scimitar-horned Oryx, as the Act put restrictions on hunting it, and its numbers were kept up largely because it was being bred for hunting. Without the economic incentive to keep them alive, their numbers dropped like a rock as ranchers dumped their livestock liabilities.
In a sense, then, the zoos are effectively a necessary evil.
This reminded me of the overarching controversy of our most popular museums. The most visited museum in the country is the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and the most visited museums in New York City are the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. Each is a monument and a testament to imperial hegemony and colonial theft. Each is also an indispensable resource to history education and cultural awareness. The AMNH, in particular, with its statue of Teddy Roosevelt prominently displayed out front (whose opinion of Native Americans seemed to match his opinion of other large game), has more or less continually been at the head of a controversy when it comes to Native American artifacts yet is also host to a wealth of educational programs that I personally remember partaking in on a weekly basis in junior high school.
The National Museum of the American Indian, which took an act of Congress to come to fruition, also has a checkered history: It works closely with native nations across America to present a diverse, educational display that spans both ancient and modern history, but the vast majority of its original collection comes from the archives of one man, George Gustav Heye, who can generously be labeled an asshole and a grave robber, and much of that collection had to be repatriated. Yet, these displays of stolen property are by far the most popular and therefore the most influential museums in the country. Where, then, is the line drawn?
It’s a moving line, to be sure, but I remember going to the Bronx Zoo and seeing a display about the evils of poaching in a mock-up construction of a poacher’s camp, covered in blurbs about where they operated, how destructive their practices were, and what steps were being done and could be done to curtail them. I would not have seen it, however, were I not already in line to go see the Amur tigers.