Thursday, August 25, 2005

Life of Pi

I received this (Canadian) novel, Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, winner of the MAN BOOKER PRIZE, from my brother Cecil and his wife Jane for my birthday this year. I loved it. It is the story of a very religious Indian boy who takes a ship to Canada with his family. The ship is wrecked and he is left alone in a lifeboat with... a Bengal tiger as a companion. That is an extremely short description as there is more to the story than that but I want to quote something here from the book that I really liked:

This is out of Chapter Four of the book:

I have heard nearly as much nonsense about zoos as I have about God and religion. Well-meaning but misinformed people think animals in the wild are "happy" because they are "free". These people usually have a large, handsome predator in mind, a lion or a cheetah (the life of a gnu or of an aardvark is rarely exalted). They imagine this wild animal roaming about the savannah on digestive walks after eating a prey that accepted its lot piously, or going for callisthenic runs to stay slim after overindulging. (...) The life of the wild animal is simple, noble and meaningful, they imagine. Then it is captured by wicked men and thrown into tiny jails. Its "happiness" is dashed. It yearns mightily for "freedom" and does all it can to escape. Being denied its "freedom" for too long, the animal becomes a shadow of itself, its spirit broken. So some people imagine.

This is not the way it is.

Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low and where territory must constantly be defended and parasites endured. What is the meaning of freedom in such a context? (...)

But let me pursue for a moment only one aspect of the question.
If you went to a home, kicked down the front door, chased the people there out into the street and said, "Go! You are free! Free as a bird! Go! Go!" - do you think they would shout and dance for joy? (...)

Don't we say, "There's no place like home"? That's certainly what animals feel. Animals are territorial That is the key to their minds. Only a familiar territory will allow them to fulfuill the two relentless imperatives of the wild: the avoidance of enemies and the getting of food and water. A biologically sound zoo enclosure - whether cage, pit, moated island, corral, terrarium, aviary or aquarium - is just another territory, peculiar only in its size and in its proximity to human territory. That it is so much smaller than what it would be in nature stands to reason. Territories in the wild are large not as a matter of taste but of necessity. In a zoo we do for animals what we have done for ourselves with houses: we bring together in a small space what in the wild is spread out. Wheras before us the cave was here, the river over there, the hunting grounds a mile that way, the lookout next to it, the berries somewhere else - all of them infested with lions, snakes, ants, leeches and poison ivy - now the river flows through taps at hand's reach and we can wash next to where we sleep, we can eat where we have cooked, and we can surround the whole with a protective wall and keep it clean and warm. (...) Finding within (an enclosure) all the places it needs - a lookout, a place for resting, for eating and drinking, for bathing, for grooming, etc. - and finding there is no need to go hunting, food appearing six days a week, an animal will take possesion of its zoo space in the same way it would lay claim to a new space in the wild, exploring it and marking it out in the normal ways of its speicies, with sprays of urine perhaps. Once this moving-in ritual is done and the animal has settled, it will not feel like a nervous tenant, and even less like a prisoner, but rather like a landholder, and it will behave in the same way within its enclosure as it would in its territory in the wild, including defending it tooth and nail should it be invaded. (...)

In the literature can be found legions of examples of animals that could escape but did not, or did and returned. (...)

But I don't insist. I don't mean to defend zoos. Close them all down if you want (and let us hope that what wildlife remains can survive in what is left of the natural world). I know zoos are no longer in people's good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.