Oct 31, 2011

New Yorker: Wild Animals Don't Want to be Owned

The news earlier this month about Terry Thompson’s ill-fated decision to release the exotic, wild, and in many cases dangerous animals he had acquired — and then to kill himself — crossed my path in the same way as it did for so many others:  brief reports without much detail, announcing that among others, Lions and Bengal Tigers had been released near, and were now roaming into, an Ohio town.  Then more substantive follow-up reports and opinion pieces began to pop up, as the media swung to focus on the owner, the sheriff and deputies, the town’s residents, and the animals themselves.  One of the more interesting, and well-balanced pieces is by Susan Orlean.  She asks about the tragic situation the key question:
A small, drowsy town in Ohio, a pile of dead Bengal tigers. How did it come to this? The blame should be doled out carefully. Very little of it should fall on the sheriff of Zanesville, who did what was probably the only thing he could do: give a kill order when darkness fell and Terry Thompson’s wild carnivores were still prowling around town
I’m reminded — if you don’t mind me momentarily jarring though not jamming the discoursal gears  — of a set of key distinctions and correlations Aristotle makes early into the Rhetoric.
He divides rhetoric into three main types — deliberative (or in this translation, “political”), legal (or “forensic”) and epideictic (or “ceremonial — translations vary because these are not easy terms to render perfectly)
Political speaking urges us either to do or not to do something: one of these two courses is always taken by private counsellors, as well as by men who address public assemblies. Forensic speaking either attacks or defends somebody: one or other of these two things must always be done by the parties in a case. The ceremonial oratory of display either praises or censures somebody. These three kinds of rhetoric refer to three different kinds of time. The political orator is concerned with the future: it is about things to be done hereafter that he advises, for or against. The party in a case at law is concerned with the past; one man accuses the other, and the other defends himself, with reference to things already done. The ceremonial orator is, properly speaking, concerned with the present, since all men praise or blame in view of the state of things existing at the time, though they often find it useful also to recall the past and to make guesses at the future.

Rhetoric has three distinct ends in view, one for each of its three kinds. The political orator aims at establishing the expediency or the harmfulness of a proposed course of action; if he urges its acceptance, he does so on the ground that it will do good; if he urges its rejection, he does so on the ground that it will do harm; and all other points, such as whether the proposal is just or unjust, honourable or dishonourable, he brings in as subsidiary and relative to this main consideration. Parties in a law-case aim at establishing the justice or injustice of some action, and they too bring in all other points as subsidiary and relative to this one. Those who praise or attack a man aim at proving him worthy of honour or the reverse, and they too treat all other considerations with reference to this one.
When it comes to the issues raised by Thomspon’s actions — not only releasing the animals and taking his own life, but his acquisition and treatment of the animals — we can, and should, think about them in three complementary ways, which Aristotle’s distinction assists in disentangling.
We can look at the recent and more distant past of his own actions — and perhaps, if we see anyone else as complicit — their own as well, scrutinizing them from the perspective of justice vs. injustice.  From that perspective, we’re thinking in terms of culpability and responsibility, damage or harm, violations of legal or moral norms.

We can also take the future-oriented perspective inherent in deliberative or political rhetoric, framing matters in terms not of what was done but what ought to be done, now and in the future, to address these sorts of situations, perhaps to address the larger issues, to look into an argue for closing loopholes of sorts.  One might engage in such persuasive or dissuasive discourse in multifarious ways and addressing a multiplicity of audiences, even introducing concerns of justice and injustice, honor and dishonor, pleasure and pain — but as Aristotle points out, the key modality is one of expediency or usefulness — what works and works well — versus harmfulness.

