Momentary Victory In An Ongoing War

At the beginning of 2017, Ringling Bros. Barnum Bailey Circus announced that after 146 years of entertainment with animals, it was closing its doors for good. “Big picture” animal rights groups, who remained fixated on “sticking it to the man on behalf of animals everywhere” instantly declared victory, announcing the vanquishment of the #1 animal exploiter in the United States. Much of the public, and those more capitalistically minded expressed confusion or horror, that there was something wrong with the iconic establishment, or that “animal rights” should be put above the needs and wants of human businessmen.

The remainder of us within the conservation community, those who understood the depths of such an announcement, began poring over press releases and articles, attempting to suss out the long-term plans for the captive wild animals which have long been a staple for Ringling Bros.. We knew, unlike the public–who widely and ignorantly cheered for the “retirement” of elephants from Ringling Bros. Barnum Bailey Circus–that a circus who ceases to use animals in their show, or who otherwise closes its doors, is not going to simply empty the last of its coffers to provide genuine retirement for those animals. Nor is it going to lose money by giving them away to established and capable sanctuaries where they might live out their days. No, the circus is a business, and lack of profit, not protests, is what brought about Ringling Bros. decision to close. Likewise, promise of profit is what will decide where their animals will finally go.

Already the breeding facility owned by Ringling’s parent company, (which is, in turn, owned by Kenneth Feld) has put the “retired” elephants from their circus to work pumping out offspring, supposedly to repopulate the planet. Since bull elephants become virtually unmanageable once they reach sexual maturity, and enter musk, their sole purpose at the Center for Elephant Conservation (Ringling’s breeding facility) is to sire more offspring. None of the articles I found, either those who tout how glamorous a “retirement” the elephants have at CEC, or those who point out the documented issues of CEC  (rampant cases of resistant tuberculosis, calves removed from their mothers by force at birth, etc.) mention the fact that not unlike the milk industry, bull calfs are somewhat of a millstone to be dealt with, and live in complete isolation in individual pens.

What is clear, even this early in the situation, is that Feld–who openly scorns genuine animal sanctuaries–will not simply retire the animals from Ringling Bros. Nor will the closure of the iconic Ringling Bros. have any impact at all on smaller, less well known circuses, who still use animals in their acts. Even if none of the Ringling animals end up sold to other circuses (never mind that their elephant breeding will provide for sales to other circuses) it’s clear that with void left by Ringling has already become a target for every smaller circus to fill. The Melha Shrine circus, for example, did away with its animal acts last year. But ticket sales fell, and customers began demanding refunds once they arrived and realized that there would be no animal performers. So this year, as “big picture” animal rights groups cheered and declared victory over Ringling, Melha quietly contracted with other entities to provide them with a fresh stable of exotic animals, and reintroduced them to the show.

They aren’t the only smaller circuses who are refurbishing and updating their shows, including, animal acts. Not everyone was pleased to hear that Ringling Bros. was closing. Sales for both Ringling Bros. and other circuses have rallied, and even if the influx turns out to be temporary, if nothing else, it is evidence that the public at large is not necessarily in agreement with the idea that animals do not belong in shows. In recent years, there’s been an immense growth in captive wild animal shows and foundations which focus on “education through interaction” which is basically a derivative of “Experiential Education”. The problem is that the latter is a way of teaching people to physically do something by allowing them to do it, while the former (according to its proponents) teaches people not to do something by allowing them to do it. The problem, for anyone not attempting to profit off of animal and human interaction, is obvious.

But for the public, “education through interaction” is a trend that has positively exploded.

The Arctic Fox Centre in Iceland provides the opportunity for legitimate research, but it’s also home to what the founders describe as “sustainable wildlife tourism” wherein it states that it teaches tourists about the arctic fox. This education includes venturing into the field, where tourists can feed foxes who have been habituated to human presence, and are accustomed to being fed by humans.

