The lesson is nothing new. It was drilled into us as tiny tots on the playground the moment we elicited a response from others with our words. I learned it many times in many ways, as all kids did. I was made fun of for my freckles by other children (ouch) and for my tendency to day dream by adults (devastating). I made others cry when I realized I had ready-made weapons in the forms of razor sharp vocabulary and quick responses (not proud of that). Kick it old school with me for a moment and let’s say it together…
Words can hurt.
We (animal care specialists) have been hurt quite a bit lately and continue to be. No, I’m not speaking of bottom lines, money, or even spotty public support for our zoos and aquariums. I’m speaking of the vile words that are carelessly flung around online; some aimed at us individually and some are sweeping general statements. We have become paper targets at the shooting range; outlines of real people with no complexity, value, or depth to our abusers. We are simply the bull’s eye to be hit by insults, threats, and verbal abuse. These affronts are all the same thing to me… Word Vomit. Cogent discussion is dying and word vomit is the new normal when discord is the order of the day.
Let’s go ahead and get crystal on something before I venture on. Disagreement is normal; disagreement is respectable. I don’t categorize those that feel differently than me on the subject of animals in human care (zoos and aquariums) as “word vomiters”. Quite the opposite! I welcome cogent discussion and it’s a skill I have worked hard on as an adult, professionally and personally. I feel that opposing views are what help support the balance when morality is the intangible boundary for behavior. Asking a question (or many questions) is not only okay, it is vital for critical thinking. That is what word vomit is sorely missing in its vile soup of aggression and impulsive reactions; Critical Thinking.
Critical thinking begins with taking a step back and trying to see the issue from a different perspective. If you are not an animal care professional, try to see it from ours. Please?
Imagine the pain of losing a beautiful creature that you cared for and nurtured, maybe you have experienced it for yourself. Imagine caring for a small group of animals that are rapidly becoming extinct in the wild because of the willful ignorance of society. Picture yourself looking at them every day, agonizing over every behavior and nuance because you know that they could possibly be the only generations left by the time you reach your parents’ ages. Visualize yourself as a caretaker of an animal that chooses to interact with you after months or even years of building trust. Now, envision knowing that if different circumstances were forced on them they would have no way of “seeing around corners”. They would have no way of discerning good humans from bad ones; their only interactions have been with educated humans that possess a breadth of knowledge concerning their individual behaviors and biology.
Imagine assisting to remove quarters from the jaws of wild sea turtles, rusty fish hooks from pelican throats, and AA batteries from marine mammal stomachs. Once they are healthy, you release them back to the environment that is killing them. They were born into the food web and they must go back out (if they can) to hopefully procreate before dying. Now, visualize the concept that the animals that you have cared for their entire lives, many from birth, are now being potentially forced into the wild by outsiders…again, without the skills to survive or to identify potential dangers. Dissenters of zoos/aquariums simply don’t see the difference and it’s easier just to assume we are indoctrinated or selfish. Envision yourself trying to engage in conversation with these dissenters, using your experiences and knowledge, only to be told you deserve to be murdered. Cue the verbal abuse.
Yup, according to cowardly online zealots we deserve murder, rape, and more. Our children deserve to be kidnapped, stuffed into cages, and tortured. Our families should be gutted, shot in the head, and hung on the wall as trophies. They want to burn our houses down and they want us to explode in our cars (stop watching mob movies, zealots). While these words can sting, it’s the accusations that we don’t care and are indifferent to our “animals’ suffering” that hurt the most. We don’t care? How many milestones have we missed with our own families; holidays, weddings, birthdays, first steps, first day of school, dinners, and just time. How many times have we looked at our weathered hands and skin and realized we were aging before our time? There is a large price to pay, emotionally and physically, and we do it for no other viable reason than we care.
We care about the animals and we care about their wild counterparts that are dying in droves. We care about their environment that is collapsing around them. We care about the fact that society still doesn’t seem to care enough to change. We care that we are the loudest and most effective voices for these issues and we are still being told we don’t care. We care so much that animal care workers (beginning with kennels and veterinarians) are starting to be identified as a large population of workers plagued with Compassion Fatigue, a secondary-traumatic stress disorder (STSD). We are right behind civil servants (police and firefighters) and paramedics.
I wasn’t kidding about those stress dreams in earlier posts.
Here’s the thing. Many of us learned at some point that just because we can does not mean we should. Just because you can hurt others doesn’t mean it’s the way to get things done. In this time of unprecedented anonymity, my colleagues and I have found ourselves tied to the virtual whipping post. It has become fashionable, and acceptable, to verbally abuse us via social media and to threaten us.
Oh, what’s that you say? You feel that we are cruel because of where we work and that our animals are not in the wild? No worries, I can take that bullet and let’s talk about it. We can bring our personal experiences to the table, our formal education, our practical knowledge, and our expertise with animals born in human care; everything we have that presents us a viable resource for learning more if you are truly concerned about animals living in zoos, parks, and aquariums. We sit down to the virtual table for a respectable debate and then…
Ugh. It never gets easier.
Here’s the thing. Just talk to us; not threaten, not regurgitate extremist jargon, and not verbally beat us down before we can catch a breath. Understanding is never reached through open mouths (spewing pea soup) and closed ears. We are intelligent, passionate, empathetic, and articulate people. We are good people and we want to talk to anyone who can remain respectful. This is a complex issue, it always has been, and virtual word vomit is very similar to the real deal. You may feel better after purging but someone still has to clean it up. And honestly? Did you really feel better telling me I deserved to be raped? If your answer was yes…well, then…
Having the same opinion as us is not a prerequisite for engaging animal care professionals in a rational discussion; however, being civil is. Who knows? Maybe you will see things from a different perspective and it will help ease your fury or pain. It may not change your mind and that’s just ducky. Really. However, if you truly care and you aren’t just using your keyboard to hurt us, you will notice we have many of the same goals as you.
You want the best for our animals, for their wild counterparts, and for their environment. None of that will happen without respectful dialogue, critical thinking, empathy, and a touch of amity.
Lunatic fringe aside, we can’t make this a better world without passionate people of all views and beliefs. With passion comes conflict; without conflict there can be no resolution.
Until next time, Hugs and Fishes, ya’ll.
This blog post is dedicated to Akati and her caretakers at the Detroit Zoo. The hardest facet of our jobs is when it is time to mourn. My thoughts are with you.