Humans have interacted with wild animals for a very long time – people have hunted them for food and sport, hated them for spoiling crops, loved them for their beauty, derived inspiration from them… But there is a section of human society that has probably emerged just over the last few centuries with the rise of increasingly insulated cities that is completely cut off from anything ‘wild’.
An incident last week: At lunch in a canteen in a premier science research institute, I overheard a conversation from a neighbouring table. ‘It was a cobra. It was a potential danger, you know… We could actually hear it hissing. So we just killed it. What if it had bitten someone…’ A murmur of concern and approval. ‘I was also one of the people who killed it’, the evidently city-bred speaker added with some pride, grinning broadly.
What do people in cities do when they suddenly come face to face with wildlife? They fear it. Then quickly destroy the cause of fear if possible. And then, rejoice.
But people in cities want to see wildlife (so long as they are in cages or in chains). Hundreds of elephants in Kerala’s temples draw thousands of people every year, making possibly millions of rupees in revenue. A hundred tigers were (till very recently) kept captive in a temple in Thailand; the temple was a tourist attraction. People come from around the world to watch the animals decorated and paraded… Maybe they can feed them, and even get blessed. But the animals themselves often face social isolation, physical pain, undernourishment, exploitation and neglect*.
There are also animals in zoos**. In ‘good’ zoos, the animals probably are much ‘happier’ than in temples – they have some space and care. Some of the animals were born captive. Some people argue they have a ‘good life’. But what do you do if a human enters the animals’ space? What do you do if someone tries to take a selfie with a walrus… and dies?
How do people in cities regard wildlife? It is probably context dependent. In a religious place, they are probably regarded with awe. In a zoo, they are regarded maybe with some curiosity. They certainly are photographed in both places. They are ‘amazing’ or ‘boring’ for a day, depending on what they do and how they look…
But why are animals even there in temples and zoos? How are the animals kept? How are they really, in their natural environments? How different is a captive animal from one in the wild? What is it to be ‘wild’?
Are people asking? Are they listening?