A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Elephants and Slavery

The mindset that has permitted atrocities to be inflicted on humans is the same mindset that allows the abuse of animals to occur. Just as my ancestors were beaten and exploited, so are the zebras, lions, tigers, camels and other animals used in circuses.

The Guardian’s Benjamin Zephaniah sees no difference between how his ancestors were taken into slavery 250 years ago and how elephants and other animals are taken into slavery today. He continues:

Many of my ancestors were imprisoned without cause and spent their lives deprived of everything that was important and meaningful to them: the freedom of choice, independence and autonomy. This is exactly what life is like for animals used in circuses.

Like millions of other people in the U.K., Zephaniah is reacting to the conviction of circus owner Bobby Roberts on charges of abuse and mistreatment of Annie the elephant. He’s calling for a ban on all use of animals in circuses.

It has been 200 years since parliament banned the slave trade. It’s about time for that enlightened attitude to be extended to animal slaves exploited in circuses.

Zephaniah is by no means the first person to draw the similarity between human slavery and nonhuman slavery. Reacting to the news that Tilikum, one of the orcas at SeaWorld Orlando, had turned on his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, and killed her, columnist Alexander Cockburn compared him to the Roman slave Spartacus:

“[At the marine circus in Vancouver, where he was previously held], he met his fellow slaves, Nootka and Haida. Day after day in slave school they learned their tricks. Day after day, they did their act for the paying customers.”

And then, finally, they struck, grabbing one of the trainers and dragging her around the pool, drowning her, and not letting anyone near for for another two hours. It was Tilikum’s first act of revolt. Transferred to SeaWorld, he would kill two more humans.

Comparing nonhuman slaves to human slaves is upsetting to some people. I was once warned off doing it when I was invited to speak to an animal rights meeting in Atlanta. “Please don’t compare African Americans to animals,” the host requested in advance in an e-mail. “It’s not good for donations.”

Jewish people are also touchy about comparing the way cows are transported to slaughter with how the Nazis’ put Jews in cattle cars and took them to the death camps.

But one of the most renowned of Jewish writers, Isaac Bashevis Singer, a holocaust survivor himself, was one of the first to make the comparison:

[People] have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.

And Frederick Douglass often compared his treatment to that of other animals:

When purchased, my old master probably thought as little of my advent as he would have thought of the addition of a single pig to his stock. Like a wild young working animal, I am to be broken to the yoke of a bitter and life-long bondage.

Indeed, I now saw, in my situation, several points of similarity with that of the oxen. They were property, so was I; they were to be broken, so was I; Covey was to break me, I was to break them; break and be broken – such is life.

Jews and Blacks are by no means the only people to have been enslaved. Children and women are still held as slaves in many places around the world.

For anyone to feel insulted at being compared to “an animal” is, frankly, absurd. As Zephaniah writes in the Guardian piece:

Just as my ancestors had families, feelings and emotions, so do animals. In fact, when I strip away the material stuff around me, I see that I, too, am an animal. We are family.

Perhaps only when we all begin to see elephants, orcas, chimpanzees and all the other animals as family will we think twice about keeping them captive for our entertainment.