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Animal pragmatism


Ingrid Newkirk, the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says Disney had a chance to do something great. They blew it

Ha-ha, lookit, she's in the cage."

The speaker -- a woman tugging a child -- brushed swiftly past animal-rights activist Ingrid Newkirk, who stood posed for a photographer inside a make-believe animal crate. But there was overlooked irony in her statement: Just down the path at Disney's Animal Kingdom, the cages -- albeit cleverly disguised -- held not people but birds and gorillas. Yet it was no longer humorous, or even outrageous; Disney sells its display as "education," and as such, those who might point a finger and stare at other caged beings are buying the package whole.

Not Newkirk.

"I came with hope that maybe I would see that they really were trying to make it an educational facility," she says. "And I believe it's an utter sham."

Newkirk co-founded and now presides over People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the 18-year-old, 600,000-member global animal protection organization. Given Disney's stated intent to import exotic animals for its exhibits, PETA announced a boycott of the park even before it opened. At Orlando Weekly's invitation, Newkirk traveled from PETA's base in Norfolk, Va., on the park's opening day to survey first-hand the subject of PETA's concern.

On that April 22 -- Earth Day -- Disney was cleared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which showed up to investigate the deaths of at least a dozen of the park's 1,000 animals, including two birds run over by safari trucks and four cheetah cubs that swallowed a toxin found in anti-freeze. The USDA did not lay blame for the deaths, but could find no evidence that Disney had violated the federal Animal Welfare Act.

Newkirk was less forgiving. What she found both amused and infuriated.

Disney, she says, could have had a winner. "They've done a first-rate job with the flora. The omnipresent staff who, if you don't have a serious question, is helpful. The shows for children -- The Jungle Book, The Lion King show -- it's certainly not Broadway, but the costumery is fantastic. The mechanical beasts, the fantasy animals, are fantastic. The music is wonderful."

But they blew it, she says. Nothing in the park -- which pushes a theme of conservation and preservation -- offers anything more than lip service, she says. Nowhere is there any follow-up; nowhere are visitors told how to help the animals on their own. "It's a missed opportunity," she says.

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Worse, she continues, are the animals turned into sideshow displays. Parrots are made to perform on cue. Lizards are carted around in containers for gawking. "There are many ironies in the park," she says. "And they're not happy ironies."

Her observations:

The theme is supposed to be about conservation, preservation, and saving the earth and the animals who call it home. And smack-dab-bang next to the Jane Goodall T-shirts are African carvings made of mahogany, and mahogany is one of the main woods that every conservationist begs people never, ever to buy, because it is a hard wood and its consumption is linked to the destruction of forest habitat."

Did that undercut Disney's message, or did you find that the message as a whole was just muddled?

I find the park very, very disappointing. Conservation Station, sadly, is a fraud. Even on the way there, it's billed as a place where you will learn how to help conserve endangered species. And the first thing you see when you get off the train is a hut that says "Cast Members Only." You can't ask any intelligent questions or have an intelligent discourse with anybody because they're working out of a script. Inside the Conservation Station, it's all pretty wallpaper of colorful animals and video screens that have some important information coming from the documentaries, but nowhere to sit to listen to them. You're just shuffled through very quickly, so you absorb nothing, and indeed nobody was standing in the few places where you could learn something useful.

There's a vet on display and a technician on display as if on the stage, with a frightened lizard doing what is billed as a "quarantine inspection." So there has to be somebody on display performing some presumably benign procedure every hour that it's open. There are baby animals that have been taken away from their mothers who are in cages; there's a poor dove who is trying to incubate her egg, and she's on display. There's a kinkajou, who is a nocturnal animal -- it actually says nocturnal -- who is trying to sleep in glaring light in a glass case with thousands of gawking people going by. It is the antithesis of respect.

There is a token board that shows that money has come from the Disney Conservation Fund to the Jane Goodall Institute for anti-poaching activity, and for another woman to record the sounds of elephants, and another person in Africa to study the effect of controlled burning on vegetation. But of course you are asked to contribute money when you make purchases to this fund. I don't know if Disney gives beyond that. If they do, the impression you're left with is, oh trust us, we're giving some fob-off money to these enterprises to legitimize our sales pitch. But really, the overwhelming message is that we are feasting off the exploitation. The first sign that I saw said, "The most important thing you can do" -- I'm paraphrasing -- "is to preserve native habitat." How, with a straight face, can you put that sign in a park that has razed all the native American habitat in order to construct an artificial African, or pseudo-African, habitat? It was the first of a host of ironies.

