WELCOME TO EARTH-4
A Weekly Column with J. Torrey McClain
When I think about some of my favorite movies, they contain a sense of the dynamics of a family, whether it is by blood or by situation. The Incredibles is a fantastic example of a family at the center of the story and how, when forced to confront his own mortality, at his core Mr. Incredible finds that family is the most important thing in his life. Stalag 17 is about a family in a single room wooden cell in a POW camp and even though they argue and kid and get on each other’s nerves, they will risk their lives for each other. The Philadelphia Story revolves around a family’s plan for a wedding one weekend on their estate. Up is built on scrapbook glimpses of a life spent together as a family.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes contains what it means to have family and what a family is as one of its themes. Humans as a family. Apes as a family. The family of Caesar and the family of the lead human Malcolm played by Jason Clarke. Family by blood and new families after loved ones perish.
It is dealing with the idea of ape families that becomes problematic in my mind. Scientifically, we know that chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans have familial bonds. We can see those attachments as we stare at them through windows in zoos as the elders have learned to turn their backs to our prying eyes. There are blood families and communities as families. Yet, we don’t really care much about what happens to them because they can’t tell us how separation from their family feels. We hope they forget if they ever get sent to a new zoo or study facility. We hope that any new introductions into a community will forget the families left behind in the wild or their previous place of captivity. It would be different if our apes, the ones that we see, could scream at us like Caesar and tell us that we won’t threaten or separate their family.
Then that kind of thought brings me to Blackfish and how the mother of a calf taken away to a different theme park didn’t move and just hung still in the water for days. Blackfish tried to explain it as a mother missing her child. That’s definitely possible. Unfortunately, we don’t know. The orca can’t scream at us and tell us that we won’t threaten or separate their family.
Then that kind of thought brings me to other animals we might see in a zoo. Animals like the 18-month old giraffe in Denmark that was deemed to be too genetically alike to other giraffes in captivity. There wasn’t enough room for him and so he was killed and fed to the lions. Later, the same zoo killed four lions because they were getting a new young male lion. Life isn’t like Madagascar or The Lion King and those animals can’t stand up and yell at us that we shouldn’t threaten or separate their family.
But, that all obscures the most frightening thought of them all. We know mammals are social. There are herds of elephants. There are herds of giraffes and many other ungulates. There are pods of dolphins. There are prides of lions. Then we get to the herds of cows, drifts of pigs, clutches of chickens, and rafters of turkeys. Our entire way of life is built on these animals storing energy from plants in their muscles so that we can consume them. If we can assume that the mammals above are connected as they give birth and nurse their young and often times live with them as long as their lives last, can we say that about all mammals? Can we say the same about birds? Birds feed their young as we have all seen images of chicks with their mouths open to the sky waiting for momma bird to stuff food in there. Swans, black vultures, albatrosses, turtle doves, bald eagles, barn owls and brolga cranes all mate for life (found after clicking on just a couple listicles on the Web) and doesn’t that connote a sense of family?
A recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal by Zach Weiner brought the point home best. Ethics = humans. However, as we become more and more advanced and we become more and more wealthy, do we need to adjust that view of ethics? Can we live on this planet with our brother and sister birds and mammals?
I don’t know the answer to that question. Maybe we can ignore it like we are trying to do with global warming and the overfishing of the seas and hope that mother Earth can cope with our destructive tendencies. If we ever come face to face with a talking chimpanzee that yells, “GO” at us, maybe we’ll have to confront the question sooner rather than later. Maybe we can ignore it forever and beat back any damn apes out of our reality and our consciousness. Maybe we can always fall back on the idea that our forefathers wrote in our religious scripture that the bounty of the earth is for the pleasure and success of humans.
Until we reach the critical mass of people wondering about the ethical nature of how we treat our fellow animals, maybe we can ignore it like homelessness and treating mental health issues as we go about our daily lives and get to spend our extra time and money in the wonderful air-conditioned movie theater down the street. Then, all we have to do is marvel at the technology on display and how Andy Serkis can make an ape seem almost human as a fully-fleshed out emotional character, as if that is the ultimate goal of any living creature.
(Follow me on Twitter @JTorreyMcClain)