The eyes are empty. Behind them, there is nothing but despair and misery. Not a glimmer of hope. Years in captivity will do that. Years in a concrete cell being gawped at by human beings, laughing, making faces. Just another day out for them. Just another day in hell for the animal born to be wild; born to be free …
How is it that most cannot see? Those who, in 2021, disregard the obvious cruelty, believing that it is acceptable to cage a wild animal or make him perform for their entertainment, whether it be an elephant in a circus, a dolphin in an aquarium or an orangutan dressed in human clothing in a boxing ring. Not a thought; not a glimmer of understanding. They pay their money, see the sights, partake of the inevitable fast-food and play areas within the grounds and then go home, oblivious! Small-minded, big egos. You see, again, to so many, animals are inferior to humans; to those who surmise that they have smaller brains, are unintelligent, incapable of feelings and emotions – like ours, needing nothing more than food and water; in fact, we are protecting them in the name of conservation. Of course! These animals we have paid to see behind bars – or, perhaps, in enclosures but still in captivity – are there for the greater good, nothing to do with our entertainment. Look, there are notices outside each exhibit telling us that! Each presents a synopsis of the animal detailing its origins, natural habitat, social behaviour, diet in the wild etc – educational, for goodness sake – and, then, goes on to say that the species is endangered and this zoo, wildlife or safari park is part of a conservation programme ensuring its survival. The vast revenue accrued from the grateful, unthinking public? Well, of course, that is needed for the day-to-day running of the prison – sorry, zoo – to feed and look after the much-loved animals – well, ‘exhibits’. This is no money-making enterprise; this is for the animals!
It never ceases to amaze me that in this digital age, with access to the most wonderful wildlife documentaries, footage and photography – and the incredible knowledge of naturalists such as David Attenborough – the captivity of wild animals is deemed justifiable, let alone necessary. While a recent report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been described as a ‘code red for humanity’, while bees are being heralded for their crucial importance in our planet’s survival – and while, all the time, most of those preaching to the masses are travelling on private jets – the illegal wildlife trade is thriving in the name of human entertainment? The hypocrisy is staggering. The reality shameful and depressing.
On Sunday, alerted by the Born Free Foundation, I watched the exclusive online premiere of the powerful – and very disturbing – documentary, Eyes of the Orangutan. The project of internationally acclaimed photojournalist, Aaron Gekoski, the film follows his four-year investigation into how these animals are exploited in southeast Asia. In the words of the film’s synopsis:
‘Wildlife tourism has become a lucrative business and is now worth around 250 billion dollars a year. These profits come at a cost – and it is the animals who pay the ultimate price.’
It was a trip to an amusement park in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam which was the catalyst for the film. There, Gekoski spent time with a large male orangutan – confined in a 4×5 metre concrete enclosure – who, hopelessly, sat on the ground with his head resting between two large boulders, his only ‘company’. In his despair, the orangutan was aware of the photographer’s presence who sensed, too – as their eyes met – that the animal knew he was there to help. Aaron Gekoski was haunted by that look.
‘If we can do this to one of our closest living relatives, what hope is there for any other animal?’.
I have borne witness to that look; the one which makes you feel ashamed to be human; the one which makes you feel responsible for the cruelty; the one which makes you want to hide while desperately trying to convey, through your eyes, that you are sorry for the misery your fellow-man has inflicted. It bores right through to one’s soul. Several years ago, now, I spent many an hour filming Mercedes – the last polar bear in a captivity at Edinburgh Zoo – for the Born Free Foundation and, as our eyes met, I was subject to every one of those feelings. I can see her still.
Orangutans share 97% of our human DNA. They are intelligent, sentient animals who, when held in captivity – starved of physical and emotional stimulation – suffer from stress and depression. However, sadly, they are star attractions for tourists, particularly in southeast Asia, and the following photos, courtesy of Aaron Gekoski – preceding an article in The Times on the 19th August – are testament to some of the horrors of his findings documented in his documentary: Eyes of the Orangutan: animals trapped by tourism. They make difficult viewing, as does the film.
The Born Free Foundation has, recently, launched a new campaign to protect orangutans, both in the wild and in captivity. They present 10 Facts About Orangutans. Among them is that there are three species of orangutans; they can only be found, in the wild, in two countries – Indonesia and Malaysia – and they are classified as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Their greatest enemy is man, as their habitat is destroyed in the name of agriculture and their freedom cruelly sacrificed for the illegal pet trade and tourism. As thousands languish in captivity worldwide, there are more than 1,100 in zoos, alone, but at what cost?
In the course of their investigation, Aaron Gekoski and the team were faced with a catalogue of horrifying sights including that of orangutans forced to perform in freak boxing shows in Thailand; while, in Indonesia, they were found on display at indulgent breakfast buffets where diners gathered round in a quest for selfies with these brow-beaten ‘wild’ creatures who share 97% of our DNA! Then, there were the crowds in the National Parks encircling these animals – lured by treats – for photographs, content to oblige until the food runs out. Nature in a bucket!
Eyes of the Orangutan looks behind the smiles; pulls the curtain back to reveal the mire. For every orangutan in the tourist industry, beaten into submission and forced to perform – and obey – many more have been killed: the mother butchered as her young cling to her dying body. Those who don’t survive are replaced – more deaths. Who knows how many? The web of corruption is immense as poachers arrange for the terrified baby orangutans to be smuggled across international borders, vast sums changing hands. Once in situ, they are trained to perform, no cruelty too much, the rest of their lives spent in filthy cages …
Thankfully, there is hope. There are groups of guardian angels of which the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation is one. Here, they rescue as many of these suffering orangutans as they can in a bid to rehabilitate them back into the wild. Sadly, however, for some this is not possible. Exposed to long-term human contact, they are subject to human disease and, therefore, a threat to their wild compatriots. Determined that these animals should live out the remainder of their lives beyond bars, though, the documentary reveals that progress is being made in the form of privately secured islands. No more cages. No more cruelty. No more the lifeless stare.
There is no excuse for ignorance nor, moreover, for apathy. After a year and a half of lockdown and restrictions, what kind of people, then, pay to go and see wild animals in captivity? As the crowds flock to our zoos, is there no thought, no empathy for our fellow creatures? What have we become? The majority? Little more than vacuous, uneducated, self-obsessed apologies for human beings. Ironically, those in question who pay to see wild animals behind bars – or to perform – could learn so much from the very creatures they cruelly choose to demean.
‘For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing that befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath, so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast, for all is vanity.’
This is Trish, signing off.