by George Payne of Gandhi Earth Keepers International
[The opinions expressed in these essays do not necessarily reflect the position of ARAUNY.]
Along with a dozen other local animal rights advocates from Upstate New York, I recently participated in a silent demonstration against the Ringling Brothers Circus. We gathered on a chilly October night in front of the Blue Cross Arena, while hundreds of people trickled into the building’s entrance. Our handmade yellow signs bore slogans such as, “Animals are born to be wild;” “Elephants Wish They Could Forget;” and “Boulder, CO Banned Animal Circuses.”
While standing in line with my yellow sign, I began to think about the evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson, who once said: ”Each culture has its own creation myth, the primary functions of which are to place the tribe that contrived it at the center of the universe, and to portray history as a noble epic.”
It occurred to me while contemplating Wilson’s quote that most people cannot psychologically consume the pain of these animals because they are not portrayed as being at the center of their noble epic. By and large, animals in our society are treated as resources, tools, pets, game, mascots, predators, clothing and costumes. Rarely are animals seen as having intrinsic value with their own “special” center. The reason for this blindness stems from a condition called aristocentrism. This is an unwarranted claim to superiority. In different ways we conclude that we are special, and insist that the cosmos have anointed us. We believe that our existence has the most special meaning of all, and that we have rare knowledge or a message to give to the rest of Creation. Inevitably this world view degenerates into an inordinate claim to superiority for oneself or one’s group. (The word aristocentrism comes from the Greek words agathos, “good” and kentrikos, from kentron, “the center of a circle.”)
The problem with aristocentrism is that it is based on an illusion. We are not the center of the universe. Our species is not the most important group in the cosmos. There are symbiotic relationships between all living beings that make superiority impossible. That is precisely why Gandhi wrote: “The greatness of a nation can be judged by how its animals are treated.”
The way we view our place in the cosmos has a direct impact on the way we treat all other animals; and the way we treat all other animals determines the quality of our character as moral agents. It was Gandhi’s belief that the strong have an obligation to protect the weak. The fact that circus animals are kidnapped, caged, drugged, intimidated, beaten, and exploited, means that people of freedom, sobriety, fearlessness, and physical strength should come to their aid. By coming to the aid of weaker animals in their time of ultimate need, we activate our best selves and overcome our limitations as a fundamentally egocentric species.
But to be in true solidarity with our fellow bio-companions, means that we see their worth as existing independent of our ability to appreciate and defend it.
In the Emotional Lives of Animals, author Marc Bekoff proves that nonhuman creatures exhibit Charles Darwin’s six universal emotions (anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, and surprise). He shows that wild and domestic species have a kaleidoscopic range of feelings, from embarrassment to awe, and that we dismiss them not only at their peril but our own. Bekoff writes, “It’s bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions. Scientific research in evolutionary biology, cognitive ethology, and social neuroscience supports the view that numerous and diverse animals have rich and deep emotional lives. Emotions have evolved as adaptations in numerous species, and they serve as a social glue to bond animals with one another.”
One of the main reasons I chose to participate in the silent demonstration against Ringling Brothers was to physically and spiritually acknowledge this primal wisdom that Bekoff writes about so eloquently in his books. Elephants are a prime example. Just to acknowledge the suffering of elephants trapped in circuses is an act of resistance. Nearly all 60 Asian elephants incarcerated by Ringling were captured in the wild. Baby elephants suffer painful rope lesions when being pulled prematurely from their mothers. There is a chronic failure to test elephants for tuberculosis, unsanitary feeding practices, and a failure to maintain, clean, and repair their transport cages. There is an overall inability to provide adequate veterinary care. Elephants get pushed and prodded with bullhooks, and they are forced to perform whether they are healthy or sick.
According to PETA, Ringling has admitted to chaining elephants by two legs, on a concrete floor, for 16 hours a day, which is a direct violation of the Endangered Species Act. They have also admitted to chaining elephants in boxcars an average of 26 straight hours (often 60 hours) when traveling. Treatment of animals like baby elephants has gotten so bad even corporate giants such as VISA, MasterCard, Denny’s, and Sears & Roebuck have ended their promotion of the circus.
These creatures are not dependent on human beings to guarantee them their rights; but we cannot be truly ourselves in any adequate manner without animals as miraculous and beautiful as Asian elephants being free of confinement, harassment, torture, and murder. Asian elephants console others who are in distress using physical touches and vocalizations. They have been shown to demonstrate keen intelligence. Like people, they live in complex societies with family units at their core. For these reasons alone, we must put a stop to this slavery. Let’s prove that we are not a nation of cowards and killers but a community of friends working for the betterment of all species. This is what Gandhi meant when he employed the term Sarvodaya. The least we can do is stand outside with a yellow protest sign.
Information obtained from: http://www.MediaPeta.com/Peta/PDF/RinglingFactssheet.pdf
Spring 2014 Emory Magazine (What Can Animals Teach Us? pg.35)