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Born Free USA Blog

Born Free USA Blog

Of Life and Death, Suffering and Cruelty

Published 08/25/09
By Barry Kent MacKay, Senior Program Associate

On Thursday, August 13, I visited a small, private roadside zoo that is dedicated to the art of falconry. “Art” is what it is called. As a bird artist* who has admired and thrilled to avian predators all his life, I find it hard to see them tethered to perches or held in cages most of their lives, trained to amuse their masters, called “art.”

And during the forty-minute falconry show that was the facility’s main feature, the falconer shared with his small audience his views on animals, humanitarians, and nature. We were told animals were smart, but not intelligent; that he never provides water (and indeed, none of the hawks, owls, chickens, pigeons, quail or other bird had access to so much as a bowl of water); how he trained a bald eagle to think all prey was motionless by giving her only dead prey, “stomping” on any chicken to be fed to her that showed even a “quiver of life”; how habitat was of no importance to wild animals so long as they had food; how no species were endangered and no bird had value if it couldn’t be hunted; and, at great length, how hypocritical humane societies and their supporters were, and how misplaced their compassion for animals, instead of people. He ranted against the idea of rehabilitating injured or orphaned animals, and told the two young children in the audience that they would never have to eat fruits and vegetables to be healthy, if only they would eat every part of the chicken, even the feathers.

What was particularly bizarre to me was that the falconer continually implied that animal welfare was somehow an unnatural and elitist denial of the real nature of life as it should be lived, in a world where death was the inevitable norm, but seemed to be unaware of how contrived the existence was that the animals in his care endured.

My visit was part of endless monitoring of roadside zoos and other such facilities, and what it will lead to is not the subject of this blog.

Instead I want to direct you, with a precaution, to this website: www.leurresforget.com/fphoto.htm. The precaution is that it carries some very graphic and disturbing images. I was made aware of it the day after visiting the falconry show, when it showed up in my emails.

What the photos show is disturbing enough — animals suffering in traps set to catch them so their skins can be sold for use by the fur industry. They were taken on traplines in Quebec.

But somehow it is all the more disturbing to me that the photos involve kids who seem amused by it all. The children I know are compassionate and would not take any pleasure at the sight of a dying animal in agony.

And worst of all, someone thought these images were worth posting on a website, rather like a homage to a fun vacation or baby’s first steps.

I have no profound conclusion to all this; no great insight into the variations in how different people see things. Virtually each day we come up against people who see what we see, and react in a very different way. I can’t understand cheering a bullfighter, being happy that I have deprived a pheasant of the rest of his life, or pitting two dogs to a fight to the death in a miniature arena. And yet the people who do such things and worse always have their rationales intact, and their certitude that in some absolute way they are the ones who are right.

I do understand that both suffering and death are inevitable for all of us, whatever the species, and I do understand that we cannot live without having negative impacts on others, human and nonhuman alike. But I distinguish between “suffering” inevitable to the act of living, and “cruelty,” which is an unnecessary imposition of suffering one individual with a choice in the matter makes upon another who has no choice. Cruelty can be reduced and avoided; it derives from conscious choice. As I move ever further from my birth and closer to my own death I want ever more to reduce my own negative impacts, and more than that, to try my best to reduce suffering imposed by others.

Red-tailed Hawk, born free, living free; painting by Barry Kent MacKay

Falconry, fur trapping, and roadside zoos are all legal. Dog fighting is not. It was once, and so there can be what I would see as progress. On the same day as I viewed that disturbing website, my email lists were abuzz on news about Michael Vick, the American football player who had been convicted of horrific abuse of dogs used in illegal dogfighting.

And it is that progress, not a dying coyote in a trap, not an eagle tied to a perch, not chicken stomped to death, that brings the smile to my lips, and makes the human life a humane life, so very much worth living.

* Barry mentions he is an artist and loves birds of prey: above is one of his paintings, a Red-tailed Hawk, born free, living free.

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