The Orphaned Wildlife Center, in New York, has gained a considerable following, and news highlights after videos they released of their founder, Jim Kowalczik, went viral.

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Casey Anderson has made a success of his Montana Grizzly Encounter through the popularity of his own interactions with the bears.

 

Wolf Creek Habitat & Rescue allows guests to go into the enclosure with their wolves, for a “minimum donation” of $50.00 or more and has babies on hand as well.

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Wolf Park also offers guests an opportunity to directly interact with their animals. They also offer photography for $200-$300

The Endangered Wolf Center offers behind the scenes tours where for a higher price, guests can have hands-on experiences with the animals.

The Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center allows direct interaction with wolves and other animals. For $200+ you can have their “Interactive Alpha” tour.

The Zoological Wildlife Conservation Center/Sloth Center (they utilize two names in a direct effort to mislead the public about what goes on there) allows touching of their sloths, and even “sloth sleepovers”. They also offer a variety of other animals for handling, and often sell them under the table to private owners.

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Even SA is now debating the matter of cub-petting, with an ever-growing division among conservation groups as to how handling lion cubs under regulation could be educational, and might be a “first step” in stopping the practice of breeding through exploitation. It remains unclear,  however, just how breeding lions in captivity to be handled by tourists will eventually stop the practice of breeding lions in captivity to be handled by tourists. (if you’d like an amusingly egotistical and out of touch version of why people simply “don’t understand why cub-petting works for SA”, check here, and if you want to read the sharply witty and insightful article written in rebuttal to that “mansplaining” tangent, check here).

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The point is, handling captive wild animals a phenomenon that is actually accelerating exponentially, and the driving force behind it is the idea that humans can be taught not to handle captive wild animals by allowing them to handle captive wild animals. Every single foundation or group listed above is advertised as “educational” even though the majority of them breed exotic animals solely to sell and/or allow the public to play with the young. Many also use the tired explanation that they are preserving bloodlines to repopulate the species. Which is also the reason Feld gives for the continued breeding of elephants at his own facility.

Terrifyingly enough the public at large buys into this idea. With the close of Ringling Bros. animal rights groups declared victory. But behind their backs, an ocean of “education through interaction” centers, shows, and entertainment options are increasing in popularity. Smaller, less metropolitan areas, whose populations are not savvy in regard to “conservation vs exploitation” simply don’t realize that the petting zoo where their kids get the chance to pet wolf cubs while hearing someone recite biology facts about wolves is actually part of the problem. If circuses like Ringling Bros. had simply altered their performances to focus on “education” rather than entertainment they might well have never been pressured as they were to eliminate the use of animals in their acts.

The hard reality, however, is that shows like Cirque du soleil is one of the most profitable entertainment companies ever founded. They brought in over $850,000,000.00 in global revenue in 2010 alone, long before Ringling Bros. even entertained the idea of retiring their elephants, much less closing their doors. Cirque has never used animals in its performances, and yet has remained strong, and is steadily expanding its ventures, even now. This is even more evidence to the fact that the closure of Ringling Bros had less to do with the animals, and more to do with the business of making money. It also proves that you do not, in fact, need animals to make your entertainment productions publicly successful.

It is vital, I cannot stress just how vital, for the conservation community to consider the closure of Ringling Bros. Barnum Bailey as only a momentary victory, not a genuine, or permanent one.

We must pay attention not just to who is exploiting animals, but how the public at large is perceiving them. With his foul mouth, and caustic nature, Eduard Serio did not gain 6 million followers on Instagram through his dull wit, or rambling and disarticulated spiels about meditation and “higher existence”. He got that many followers by putting out cutesy videos that make people “feel good” and feel smarter. He got that many followers by carefully marketing the animals he’s purchased as pets, as animals that were “rescued” from various situations. The public’s perception is what has given BJWT the power it has now, not facts, not genuine conservation, but merely the illusion of “making the world a better place”.

