Born Free USA Blog
When I was in college, and decided to major in English literature, I purchased the Oxford English Dictionary. I love it. And 20+ years later, I still use it all the time. Words are very important. And those who exploit animals for pleasure or for commercial gain love to use words creatively to try to minimize the suffering they inflict.
I just read an article about animal “enrichment” in zoos. The article detailed, for instance, one zoo where empty beer kegs are given to Asiatic black bears. Said a keeper: “Not only does the keg's beer smell get the bears going, so does the deer scent keepers place on the keg. The bears claw and lick the keg for exercise as heat could be seen from their breaths.”
Really? This is the zoo’s “enrichment” program for endangered black bears? Even if there is more to the program than that, I’m mystified that anyone could put beer kegs in a bear pen and think the lives of those animals is “enriched.”
So I checked my trusty O.E.D. Enrich: “to make rich, endow, with mental or spiritual wealth;” “to make ‘rich’ or splendid with decoration; often with added notion of costliness.” Hmm ... Are those bears’ lives really enriched mentally or spiritually by beer kegs? Is this really splendid decoration? Surely there is not much costliness in throwing some beer kegs in there.
Now, not to be a wet blanket, but you know the Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus) is an endangered species. Listed on Appendix I of CITES. Decreasing population in the wild. Threatened by habitat loss and poaching, especially for gallbladders and bile. Incarcerated in Chinese bear “farms” in tiny cages, perpetually milked for their bile through steel catheters to satisfy the demand in medicines and tonics and cosmetics.
And we’ve got deer-scented beer kegs. Really?
This is the problem with the way language is used sometimes. Perhaps having a beer keg to play with is enrichment compared to nothing at all. But is it really enrichment? Is it real humane care? Is it real conservation? Um, no.
About the time I bought that dictionary in college I also started listening to a band called Living Colour. They have a song entitled “Leave It Alone” which begins:
We must never take these words too seriously
Words are very important but then if we take them too seriously
We destroy every thing...
When a zoo professes to engage in animal “enrichment” perhaps we should not take it too seriously — or at least always question whether it’s the best they could do. Perhaps we should not let them destroy the potential for real animal care and real conservation because they threw a beer keg in a bear cage. For the animals, best to just leave them alone — they shouldn’t be in captivity in the first place.