Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Careful Training or Animal Abuse?

I had an interesting online conversation this evening about a video that shows a man riding his bicycle while his dogs run behind him on busy trails and roads.

At first, I thought it was a fun video that showed a man who worked hard to train his dogs and gave them a tremendous amount of attention, affection, and love. My friend thought it showed a man who took too many risks with his dogs, risks that could potentially lead to their deaths.

At first, I defended the man in the video, believing he proved his experience and expertise in dog training through the behavior of his dogs, then I realized my friend made a valid point, the man did take risks, too many risks. At any time, one of the many dogs in the video could have suddenly changed its mind and decided to break free from its trainer and dart out into the road.

I have always believed that when I take an animal into my home I am completely responsible for all aspects of that animal's welfare. Training animals is important, but taking them out in public and deliberately placing them in risky situations to show how well they are trained is a selfish act that can only go one of two ways--either the animal will perform as he or she has been trained to perform, or the animal will not, and will become injured, or killed.

The discussion was about domestic animals, but in a way, this applies to wild animals, as well. There are many companies that will allow students to pose with trained "big cats" for photos. A 17 year old high school student from Kansas was killed by a Siberian Tiger in 2005 at a ranch where tigers, lions and bears are trained for Hollywood films, but for many years, this same ranch allowed students to pose with the animals for photos.

The trainer may very well be an expert in his field with many years of experience, but I suspect he took too many risks with the animals, endangering both the animals and the students who posed with the animals through his pride in his own abilities. Animals on a film set in tightly controlled conditions obviously behave completely differently than they do in the privacy of their own homes--their cages--when strangers are introduced for brief periods of time. I could see this as a situation similar to when a dog is in a car and someone reaches through an open window to pet the dog. The dog will feel as if the stranger is trying to enter his or her home.

The question is not how good the trainer is, or how well the animal is trained. The question is, is this fair to the animal, or the trusting humans? In a way, it could be seen as cruel. The animal did not agree to have strangers paraded through his or her home, to be used as a fashion model and posed like a doll. Wild animals are...wild!

In October of 2011, Zanesville, Ohio experienced a night of terror that seemed to be taken right out of a horror film as more than 50 lions, tigers, and other wild animals were destroyed after the owner of a wild animal farm, Terry Thompson, released the animals from their cages then committed suicide. Before he died, he cut the gates so the animals could not be caught and returned to their cages.

Why he released the animals is a mystery. If he truly loved the animals, why would he do something so cruel? Surely he knew the animals would be destroyed! Apparently, he was experiencing legal problems because the animals kept escaping. So he solved his problem through the most extreme act of selfishness and at a great loss to the worldwide community of big cats. Many of these cats were on the endangered species list. The surviving animals were taken to the Columbus, Ohio zoo.

The big question, though, is why he had the animals in the first place. Thompson did not display or show the animals. They were not trained for use in films. He kept hundreds of wild animals on his ranch in the middle of town for no explainable reason other than that he enjoyed wild animals. If he loved wild animals so much, why would he keep them in cages, then release them without protection of any kind?

According to an article in USA Today, the Humane Society of the United States has documented 22 incidents with dangerous exotic animals in Ohio since 2003. Why is this allowed to happen? If a person truly loves animals, they do not take this kind of risk, keeping hundreds of wild animals in cages in the middle of town without trained zookeepers to supervise their health and living conditions.

There is a similar situation going on in the United States with snakes that are used as props in birthday parties, in traveling shows, and tortured and killed in rattlesnake roundups. There is little, if any, concern for the welfare of the snakes according to animal activists like Matt Ellerbeck who is fighting for the rights of these animals. Considering most snake bites occur when snakes are handled, there seems to be an equal lack of concern for the welfare of the humans involved.

What does seem obvious is that there is a lack of concern for the rights of animals in all of these cases, particularly their right to be protected from the greatest threat, the greatest predator that animals face--humans.

Edited to add: For more information regarding the work of animal rights activist Matt Ellerbeck, please visit his website here.

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