These photos depict situations which are easily distinguished by the civilian public as animal abuse.

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CORRECTION Indonesia Sumatran Tiger

But other situations of exploitation are not as readily apparent to civilians. In the wake of Ringling Bros. closure, we must be vigilant in regard to how the public responds. Just as we know the circus is not going to lose money on its animals, we know that at least a large portion of the public equates forcing animals to perform as exploitation, but does not include people who interact with their captive wild animals into the same category. They are easily confused by what is, and what is not, animal exploitation, and we often fail to realize that their ignorance is our enemy. Those of us who deal with conservation in a gritty, boots on the ground, way easily discern between true, ethical conservation groups, but the public–who does not see the inner workings of faux-conservationists like we do–are easily dazzled by basic, even inane or incorrect information, if it’s wrapped up in an attractive and exciting package. The subject is even more muddled when some conservation groups say that handling animals is acceptable sometimes, while others state that it’s never okay to handle captive wild animals.

The public is not stupid, but many of them are very ignorant. The public does not want to see captive animals beaten into submission and trained to perform for profit, but they do want to believe there’s magic in the world, and that such magic is evidenced by “special bonds” between man and animal. The public isn’t opposed to learning about conservation, but they do want to feel good about it, rather than feeling depressed and overwhelmed by reality.

All of these factors coalesce into a perfect breeding ground for the rise of the “education through interaction” crowd. Thus it is imperative that we view the closure of Ringling Bros. as only a momentary victory, not a permanent one.

The end of the circus is only the beginning in our war to protect captive wild animals from exploitation.

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Christmas Is The Season Of Giving, But Reconsider Before Giving Animals As Gifts

Christmas is a magical season. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas itself, the holiday season is always fun, and there’s the winter solstice, the lights, and a perfectly good excuse to eat all sorts of scrumptious treats that aren’t normally around the rest of the year. The holidays are also a season of giving, a time when people plot the perfect surprises for their loved ones.

But the thousands of animals given as Christmas presents each year, which bring joyful ecstasy to humans on Christmas morning, all too often end up suffering the heartbreak of abandonment, themselves,  within just a few months time. Already, the farm postings and Facebook groups are swelling with adverts.

Christmas Pony: Nice little mare, broke to ride. Been sitting in the field for the grandkids to play on for the last few years. Perfect Christmas surprise for that special child!*

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The accompanying photo shows a sweet-eyed mare with a cheerful expression, but who also displays symptoms of obesity, protruding eyes, and irregular “fat packs” which are indicative of cushings disease, or other metabolic disorders such as insulin resistance. Both health conditions are chronic, and can cause worse complications like founder and even death. They require an owner with an experienced  grasp of equine care and management, and sometimes even the best care isn’t enough to get a handle on particularly difficult cases.

The Perfect Christmas Project! Quiet gelding, great for Christmas, just needs some love and attention.*

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The gelding is attractive, and of decent conformation, but the hard edge of his top line, and washboard of his sides, indicate that he’s not necessarily in top form, and likely is in need of groceries, something which can drastically change the temperament of an animal in the long run. Many times “love and attention” can be equated to training, manners, and handling, meaning that the horse might not even be accustomed to grooming, much less riding.

Beneath the adverts for ponies, horses, donkeys, mules, pigmy goats and other domestics come more unexpected offerings. A bearded dragon in need of rehoming, a ball python whose hot room has been transformed into a nursery for the new baby, a sugar glider whose owners have adopted a cat, and can no longer assure the safety of the former. Oscars who’ve outgrown their fish tanks, a scarlet macaw whose elderly owner has passed away, servals, a skunk with its scent glands removed–already litter trained! If ferrets are too average, there are spotted genets. For those with a healthy budget, and a little more room, there are capybaras (starting at around $600) or you can always go for a wallaby ($3,000) and for folks who like to be trendy with their furry companions, fennec foxes are the new hotness these days (less than half the wallaby) at about $1,500, but get on the list of a breeder now, because there’s usually a waiting list of a year or more)

The massively ignored problem with every animal I’ve mentioned (never mind the excruciatingly horrible issues of animal trafficking and captive breeding of the exotic species listed) is that all of them come with baggage. Needs, expenses–sometimes exorbitant ones–and unforeseen complications. Many times those complications are ones which require a considerable amount of knowledge about the animal in question, thus leaving first time owners at a loss as to what to do, and how to care for the now ill or injured animal.

