We’re reading ‘Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel and by ‘we’ I’m not indulging in the Royal Usage but in the perfectly ordinary sense of ‘me and the kids’. One of these days I’ll tell the story of how our little private reading group developed but today I want to share an argument that arose out of our reading and to invite readers of this blog to add their opinions to the debate. The question is about zoos and freedom and whether it’s morally defensible to cage animals and put their lives on display. Now I don’t know whether Martel holds the opinion voiced by his novel’s eponymous protagonist, Pi (short for Piscine) but he does present a strong case in support of zoos.
His argument is that animals in the wild are not free; they live hard lives, bound by strict territorial limits that are imposed by nature and by other, sometimes predatory, animals. They are also constrained by the need to find food and to avoid parasites. He contrasts this hard life with the relative comfort of life in captivity, where all their needs are met and they are free of worry about predators and parasites alike. In fact, he suggests, if you think about it a bit, we’ve done for our incarcerated animals no less than what we’ve done for ourselves and the romantic notion of setting the wild creatures free is best compared to the act of turning a human family out of the comfort of their home and sending them off into the freedom of the wilderness. In closing he reports actual cases of escaped animals returning voluntarily to their confinement. The kids were shaken by this new idea that challenged their own notions of animal rights. I cautioned them to think it over carefully and to consider what Pi might have left off the table.
That was last night. This morning we took up the challenge over breakfast, resuming the discussion with my suggestion that there were some omitted considerations to Pi’s argument.
“Well,” I said in my most matter-of-fact voice, “Pi doesn’t allow us to think about the emotional needs of animals, for example.”
“I think that he does mention that,” corrected my eleven year old daughter, Zizi. “There’s a part where he says that animals don’t enjoy nature the way we like to think they do.”
She was right and I had to admit it.
“Okay, okay. You’re right. He does, now that I think about it. But don’t you see, that just makes my point. There’s something about freedom, some emotional need to be independent that he doesn’t admit into the controversy. His arguments are all about physical needs. Humans value freedom as a thing, in itself.”
Now it was her turn to admit that I was right.
“Oh I see what you’re saying. When he says that people live in cages in the same way that zoo animals do, and for the same reasons, he’s not mentioning that the humans are free to come and go as they please. The doors to their ‘cages’ are not locked. The cages in zoos are.”
I’m looking forward to continuing our reading of this book; it promises excellence.
Hmm, I wonder what Kim Kardashian would think of all this?