These are both moral as well as communicational, or rhetorical, standpoints, and both involve their own forms of practical reasoning, thinking about the good and the bad.  There is a third moral standpoint possible as well, one which possesses a sort of timeless present, whereby we can speak about and judge upon those otherwise lost to us in the past or existing only in the imaginary realms of fiction. This standpoint focuses on the dimension of moral character, the kalos and the aiskhros — the honorable and the dishonorable, or translated in other ways, the noble and the base, the beautiful and the ugly.  And, Aristotle is quite clear on this:  virtue is kalos and vice is aiskhros.
When Orlean argues that:
Obviously, the problem lies with Thompson himself—both his mad decision to release his animals and with his need to own them in the first place.
Her own moral discourse will move first within the deliberative dimension.
Anyone who claims that he needs to own wild animals because he loves them is delusional. Wild animals don’t want to be owned. They’re wild. They are not pets; they are not our friends; they are not objects. No scenario makes private ownership of wild animals reasonable or fair. It never ends well for the animals. When I wrote about the Tiger Lady of New Jersey, I realized that every possible outcome for her tigers was sad—even sending the animals to a sanctuary that could provide them with better care. There should never have been twenty-seven tigers in suburban New Jersey to begin with
There is no way — she is arguing — to make of wild animal ownership something that will in fact be useful, expedient, leading to goods, at least not not the animals — and most likely not for the humans involved either, who maybe, as happened, suddenly placed in harm’s way, in danger of disease or dismemberment.  This course will lead naturally — for that is what deliberative discourse does — to advocating policies, as she in fact does later.  I can’t say I agree with the ultimate object of advocacy she argues, for reasons I’ll get to momentarily:
The dirty secret of all of this is that zoos, which are always cited as the good version of wild-animal ownership, have to accept some of the blame, too. There are too many zoos breeding too many animals (baby animals are a huge draw, so most zoos simply can’t resist producing them). The surplus animals end up in mostly unregulated auctions where anyone at all can buy them. It’s appalling. In my perfect world, we would establish perhaps four national zoos of unimpeachable quality and close the rest of them. The money we’d spent or donated to all the closed zoos—and whatever public money had supported them—would instead go to animal sanctuaries and research programs and habitat preservation in the animals’ natural environment, and to fund documentary films that would show us the way animals live when they are free. These films would fill us with awe and respect and even a little bit of fear, which is what we should feel about these creatures.
It’s possible to draw other conclusions more restrained in scope from this sort of deliberative enquiry, as does John Platt, in a piece from Scientific American
In the face of Zanesville, many people ask, is there a conservation value in private ownership of wildlife and endangered species? The answer, simply, is no. Private citizens are not equipped or trained to ensure the health of wild and exotic animals, to breed them in a manner that ensures species’ long-term survival, or to keep them safely separated from people who could be harmed if they escaped.
There is also another moral dimension in play here.  Orlean rightly prioritizes matters in asserting that ownership of exotic species is “first and foremost a public-health issue.”  She also starts to explore the Thompson tiger debacle through the lens of virtue and vice:
There will always be vain, obsessive people who want to own rare and extraordinary things whatever the cost; there will always be people for whom owning beautiful, dangerous animals brings a sense of power and magic. It must be like having a comet in your backyard, a piece of the universe that is dazzling and untouchable right outside your door. But animals live and die and breed and feel pain and can inflict pain. There is no excuse for any individual to own them, period.
From an Aristotelian perspective, the virtue and vice most directly relevant to understanding this aspect of the situation are magnificence and vulgarity, or as we might call it, vainglory.  One assumption about the use, display, and obligation of wealth shared by the ancient Greeks, as well as by many other cultures, and to a certain extent our own, is that if one possesses considerable means, one is supposed to use at least a portion of that wealth, possessions, property, capital, for projects that better the society in which one resides.

In the times of the Greek city-states, the wealthy, the notable possessed many opportunities to contribute in distinctive, even personalized ways to the common good.  One might pay the costs to hire a chorus needed for a theatrical performance, commission the building of a trireme, defray some costs of a monument. Nowadays, donors endow chairs, create foundations, sponsor the local little-league team — as do organizations as well.

Magnificence — (almost) literally, “doing it up big” — is, like every virtue not just a matter of setting oneself in the middle, between excess and deficiency.  In fact, like its smaller-scale cousin-virtue, liberality or generosity, magnificence is closer to the vice of excess, vulgarity, and further away from the vice of deficiency, stinginess.  The key difference lies in the reasons, the objects, the ways, and the pattern of giving and expenditure on a larger, more public scale.  The magnificent person gives and spends on the right things, for the right reasons (doing fine and noble things — not trying to be a big shot), to the right extent, and so on.

What should we say about this pattern, or rather obsession, of private acquisition, and really when it comes down to it, non-exhibition of beautiful, rare, potentially deadly wild animals?  Considered in one way, it seems almost not to be vainglorious at all — after all, these animals are hidden away from the rest of the world — precisely why one can contrast these owners and their estate against zoos.  Would it not be rather stinginess, keeping one’s wealth and the great cats it has purchased out of circulation, away from the public composed of one’s fellow citizens?  Perhaps in some cases that is the vice.

But, this range of vice-virtue-vice, vulgarity-magnificence-stinginess, as Aristotle rightly noted does not bear solely on openly public projects or display.  It has to do with one’s household, one’s home considered as a space in which others move, converse, partake, and perhaps marvel.  Considered in this respect, if shared with at least some others, if turned into a type of ornamentation or ostentation, Thompson’s menagerie does devolve into a pattern of vulgarity.

Much more needs to be said about this, I think — and perhaps those are discussions to continue in comments if this draws any.

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