Something as simple as not providing a suitable place for a tortoise to burrow can result in the tortoise becoming egg-bound, a condition which will result in death if it is not promptly treated. That treatment can require risky surgery. Lizards can also become egg-bound. Most types of exotic cats, foxes, primates, and other popular, more unusual, animals, can become aggressive if not appropriately housed, handled, or mentally and emotionally cared for. Some become aggressive even when everything is done to standard protocols.

With normal domestic animals, certain risks remains. Rabbits are prone to coccidiosis, especially when stressed, goats can also suffer from it, and it’s highly contagious. Both kittens and puppies tend to chew things, and can ingest foreign objects. Christmas decorations offer a plethora of options for getting into trouble, and with a house full of holiday guests, new pets can easily do so unnoticed. Many times once symptoms of a problem develop, a bad situation has already evolved into a worse one.

Christmas lilies, or Easter lilies, for example, are extremely toxic to both cats and dogs, and just a fragment of a leaf, once ingested, can cause catastrophic kidney failure. Treatment does not guarantee recovery, and involves (usually) 48-72 hours of continuous intravenous fluids, to flush their system. But forcing so much fluid into an animal has its own complications, and it can cause dangerous imbalances in electrolytes and other minerals, and functions, so constant monitoring is required. Conservatively, the treatment for lily poisoning will run you $2,000 and it can easily cost more. I know this firsthand, because I’ve had to pay it.

Cost of veterinary care is probably the number one reason animals–some of them absolutely beloved pets whose owners are completely devastated to lose them–are surrendered to shelters or rescues. The fact is, it doesn’t matter how much experience you have with a particular breed or species, if they suffer injury or illness that’s going to cost you thousands, or tens of thousands of dollars to treat, and you don’t have thousands, or tens of thousands, of dollars laying around in the couch cushions, you’re going to have huge decisions to make. Likely, the choice of giving the animal up to a rescue or foundation which can pay for treatment, or having the animal euthanized to stop it from suffering.

Back in the barn there’s the matter of horses which have been docile while underfed (not necessarily through neglect, but maybe because they just haven’t been getting grain, which offers much higher protein) but who become wild and unpredictable once they’ve got sugars and energy flowing through them. Colic is a constant danger, and no matter how much you know about equines, torsion can strike no matter what. It’s excruciatingly painful, far more so than impaction colic, and this inescapable pain often turns the horse suffering it into a living battering ram. Some become uncontrollable without sedation, and if not sedated will literally beat themselves against the ground until they fracture their own skulls, or break legs. And then, eventually, their intestines rupture entirely, and they’ll die of massive septicemia. But they’ll suffer unimaginable agony first.

These things are terrible, and grotesque to picture, and no one wants to ever consider that they might be facing them when they’re thinking about the adorable animals standing or sitting in front of them that “need a home for Christmas”. The reality, however, is that animals, like children, don’t come with manuals, and no matter how prepared you are to have one, you’ll immediately realize that you weren’t as ready as you thought you were. Even if nothing “bad” happens, you’ll still find yourself in situations you never expected to be in, making decisions you never considered facing, and probably spending money you never accounted for losing from your budget.

And I’m just talking about if you give your own family a live animal.

Imagine having someone else giving one of these animals to your kid, or your significant other without even asking you if you want one.

It happens. Way more than you might think.

