Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Each day, we see and hear more reports of human suffering and loss emerging from Ukraine. The stories trouble our sleep, and the images turn our stomachs. It can be just as difficult to turn away as it is to bear witness. Alongside the millions of people plunged into a season of death and displacement, are animals. Wildlife killed and habitats destroyed by constant bombardment. Companion animals abandoned by those who have no other choice while fleeing for their lives.
In Kyiv, a zoo. A recent report in The Washington Post documents terrified animals traumatized by explosions and facing potential illness or starvation as food, medical resources, and staff dwindle. Why should we care? In the midst of so much human suffering, what difference does it make if animals suffer? John Kinder is Associate Professor of History at Oklahoma State University, where he's finishing a book on zoos during the Second World War.
John Kinder: The main thing to think about is that whenever you have urban warfare, zoos are going to be affected. Most zoos exist in urban settings in the middle of cities, often in Europe, especially. When you have war come to the city, zoos are going to be hurt. I think the big thing for many listeners to recognize is that zoos operate on a knife's edge budget. Even in normal times, if you go to the zoo, many depend upon food donations, many depend upon volunteer workers, many depend upon cheap sources of energy just to stay open. If you take any of those away, animals start dying.
It doesn't take long. That's what happens during wartime. All of these things are the dangers from starvation, cold weather, loss of personnel, on top of the exploding shells. The danger just increases exponentially, and that's what we're seeing right now. That has been the dominant pattern or the dominant history of zoos in the 20th century during wartime.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Zoos are going to have trouble. Bad things are going to happen in a war to a zoo. Of all the things, and all of the living things, and all of the even inanimate things, the buildings, the communities, the roads, of all the things that bad things are going to happen to, why in the world should I care if bad things happen to a zoo?
John Kinder: I think this really goes back to what zoos are and what zoos mean. For many people, zoos are the first place that they really have a sense of wild animals. It's the first place they come into contact with them. Zoos also benefit from the fact that they have charismatic animals. We're talking about lions, and tigers, and elephants. The sort of animals that you make cartoons about, and that people connect to, whether emotionally, or simply because zoo animals, as much as anything else, are viewed as innocent. Zoo animals did not ask to be there.
At one point, they or their ancestors were taken from their home, placed on display for our enjoyment, for our pleasure. If we're looking at zoos during wartime, and we're asking why they matter, they matter because we put them there. We insisted that zoo animals be there in the first place, so I think at some level, caring about them now is simply taking responsibility for actions taken in the past.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We know historically, we've got this broad sense of why it would matter. What is happening in this moment in Kyiv?
John Kinder: According to reports, they are already running low on fresh food. We have to remember that if you take something like a pigmy hippo, it's going to require 90 pounds of fodder per day. You have these animals that they need green salad, they need green food, so, they're going to be running out there. A number of the animals are already being evacuated. We've seen stories about animals being evacuated to sanctuaries in Poland, for example, and that's a great thing. The only problem, of course, is that evacuations are selective.
Not every animal goes and that's because zoos at their heart, and we don't really like to think about this, but there really is a hierarchy of which animals matter. Which are the animals that are going to bring people in? Which are the animals that are facing extinction? Which are the animals that, if push comes to shove, deserve more of our time, money, and sympathy? That's what's happening in Ukraine as well. Of course, the other issue is that it is incredibly difficult to travel with animals, from car accidents to cold, to disease, to shock and fear.
In my hometown of Tulsa, we had a giraffe that died in 2009 after suffering a broken neck in transit. Just because these animals are being evacuated, and that's terrific, we have to think about that this is not something that will save the entire zoo. In terms of what's happening at the zoo in terms of the animals, again, the reports show animals that are being-- Some are being killed by exploding shells, and by shell fragments. This is especially in Kharkiv. We're going to have animals that are going to suffer because of the cold weather.
They're already struggling, I know in Kyiv, with a loss of personnel.
Zoos are living institutions, they require people. They require people to get the food to the animals, and so forth. If you take away any of that, animals are going to start dying. They're going to start getting sick, and they're going to start experiencing the traumas and the stress that go along with the actual war itself.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are there clear guidelines from whatever national or international Federation of Zoos or zoological guidelines about how you make ethical choices regarding release or putting animals down when they're-- In other words, do we let a zoo animal starve to death, or if there is every expectation that there will be insufficient food, do you enter into a premature death that might be less painful?
John Kinder: At the very beginning of World War II, the London Zoological Society preemptively killed all of its poisonous snakes and arachnids, spiders. Then it went on to kill a number of other animals. This became a real debate that would carry on in the zoo world throughout not only the war but throughout the 20th century. Do you go ahead and preemptively destroy animals that might pose a threat? Some zoos did. Some zoos decided to kill off all of their lions and tigers, for example, but of course, the people who worked at zoos recognized that these animals did not pose any real danger to humans.