What did you hear in your conversations coming out of Conservation Station?

Not once did I hear anybody say anything empathetic or compassionate, or as if there was an educational discourse going on as a result of anything they'd seen. But that's no surprise because nothing is geared to education. In fact, the only signs that you see have such unerringly banal and pointless information about the species on display. For example, the tortoise. It will say: "Soft shell. This is what the tortoise eats."' That's it. There'll be another animal and it will say they grow to some stupendous weight or height or they're enormously strong. But the most disappointing was the gorilla. Here is a fellow primate, one of the most intelligent animals on the face of the earth with an incredibly complex social system. And what we have is a chalk drawing and a series of photographs of gorillas, and the points that Disney has chosen to highlight solely are how strong the teeth are, how big the teeth are, how powerful the hands are, how huge -- in other words, how you should be afraid of this dissimilar beast. It absolutely lacks empathy at any point. It does not help in human understanding of the other species. They are there to gawk at, to be afraid of, but not to understand and relate to.

Kids who are raised on MTV sit on the safari bus and they go through, they don't learn anything; they see there's a horse with black-and-white stripes -- oh, that's a zebra. And then we have the hokey, very short-lived let's-chase-the-poacher. They have marginalized a problem to deal with the plight of animals in today's world. It's a safe topic for them, because I doubt that very many poachers come through Animal Kingdom, so they can marginalize that activity. They've labeled it as "the single greatest threat to wildlife today," which it is not. Animal-based agriculture is, and they're serving all the animals they can find in North America between two slices of bread. Poaching is the least of the animals' problems, and what can anyone going through this exhibit honestly do about it? They know damn well: Nothing. It's meaningless, and they know it's meaningless, so it's a device, and I resent that because animals are in such trouble.

One of the reasons they're in trouble is because of the captive bird trade, which has decimated the pawpaw populations and the exotic parrot populations of South America and Africa and Asia. And yet all through this park there is a lone bird stuck on somebody's wrist for people to gawk at and performing tricks. And the message is, it's all right for human beings to use these animals for their own amusement, and I think the message is, go to the pet shop and buy one. And that is what caused the whole problem to begin with.

Disney did not pluck these animals out of the wild. They tell us that they all came from zoos or other captive situations. Is this an improvement over the presentation of animals in other captive settings?

If it weren't for this disturbing matter of the 12 known deaths, each in circumstances that are not really understandable in a well-run facility, I would have no hesitation in saying yes. Going through the safari ride, certainly, there are animals there who appear to have more space, more privacy, more foliage, more interaction with other animals, than you would see in many other facilities.

In other places, no, it's not [an improvement]. They have decided to containerize individual animals and troop them around through the park for show-and-tell. That again is the antithesis of an educational experience. It's showing human manipulation in an uninspiring, rather crude fashion that is designed to stop you from thinking about how an animal should live properly and naturally, and what the behavioral needs of that animal may be. The remarks on the boat when the tarantula came out were all "eew, get it away from me," "oh no," "oh, don't let it out of the box." We're an audience for a little play that is for fun. It's not to help.

How might Disney have used this opportunity better?

First, can the bird acts, because they are an atrocity and they are a throwback.

They should eliminate the use of animals as living props, carrying them about, carting them about in containers. Nobody will miss them. I understand from one of the keepers that they have a chinchilla who they keep in a cage as an isolated creature. And I said, "Why, what is that?" And she said, "Oh, it's for a message, it's to show people conservation." So I said, "Well, what is the message with the chinchilla?" And she said, "Um, well, you know, that you shouldn't, um, you should conserve them." And I said, "Well, how?" And she could never give me any answer at all.

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One very obvious small thing that would take almost nothing to fix is the proximity of the wandering small fowl to the safari vehicle, which are barreling through with obviously no time to stop. Time is money, and they're not going to want to stop. It is, I think, almost impossible for the drivers to see, when they're hesitating or crossing a bridge or slowing down, whether the fowl are under the wheels or near the wheels. And there are a great variety of waterfowl who are within inches often of these vehicles, and they get used to those vehicles, and that is a hazard to their lives. A great question I would have: If 12 animals are known dead, are there other animals that we don't know have died? Because there are no reporting requirements for many of these animals.

;;What else, again, can they do to take advantage of this audience that they're already drawing with a conservation message?

There are a lot of zoos who need places to put animals, and they could become a true sanctuary, not part of the game of endangered species "conservation," whereby the zoo industry -- and that's what they call themselves, which is a telling word, the zoo industry -- breeds animals and shuffles them about for money or consideration to increase attendance and so on in a variety of the big zoos.