Now you’ve got an animal you never wanted (or maybe one that you did, but didn’t expect to get at the moment) and a family member who has, of course, instantaneously fallen utterly in love with that animal (because, really, needy animals, Christmas, you know) and you’ve got whomever gave that animal to you/the kids/your partner who’s all “I did a great thing!”

Just, no.

Don’t do it.

Yes, if your old-enough-to-understand-and-care-for-their-own-pet kid wants a kitten, and you’re prepared, you’ve had cats before, but don’t have any currently (which can be very complicated when introducing a new cat or kitten) then okay, consider getting a Christmas kitten (better yet, a Christmas Old Cat, one which will otherwise likely die alone in a shelter, because, well, nobody seems to like old people these days) This can be applied to dogs and puppies, or other rescue animals, too. If you’re already prepared and were planning to do it anyway.

But do not spontaneously decide without forethought to just “take a pet home”. Don’t allow yourself to be pressured by sales people, or adopters, or your own freaking kids, to “give the gift of love” right there in the middle of the grocery store parking lot when all you went to the store for was a jar of cranberry sauce. No matter how noble, how well intentioned, these acts might be, they will, in the very best scenarios, still cause you a huge amount of stress, and after-the-fact panic when you realize that you’ve just taken on years of responsibility you didn’t intend to. You might never regret it, but you will go through that stress of Will it work out? In worst case scenarios, you’ll go through that, possibly more stress, terror, loss of money, and maybe the loss of the animal you were trying to help by adopting or buying in the first place.

So, this holiday season, please reconsider before choosing to give a living thing as a present.

Thousands of domestic animals are, indeed, in need of homes. The truth, though, is that these animals are in need of homes 365 days a year. If you would not consider adopting or buying a chinchilla on November 13th, don’t allow yourself to suddenly think doing so is a great idea on December 23rd, because Christmas is just two days away, and this adorable chinchilla “really needs a home for Christmas.” The animals who needs a home for Christmas, probably needed a home long before Christmas, and thousands like them will still need a home after Christmas. You can help these animals best (unless, as I’ve already stated, you’ve had family discussions and are going to get this animal anyway, and are just planning to do it at Christmas to be festive) by donating to the causes which are already caring for them. Go volunteer at a shelter, donate to a rescue center.

Be cautious about adverts for the “perfect” Christmas animal. The animals advertised are completely innocent, but the humans peddling them might well be doing so because they know damn well they stand a much better chance of getting shed of an unwanted animal, while also making a tidy profit off of it for no reason other than, Christmas cheer and spirit.

Animals need us, but they need us all year, not just under the Christmas tree.

 

  • I made these adverts up. However, they are painfully stereotypical of what you’ll see in any farm trade classifieds every Christmas.
  • The first photo of the grey horse was pulled from an excellent article pertaining to insulin resistance in horses posted on the blog The Equinist. It’s a great, enlightening read, even if you aren’t a horse fan.
  • The second photo was pulled from Google. The horse is a recently adopted blue roan mustang, who is actually in excellent muscle and body condition for a young feral horse. It does provide, however, a good example of the sort of “sharp” top line and look that a domestic-bred horse who is a “hard keeper” might affect without grain in their diet.

Author: Artemis Grey

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: An Open Letter to Beyonce on Cub Petting

Beyonce,

I’d like to begin by saying that in some ways I truly admire you. Perhaps we have different views on some (or many) social issues, but I do see in you a deep desire to be kind to others. You seem to put great effort into being a progressive and independent woman and a role model not only to entertainment-obsessed masses, but to the youth of America (this includes your young daughter). I think it was, perhaps, a mother’s love and the need to provide your daughter with extraordinary opportunities, that you, yourself, never had, that was the impetus behind what was an incredibly misguided, but well intentioned action.