The idea that poisonous snakes are somehow going to escape the London Zoo and endanger the people of Great Britain, that's nonsense. They knew that, but they felt like they had to do that because zoos are ultimately about people. They're about what we want, and no zoo animal, at least according to many outsiders, no zoo animal is worth the life of a human. It is better to go ahead and euthanize them at the very beginning so you would have, that's with the London Zoo. Other zoos, for example, in the Netherlands, they were forced to kill all of their animals at the very beginning of the German invasion.
Then you have other animals being killed to feed others, so you have "less significant animals" being killed to feed the more charismatic ones. This develops over time, and the one thing we can say is that ultimately, it shows that there is a real hierarchy about which animals matter. According to zoos, humans matter most.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How should we understand this question of resource allocation in a moment like this, where the people of Ukraine are having difficulty themselves getting across borders to safety?
John Kinder: In some ways, we're asking the wrong question. It's not a question of why should we allocate resources to help zoos or zoo animals and not humans? It's more a question of why shouldn't we allocate resources for them both? Why do we think it has to be one versus the other, humans versus non-humans? I know that might sound kind of pie-in-the-sky, but I can't help but wonder we have the resources to establish these zoos in the first place. We have the resources to take animals, move them all around the world. We have resources for all sorts of other things.
I worry that in times of war, in times of crisis, we adopt a mentality that essentially says that certain groups, certain life is more important than others. I just think that's the wrong road to go down.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I promised we would come back around to this question of pets and of wildlife. Again, for me, just because of my own personal experience, the framework I'm sometimes using here is, in fact, the experience of Hurricane Katrina. I can remember this sense of, in media and in social media, like, again as you're pointing out, this notion of animals versus people, and sometimes not acknowledging that part of what was happening was that evacuation was not acknowledging that people and animals were connected in ways that were impacting human life.
Your point about zoo workers staying, risking their lives to try to protect, and feed, and maintain the zoo despite the war, and I'm thinking of people who did not evacuate, did not leave in part because they were unwilling to leave their family pets who were profoundly meaningful to them as companion animals, and as what felt to them like parts of their social network. As you're making this point about how do we do both, I guess talk to me a bit about, even in planning, zoo planning, or even in planning for human evacuation, how should we be thinking about, or what are some ways for us to plan that account for the fact that we live in connected relationships with animals, both domestic and zoo?
John Kinder: I think this is touching on so many larger questions, including, how do zoos, or how do all of us, how do we plan for a world that is getting so much more dangerous and so much more environmentally deadly? I know there's something that happens when, in moments of crisis, where we think, "Now is not the time to think of the bigger issue," but the bigger issue is that there will be more and more people who become refugees, climate refugees, war refugees in the future. Those people are not going to suddenly dissolve their decades-long relationship with the animals in their life.
I think the first step is to just take those relationships seriously, and take those relationships as seriously as we would take relationships with other members of the family. If we don't start with that, we're not going to get anywhere. As for zoos, zoos are preparing, right now, for a world of a changing climate. They're preparing for how to survive. A number of zoos have been hit by floods, wildfires, and so they recognize that these are real dangers. I think for us, it's, unfortunately, a lot of us don't even recognize or will admit that these dangers exist. How do we plan for them if many of us don't even acknowledge them?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Should zoos exist?
John Kinder: I guess my short answer is no, or at least not in their current form. The zoo that many of us know, it's a remnant of a Victorian era. It's a place where humans do the looking, animals are looked at. We are in control, and nature is ordered, and caged, and displayed, but, of course, that is exactly the mentality that's led us to our current climate crisis. That sense that we can control, order, display nature, do whatever we want with nature as we see fit. I think at that level, zoos are fundamentally flawed. That said, as I said I've spent a lot of time at zoos.
Zoo work is hard. You don't work at a zoo if you're trying to get rich. Ukrainian zoo workers, right now, I'm sure are putting their lives at risk to save the animals of their care. Even if the zoo, in its current form, isn't a solution to the problems of animal welfare and animal extinction, I think something like a zoo, something that would allow us to forge those emotional connections, is necessary for us, as humans, to address our looming crisis with the world. I just don't think that that necessarily involves putting elephants behind a concrete moat in a little field or a little patch of dirt and having them spend 25 years there.
Melissa Harris-Perry: John Kinder is Associate Professor of History at Oklahoma State University. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
John Kinder: Thank you so much for having me.
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