Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Scary Creatures

One visit to a zoo
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

My apologies to Wordsworth, but I couldn’t help but think of his weird mystical characterization of Man’s relationship with “nature” as I slouched, chastened, from London Zoo on Saturday afternoon.

Zoos have always revealed more about us than about animals. The first public zoos expressed the Victorians’ drive to understand and, above all, master a chaotic world. Confident of Man’s primacy, and determined to conquer ignorance, they collected creatures from every corner of the world, categorized them in a neat taxonomy, and put them on display for the edification of the public.

And that’s a good thing. Like the Victorians, I’ve never seen animals as more than a means to human ends. My personal taxonomy of the Animal Kingdom has just three categories: dangerous, delicious and cuddly. If they can also be educational, that’s a bonus.

None of the preceding, of course, should suggest that it’s OK to inflict senseless cruelty on animals. Quite the opposite: as the only species on this planet with any grasp of right and wrong, and of the meaning of suffering, we have a responsibility to do right by dumb creatures. But it does mean that in any conflict of interest between animals and human beings, I will always root for the latter. People come first.

You would think that a reasonable and indeed a humane proposition – but today’s London Zoo has other ideas. It is on a mission to indoctrinate our children with the message that people are a problem. The problem, in fact.

In August 2005 the Zoo organized a jolly Bank Holiday exercise in misanthropy, exhibiting eight human volunteers in “The Human Zoo”. In a press release, London Zoo explained that the goal of the stunt was to “highlight the spread of man as a plague species and to communicate the importance of man's place in the planet's ecosystem.”

Just think about that phrase: a plague species. All the wonder of humanity – the good and the bad, the striving and the nobility – reduced to the status of a bacillus.

The Human Zoo was not a one off. Many Zoo exhibits have information boards which feature a spectrum of accusation that, and forgive me if I paraphrase, stretches from “under threat by humans” to “about to be wiped out by humans”. Make no mistake, kids. We’re the bad guys. We’re genocidal maniacs.

The children’s petting zoo features a cage which visitors are invited to enter. The sign announces “The Most Dangerous Animal on the Planet”. An accompanying map shows how far this monstrous species has spread itself, multiplying like a virus, across the globe. Humanity as a pandemic: is this really what we want to be teaching the next generation?

Wordsworth’s idea of “nature” as the fountainhead of wisdom and truth, set in opposition to science, was rightly seen by the Victorians as self-indulgent flim-flam. Nice poems – but not much help when it came to building a better world through the exercise of reason.

Sadly, Wordsworth’s silly anti-human ideas appear to be in the ascendant. And not just among the smug middle classes who run and patronize London Zoo.

Human beings, conveniently designated by various regimes as disease agents, are being extinguished around the world as I write. Millions more fall prey to real disease. Lost children, lost parents, shattered families… If there’s any species that could do with a hug, it’s Mankind.

by David S. Taylor


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