You and your husband brought your young daughter to Thailand and whilst there paid to have your family photographed while bottle feeding a tiger cub. No doubt in your mind this would be an image captured forever on film that would allow your daughter to look back on that family trip and say “Wow, how fortunate I was to be part of such a ‘rare’ experience.” What you did not know, and what I think, sadly, you still have not realized, is that while this experience was, indeed, amazing, it was also a form of animal abuse. One that does not occur only in Thailand, but all over the world.

Sadly, the practice of ‘‘paying to play” is most prevalent here in the United States.

What seems like a harmless encounter to humans is, in actuality, just one brief moment in a lifetime of misery and abuse for these cubs. Here in America dozens of traveling zoos and roadside exhibits make quite a pretty penny by charging members of the public to pet, play with, or even swim with adolescent wild animals. The most common victims in the ‘pay to play scheme, are cubs of the big cats.

What the public doesn’t understand, is that the adorable babies they get to hold have been ripped from the care of their mothers, artificially orphaned, and thrust into a short life of suffering and abuse as nothing more than photography props.

The inhumane treatment begins early on with the removal of the cubs from their mothers. At this vulnerable age their immune systems are not fully developed and the intense stress and exposure from constant handling puts them at great risk for disease or fatality. Unnatural habitats and prolonged photo sessions leave the cubs unable to regulate their sleep patterns, which further damages their growth. Forced to endure being passed around like merchandise and exposure to flashbulbs, some of them develop vision and limb problems. Many suffer the removal of their claws and teeth, in order to guarantee the safety of the customers paying to hold them.

Others are starved in an attempt to stunt their growth, thus keeping them viable for use in ‘pay to play’ gigs even as they age. I will never forget the first time I watched a cub-handling encounter on YouTube.

The way the handlers roughly grabbed them and hung them by their armpits to “reset” them, claiming that this is how they would be held in the wild, blowing in their faces to “calm” them down. Or the heartbreaking cries of protest from the cubs as they were tossed from stranger to stranger simply for entertainment value.

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As a mother, I am sure you can’t imagine letting anyone handle your child in such a way.

The luckiest cubs will grow too large or too aggressive to be useful as photo props, and subsequently will be spared the prison sentence of a life in captivity. Instead, they will be sold for use in canned hunts. Taken to open land and released for a few precious moment before the bullet of a paying hunter puts an end to their short-lived joy. Others will be butchered outright, their body parts sold on the blackmarket. As I said, those animals are the lucky ones. Many ‘pay to play’ cubs will, unfortunately, become part of the exotic animal trade, an industry which is surpassed in profit only by drugs and guns.

I share all this with you now, not to shame you. I know you have been slandered and criticized by many because of your actions. While I understand the anger that many people feel, what some fail to understand is that the fault lies not only on your shoulders. We must also blame a lack of education within our society. Fault also lies within our media. Commercials and television programs glorify the idea of turning wild animals into pets, and precious little attention is given to the vile underworld of animal trafficking and the abuse associated with ‘pay to play’ venues.

Why has so little attention been paid to this horrendous form of abuse?

Why is it allowed to go on legally in so many parts of our country and elsewhere in the world? Equally culpable are our lawmakers. At what point do we say, “We must change the laws that allow this to continue”?

Ms. Carter, you did not create the industry that propagates this kind of abuse, but I ask you now to take a stand against it. Channel your inner Sasha Fierce and speak out on behalf of those who have no voice of their own. We need your help. The baby wild animals need your help.

There is no shame in making a mistake, no matter how erroneous, if you acknowledge that mistake and embrace the change that allows you to become a more enlightened human being. I hope my words find you somehow through social media and that not only do they inspire you to instigate change, but that they help you realize that as human beings we are fallible. In the end you are not guilty of anything but remaining silent.

With warm regards and hope for the future of all the Earth’s children,

Jessica James Janson

It’s Not About The Person, It’s About The Animals In Their Care

Hands off conservation is one of the fundamental ethical foundations of the ICARUS team.

