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July 23, 2010 / V A Nichols

Wild-Beast Shows

Excerpts From “Animals’ Rights, Considered in Relation to Social Progress” by Henry S. Salt 1892

To take a wild animal from its free natural state, full of abounding egoism and vitality, and to shut it up for the wretched remainder of its life in a cell where it has just space to turn round, and where it necessarily loses every distinctive feature of its character—this appears to me to be as downright a denial as could well be imagined of the theory of animals’ rights.

Nor is there very much force in the plea founded on the alleged scientific value of these zoological institutions, at any rate in the case of the wilder and less tractable animals, for it cannot be maintained that the establishment of wild-beast shows is in any way necessary for the advancement of human knowledge.

For what do the good people see who go to the gardens on a half-holiday afternoon to poke their umbrellas at a blinking eagle-owl, or to throw dog-biscuits down the expansive throat of a hippopotamus? Not wild beasts or wild birds certainly, for there never have been or can be such in the best of all possible menageries, but merely the outer semblances and simulacra of the denizens of forest and prairie—poor spiritless remnants of what were formerly wild animals.

It is sometimes contended that a menagerie is a sort of paradise for wild beasts, whose loss of liberty is more than compensated by the absence of the constant apprehension and insecurity which, it is conveniently assumed, weigh so heavily on their spirits.

But all this notion of their “gaining by it” is in truth nothing more than a mere arbitrary supposition; for, in the first place, a speedy death may, for all we know, be very preferable to a protracted death-in-life; while, secondly, the pretence that wild animals enjoy captivity is even more absurd than the episcopal contention that the life of a domestic animal is “one of very great comfort, according to the animal’s own standard”.


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