There are so many animals in desperate need now who are being booted out of traveling shows, roadside exhibits that are closing because government standards are getting stricter. There are aging chimpanzees coming out of research facilities with nowhere to go who are intelligent social beings. This could be a retirement home for animals who have suffered at the hands of human society and need somewhere to hang their hat. Don't be part of the problem; be part of the solution.

The other thing that just screams at you in the park is the absolute lack of advice on what a person can do in their own lives. It does not help animals to buy a hat with a tiger on it. They'll be gone from the face of the earth. Children could join clubs to really help. They could learn which woods to buy. They could learn what their diets do. They could learn why not to support the pet shop trade in exotics, that you shouldn't take a lizard home and let him starve to death in a cage in an aquarium in your living room. Do fund-raisers for conservation or for protection groups. Show films. There are a million things that if you sat down with groups who cared about whatever animals they purport to care about, or are using, they could develop a fine list of real activities, and everyone could leave the park saying, "Honey, you know, let's do X." They would have concrete ideas of what they could do.

Would people pay to come see old, decrepit animals?

Well, you know, going through the safari ride, animals during the day are often lethargic. They don't move around very much. And they're grazing. And so you really don't see a lot of interaction. And in fact, I think some of the animals who've been through the most are the most rewarding to see. Disney could make much of the fact that it had truly rescued animals in need, and put up plaques that indicated what some of the animals had gone through before they came to the park, and that would break people's hearts. And if they want people to open their wallets for conservation or for preservation or for sheltering, maybe they'd find that people would, just because they would believe them instead of having to decide what's hype and what's not.

The message of many zoos, and certainly this one as well, is that in presenting these animals for display, they are teaching people to recognize and appreciate them. Does that message resonate at all here?

That's hooey, and it's been discredited. There have now been studies, exit interviews with people who go through zoos, and the most common words -- and I was listening today for this -- the most common remarks are, "Oh, such-and-such an animal was big," or he was ugly, or he was funny. People do not learn a lot. Especially if you stand in front of a cage, an aviary, and perhaps it has a raptor, an eagle, in that aviary, and it says, "This bird in his natural habitat can soar to 230 feet, he can channel at 80 miles an hour," and you see he can't. And what is the message? It's OK to deprive him of all those things. That is not an educational message.

I think Walt would be spinning in his grave. I may be wrong, but in the beginning he had a soft spot for animals, and he did a lot -- for example, the "Bambi" film, and "Snow White," and a lot of things that allowed people for the first time to break through this macho "we-must conquer nature" to "couldn't nature be our friend?" Could other animals really not be threatening? Maybe they're like us in some way. In that, he was a pioneer in breaking the mold of the old idea of Teddy Roosevelt, which was you go into Africa to blow them away. And in his films he went to Africa and he learned that there are interrelationships and symbiotic relationships; it's one orchestra and we're just a player in it.

What would it take for PETA to remove its boycott?

Nothing would make me happier. The quickest obvious thing would be for Disney to phase out its involvement in bringing in animals and just using them as exhibits. If Disney decided to commit itself to running a sanctuary here, and to make it an educational place, we would be all for it. But as long as animals are being used in an anti-educational way, in things like the stupid tricks being done by the birds to make people laugh, and their failure to provide any useful information for people to make a difference, and the dangerous habitats, in my mind, for some of the animals where they are at risk. ... We'd love to sit down and devise something with them, but they have never wanted to meet with us.

It's often the case with huge corporations that they feel if they ignore somebody knocking on their door, the people will go away. We're very tenacious and we don't ever go away. We never, ever go away, and we only educate more people to understand why there's a problem.

What is unique is how much money they have to throw at it, and how poorly they're using their resources. It's a glorified roadside zoo, if you ask me. I obviously have not been able to see behind the scenes. All I can go on are things like the USDA complaints and what I can see from the outside. But I would think you'd hold Disney to a far, far higher standard than you would hold most places, because it can do anything it wants. This is its Animal Kingdom; it could do anything here.

Does an experience like visiting this theme park depress or energize you?

It's a mixture. People love animals. A lot of people love animals. They love the idea of animals. Animals excite them. And it's such an opportunity to educate people about animals and what they need that is lost. So on the one hand it's enriching to see that people come because they care about animals. On the other hand, it's depressing to see opportunity just thrown to the wind. There's nothing wrong with a nice day's fun, but it shouldn't be dishonestly had, and I think that this is advertised as something it is not. Maybe people will go away well-fed and relatively happy and they'll have spent time together. But for the animals, it's a loser.