It’s something we’ve posted about before, and it’s something we’ll post about again. Every blog post which contains certain ‘celebrity conservationists’ and which criticizes the way they treat their animals gets quite a few comments (not all of which get posted, because while we’re open to differing opinions, we’re not going to entertain baseless poop-slinging) and while some of them agree with us, many argue that for *insert whatever reason* it’s okay for a particular celebrity conservationist to pet/play with/hold/whatever their wild captive animal.

Most of the unpublished comments accuse us of being “jealous” of the celebrity conservationist, of being ignorant as to the fact that they’re “special” and thus can do these things without hurting the animal, or that we’re being paid to attack them, or that the attention they bring to conservation outweighs any stuff that they shouldn’t be doing.

Here’s the point all of these avid defenders are missing: It’s not about the celebrity conservationist. It’s about the animals they’re exploiting.

When we name names in our posts, citing how certain people directly interact with the captive wild animals in their care, or how they allow the public to directly interact with them (and subsequently how they cannot attain GFAS accreditation no matter how awesome they are) people rush to the defense of these (or some of these) celebrity conservationists. People get angry when you call out those whom they idolize. While we have yet to get any death threats, we’ve definitely gotten some, colorful, shall we say, comments, in defense of these celebrity conservationists. What these defenders fail to understand is we aren’t after their idols because they’re awesome and we’re jealous, or we’re getting paid to go after them, or because we’re just mean. We’re naming their names because we’re concerned about the animals in their care.

Our number one focus is the ethical and responsible treatment and care of animals. Most specifically wild, and captive wild animals. Our basis for believing in, and supporting, hands off conservation isn’t that we don’t believe you can have a special bond with a wild animal, or because we don’t have access to captive wild animals, so we don’t think others should, or anything else. Our belief is based in science, concern for the animals, and in existing laws, including the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

Yes, some of these celebrity conservationists have raised the animals since birth. Yes, they’re experts (self-proclaimed, or with actual degrees) on these animals, and their behavior. Yes, they speak about conservation, and engage the public. None of that, however, gives them the right to treat the animals in their care any differently than they expect the public to treat them. And none of it guarantees that they, or their animals, will not suffer immensely for it in the end.

Let me use myself as an example.

I’ve been riding, training, breeding, foaling-out, showing, and caring for horses for 27 years. Almost three decades. I have more experience than some of those who have served on the Olympic team.

Several years ago, there was a cold born on the farm. I knew his mother, and his father. I personally assisted in his birth. The colt touched me, smelled me and saw me before he even saw his own mother. I raised this foal from birth, worked with him daily, and when he was old enough, began his training. He was a very ‘brain stem’ horse, meaning that he responded to body language, and silent communication more than verbal. I was his boss mare, so to speak, and he was my beta. He submitted to my authority readily, and without any physical domination on my part. I spent hours with this animal every single day.

One day, when he was about three years old, I had him in the crossties for a routine vet appointment. There was another colt in a nearby stall. My guy was fussing, where he was standing in front of us, because he didn’t like that he couldn’t turn around and be involved in what was going on. He was nosey, like most little boys are. I gave him a pat and told him to cut out the complaining. After that, I had approximately three tenths of a second to dodge or otherwise defend myself when the colt threw his hind end into the air, and lashed out with both hind feet.

I was incredibly lucky. His right hind foot hit my right breast, while his left hit my left arm. Less than an inch to one side, and he’d have broken my sternum, bruised or ruptured my heart, torn my descending thoracic aorta or my superior vena cava. Less than an inch the other way, he’d have broken ribs, punctured my lung or ruptured my liver. Farther down, and I’d have received gross damage to my internal organs, and farther up could have broken my neck, caused a depressed skull fracture, torn my lower jaw clean off, or even worse. The fact that I had space behind me, where I could be flung back without absorbing the full force of the kick helped, too. Basically, there was only one or two ways to survive the sort of kick I received, and I was lucky enough to manage one of them.

