Someone tagged me in a shared Facebook post a few weeks ago, about how Anti-Intellectualism was on the rise. It was a very relevant article, and was subsequently followed by several more on the subject. If you’re not familiar with the term “anti-intellectualism” the definition of anti-intellectual is:
-a person opposed to or hostile toward intellectuals and the modern academic, artistic, social, religious, and other theories associated with them.
-a person who believes that intellect and reason are less important than actions and emotions in solving practical problems and understanding reality.
While these articles do not specifically refer to conservation, or captive wild animals, what they say about our society in general is shockingly accurate. In today’s world dominated by social media, people become famous simply because they are rich, and are subsequently given both absolute authority and broad expertise by the masses who adore them. In truth, these people might know nothing about that of which they are speaking, yet their statements, or actions are instantly accepted by their admirers as legitimate facts, made so by nothing more than their position as celebrities. Any naysayers are often viewed as “jealous” or “resentful” of the wealth and position of the celebrity, rather than as having a different, and possibly more educated understanding of the situation.
No one wants to hear a Debbie Downer disagreeing with the Hot and Fabulous celebrity. No one wants to hear that their idols might not actually know what they’re talking about. No one wants to be told that the “cool club” might be totally wrong. All of these things make people feel awkward. And no one wants to feel awkward.
The result is that people no longer want to be intelligent, they want to be comfortable.
Aside from the fact that the public en masse is more concerned with feeling good than facing facts, there is a certain theme of self-fulfilling prophecy with celebrity expertise. If one of your fellow celebrities makes a very public statement supporting something, you, as a celebrity yourself, aren’t likely to cut their legs out from under them and contradict that public support. If you do, you’ll look like an asshole, and other celebrities will remember what you did. It doesn’t matter what kind of celebrity is involved, actor, actress, musician, or one of those “famous just because they’re rich and famous” sorts, that virtually unbroken taboo of “thou shalt not speak out against a contemporary” remains.
The combination of society’s current preference of anti-intellectualism, and abstinence of celebrities in regard to publicly countering each other creates a prime seeding ground for misinformation, usually spread through social media.
A perfect example of this phenomenon is the recent announcement that Ringling Bros. will be “retiring” all of their elephants. The news has spread like wildfire, often with headlines like “Ringling Bros. Elephants Settle Into Retirement”. The problem with articles like this, is that they fixate on the term “retire” which brings to mind old folks taking off across the country in Winnebagos to go sightseeing. The reality is a cramped breeding facility where during a past “court-ordered inspection of the CEC, an independent elephant-care specialist observed that elephants spent so much time chained that they had worn grooves into the concrete.”
These elephants are not being “retired” to spend their remaining days in “relaxation”. They’re being taken out of the public eye and introduced into a breeding facility where they will continue to work and make money for Ringling Bros by repeatedly producing offspring which will be sold to zoos and “educational parks” all over the country. There is, as of yet, no instance–not one single instance–in which an American captive bred Asian elephant has been transported to another country and released into the wild in their natural habitat. There is literally no precedent for it. Yet this is one of the things that Ringling Bros alludes to being involved with when they describe how “retiring” their elephants will “allow us to focus on our conservation efforts and really boost our breeding program to ensure that these guys are around for many, many generations.”
What Ringling Bros means is that they’re going to make sure that Asian elephants are “around for many, many generations” in a cage, zoo, or other form of captivity. But what they lead the public to think is that their captive breeding will somehow cure the conservation crisis of wild Asian elephants. And tragically, few seem to be looking any farther than the bold cheerful headlines containing the word “retirement”. I’ve been tagged about a dozen times thus far by well-meaning folks who want me to see the “success” of “freeing the elephants” and none of the articles I was tagged with mentioned the lingering questions of animal abuse, the accusations of mistreatment, or the unexplained deaths.
Gone is any recollection of the numerous incidents and documented cases of abuse committed by Ringling Bros against its animals, elephant and otherwise. Out of mind, are the eye witness accounts of brutal treatment, and deaths. And forgotten is the fact that this “retirement” facility has the highest rate of tuberculosis of any elephant housing unit in the country. All the public looks at now, is the word “retirement” and they cheer about the “step forward” in the treatment of animals. They take the statement of a liar at face value and feel good about it. Meanwhile, the elephants they’re cheering for are facing a life of confinement, chained in cement shed rows, forced to produce offspring which will be taken from them at birth to be sold to other establishments. Presuming that tuberculosis, arthritis, or foot disease doesn’t kill them off quickly.
The only reason misinformation like this works, is because people choose to embrace it, rather than question it. Many times, the facts are only thinly veiled. Sometimes, they’re sitting right before readers’ eyes alongside the misinformation.
In cases like the Ringling Bros decision to “retire” its elephants, it’s a matter of the public simply seeing and hearing what it wants to see and hear. They want elephants out of the circus, and Ringling Bros says it’s going to “retire” them to a posh 200 acre “sanctuary”. So the public is choosing to believe that a known for-profit animal exploiter and abuser is going to suddenly give up all its profit and essentially hemorrhage money for decades just to allow animals who once made it huge amounts of revenue to do nothing but enjoy life.
In cases wherein celebrities are making public statements, and have vast numbers of fans hero-worshipping them, the reasons behind choosing comfort over reality are often less idealistic.
