This post contains an amassment of cute and cuddly fuzziness from my visit to Ueno Zoo. But first, some serious business!
One indicator of society's "development" should be its attitude towards animals. This represents a key part of what makes us human: our relationship with the living Earth. There's only one, and we have to look after it. In that regard, many societies are neither developed nor developing, but un-developing. Those that consider animals to exist solely so humans may exploit them, have gone backwards.
Companions, mounts, cargo bearers, artistic inspirations, food: we would be nothing without other animals. They have given the human race more than we can calculate, often asking little in return.
Inevitably, animals aren't all cuddly and sweet. Some can be downright mean. And many animals, including ourselves, depend on eating other animals. All said, there is enough empirical diversity in the animal kingdom that how we conceptualize our relationship to it, normatively speaking, is entirely our own choice.
On the whole, I love and respect the creatues with whom we share the world. If nothing else, the human record for barbarity leaves us in hardly a position to judge that of any other species. "Clean the house before entertaining guests."
And just one aspect of the broad animals discourse is zoos.
I went to Ueno Zoo as much to check out its ethics as because I love animals. There are arguments that we shouldn't have zoos at all: that it is always wrong to take animals out of their natural homes. There are also arguments that through zoos we can help animals, by researching and understanding them better, contributing to conservation work and educating visitors. In the end it depends on the individual zoo, and from my impressions as a visitor, Ueno Zoo has certainly come a long way.
When it comes to education, it offers plenty of information on its massive range of animals. On the day it was packed with scores of children, often in enormous school groups; and despite my grasp of Japanese being as yet inadequate to decipher most info boards, I made out plenty that it's good to see imparted. A few animals, such as the monkeys and some birds, look like they could do with more space; others like the big cats have nice big areas where clearly much effort has been put in to provide them a comfortable home. Work must go on, attitudes must keep improving; but it's come a long way since its origins over 100 years ago, in an era where humans worldwide were terrible at attitues towards themselves and other animals alike.
Here is the cenotaph to the zoo's animals massacred by the Japanese army in 1943. We should pause in silent respect to those creatures, and in reflection on why we still cannot fight wars without inflicting the most needless and reprehensible cruelties on every innocent victim we can reach, animals included. They did nothing to ask for that fate. And on this day, let us especially think of the animals in Tripoli Zoo, suffering crippling shortages of food, water and care as the humans fight around them.
When and only when you have paid those respects, should you see fit to look upon the beautiful creatures that follow.
Let us salute Earth's animals with respect. Let us work towards a better world in which humanity's order is built less at their expense, and more upon a partnership of equals. They and we stand to gain thereby; without it, both stand to lose.