The really crazy part? That colt wasn’t trying to hurt me. What he did was the equine equivalent of saying ‘Get off my case, lady.’ He was a small, 700 pound herbivore just giving his ‘boss mare’ the brush off. If I had been another horse, I would merely have grunted and bitten his ass to put him in his place. As it was, he got a sound whack, and submitted in apology, and then stood there quietly without further fuss, because he wasn’t being mean, or attacking me in the first place. He was just mouthing off, horse style.

WARNING GRAPHIC PHOTOS taken directly after the incident, then later.

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The colt’s left hind foot grazed my elbow, causing my arm to swing back and hit the corner of a stall. I required X-rays to assure nothing was broken.

IMG_3202.JPGMy right breast, just moments after the impact.

IMG_3274.JPG     IMG_3273.JPGDespite scrubbing the wound immediately with disinfectant from the vet, an infection set up, requiring antibiotics.

IMG_3313.JPGAfter a week of antibiotics, the infection retreated. But the wound took more than a month to fill in.

IMG_3267.JPG My breast required pain meds, and had to be noted in my records, due to the internal scar tissue created which will show up on future mammograms.

I am a professional, and I knew what I was doing, and I wasn’t doing anything inappropriate. Neither was the colt. He was just being a colt. Almost any owner/trainer of captive wild animals will say the exact same thing about their animals after an incident.

However, there are some major differences between this horse and me, and captive wild animals.

The biggest of those, is that even if I’d been killed, no authorities would have shown up and confiscated the horse, and possibly euthanized him. No news crews would have shown up to discuss the problem of ‘captive horses’ being kept in ‘back yard zoos’. Horses and their owners all over the globe would not fall under fresh scrutiny, and there would be no sudden push for legislation to protect horses from being held in captivity.

If the colt had been a captive lion or tiger or other wild animal, all of those things would have happened, or could have happened. Maybe even worse things would have transpired. All because the animal acted like an animal, and I happened to be too fragile to withstand it.

Private owners are killed or maimed by their captive wild animals on a regular basis. This isn’t something new. Celebrity conservationists and animal trainers are also killed and maimed by their captive wild animals on a regular basis. It’s also nothing new.

Yet hundreds of thousands of members of the public continually try to categorize these incidents into neatly labeled boxes like ‘They were amateurs, and didn’t know what they were doing.’ or ‘They mistreated their animals, and the animals fought back.’ or ‘It was just a freak accident, that no one could have prevented.’ or ‘It was the fault of someone else present, not the the fault of the animal, or its celebrity conservationist.’ when the truth and absolute fact is that none of the incidents would ever have happened if someone was not directly interacting with a captive wild animal.

Here are links to just a small sampling of documented attacks and incidents involving captive wild animals with trainers. Here’s a PDF file compiled by the Human Society documenting hundreds of circus related incidents. It happens in the film industry, with trainers who have ‘perfect safety’ record. Even owners who start out thinking that they’ll be able to communicate with their animals, and be successful interacting with them often learn the truth, sometimes, they’re lucky enough to learn it without dying.

The one, single defining fact shared by these incidents, is the direct interaction between humans and captive wild animals.

This is why ICARUS maintains a strict hands-off approach to conservation. When you directly interact with a captive wild animal, it is not a matter of if something will happen, but when it will happen. And when it does, it will be the animal who suffers. There is no free pass for celebrity conservationists. They run the exact same risks as someone who’s raised and trained animals in their backyards. The only difference is in how the public chooses to justify one, while vilifying the other. For the ICARUS group, however, there is no difference at all. Our focus is the well being of the animals, and therefore we will continue to speak out against direct interaction with captive wild animals for any reason beyond rehabilitation and medical treatment.

As gratifying as it might be to interact with captive wild animals, it simply is not worth the risk of what could happen to those animals if something went wrong.

Author: Artemis Grey

Feature photo credit: Peter Lawson