The vector for the recent very public and painfully immature social media attack against groups like I.C.A.R.U.S. was nothing more than misinformation at its finest. Amidst a childish (to put it kindly) tantrum it was asserted by one of the pseudo-sanctuaries we have discussed more than once, that they were, in fact, a sanctuary, and that anyone who said they were not a sanctuary had lied, and that if those undisclosed groups did not remove their statements from their websites they would be facing “the biggest lawsuit ever”. The accompanying photograph supposedly proved that the facility in question was a “sanctuary”. It was in Spanish, with no translation offered, but the word “santuario” was tantalizingly obvious even to non-Spanish speakers.
Supporters of this pseudo-sanctuary went to war on social media forums, stirred to a frenzy by their self-designed idol-like leader. Death threats were issued by the dozens, names of “haters” plastered across the Instagram account of the pseudo-sanctuary, anyone who ever asked a question, or suggested that they did not support the group in question was thrown into the pit for savaging. Even before any of the groups who had been not-really-called-out-but-threatened-with-lawsuits could discern if they were, in fact, one of the groups being threatened, the crazed followers of the pseudo-sanctuary had sought out anyone they perceived to be a “hater” and begun showering them with explicit language, threats of bodily harm, legal action, and all manner of other attacks.
What ensued was a mixture of calm retreat–the primary theoretical targets of the original threat darkened our sites, conferred with lawyers, and were unsurprised to confirm that we had never done anything wrong–and defensive reactions–secondary groups who agree with our journalism fought back, against the fans of the pseudo-sanctuary, giving their attackers as good at they got on social media.
The irony of all of it, was that the “proof” which was offered in regard to the pseudo-sanctuary being a “real” sanctuary was 1) Not proof of anything aside from a zoo/for public entertainment facility being registered under a name that includes the word “sanctuary” in it and 2) Off point entirely, at least as far as I.C.A.R.U.S. is concerned, because we use the GFAS as our standard, and as of today, the pseudo-sanctuary is still not accredited by the GFAS, which is all we have ever asserted about it as far as its status as a “sanctuary” goes.
Nowhere is society’s current fixation on anti-intellectualism more evident that in the some 2,300 comments on the original post where the threat of lawsuit was made. Despite that the attached photograph (which can easily be translated and researched) contains nothing stating that the facility is a sanctuary–does not even contain the word “sanctuary” in it at all, aside from the name of the facility–commenters obsessively refer to the “ignorance” of those speaking out against the pseudo-sanctuary. Along with the ubiquitous “haters gonna hate” (and more suggestions that anyone like I.C.A.R.U.S. be killed, or destroyed, or shut up for good) “stupid people” “they are jealous” “full of crap” “make up stories” “disgusting information” “idiots” and “shit ton of nonsense” are some examples of what fans of the pseudo-sanctuary have said in regard to anyone who does not agree with their idol.
Perversely enough, the document offered to prove us “wrong”–the one fans are so aggressively defending–actually proves that the facility they’re supporting is not a sanctuary as defined by the GFAS.
The document says directly in its text that the facility with the word “sanctuary” in its title is registered as a zoological park or public entertainment facility. Careful research into the various numerals and citations within the document reveal nothing but references to guidelines such as the fact that animals maintained by such facilities should receive certain rights, that “breeding should be managed” in a manner that is sustainable (but this facility repeatedly insists it doesn’t breed, so that makes one wonder why a specific Article in regard to breeding has been cited…) and that the “exhibition of live wildlife must be done” in a way so as to “prevent” “stress, suffering, trauma” etc. (which, if you follow the sanctuary, you’ll know this is questionably adhered to, at best) and so on and so forth. Again, no use of the word “sanctuary” anywhere in the document aside form the facility’s name. At the bottom of the photo is indication that it is either the second page of two, or that there is a second page following it, but that missing page remains, well, missing, so we have no way to know what it contains.
What we do know, is that the provided page does not, in any way shape or form, declare this facility to be anything but a “zoological park or public entertainment facility”.
Again, this is a textbook example of how those in a position to do so manipulate the media in order to use misinformation and their own followers’ preference for anti-intellectualism to throw facts out the window in favor of “feel good” popularity. Often at the expense of the animals in their care. Those of us who use even the simplest of tools in order to educate ourselves in depth about these situations are left high and dry on an intellectual rock, unable to grasp why no one else can see the obvious facts. I often feel like Hogarth in The Iron Giant as he rambles about bullies beating him up for “being too smart” when they’re every bit as smart as he is, they just refuse to do their homework.
Please, for the sake of the animals, do your homework. The truth is not always comfortable or fun, but it’s all that matters in the end. If you’re truly interested in supporting conservation,
Conservation: the action of conserving something, in particular.
◦ preservation, protection, or restoration of the natural environment, natural ecosystems, vegetation, and wildlife.
then please check out this list of GFAS accredited sanctuaries, whose primary goal is to create a world where no sanctuaries are needed because the animals are preserved in their natural habitats. Also see this list of some of the best conservation groups out there. The word conservation is another favorite often used to lend a group weight and pedigree, but it’s not something that can be taken at face value without further research. If all you can find in regard to a group’s “conservation” activities is where it “donated” money to other groups (many times groups which are actually owned by the same entity that owns the primary organization) or forums where the group discusses conservation, but has no evidence it has ever actually participated in wild conservation actively, chances are, it’s just using the word to sound more legitimate.
Ignorance is a choice. Choose intelligence instead, and help I.C.A.R.U.S. and groups like us defend the animals of the world, both wild, and captive wild.
Author: Artemis Grey