by John Carpenter
The first thing I couldn’t understand about this world was birds. More precisely, why it’s in our nature to cage them.
At five years old, I went to a zoo for owls with my primary school. I don’t remember the name of the zoo, or where it was, I hardly remember my teacher’s name or appearance. However, I distinctly remember seeing Barn and Snowy owls in small enclosures. They were beautiful and the curvature on their face, mesmeric. We even got to pet them, which for a five-year-old, is a VERY big deal. Unlike many things from early childhood, the image has stayed in my mind to this day. Had they not been caged, I’d have never seen owls so up close in person. I wouldn’t have one of my earliest memories. Yet, is a moment of beauty in my memory worth a lifetime of confinement that those birds endure? That is a question that never went through my mind as a child, I was just happy to look at the pretty birds.
Now, fifteen years later, I remember the birds, not for their beauty but for what they represent to me: figures of human oppression. They represent our need to possess pretty things. Birds are like biological blood diamonds where the cruelty of our actions stares back at us, people are just blinded by the beauty of them to see the grotesque actuality of what the caged bird represents. To be a bird is to have the freedom to fly. To prevent a bird from flying is as cruel as forcing a child to spend their life confined to a wheelchair despite having the ability to walk and run.
An Artic Tern has an average lifespan of twenty-five years. In those twenty-five years, it can travel up to one million kilometres. That’s the equivalent to the moon and back (and back again). In their migration, they travel from Artic to Antarctic and are the only animal on earth to see both poles in their lifetime. It is the furthest migration of any animal on earth. If they were caged, they’d travel zero kilometres. At least 4,000, or about half of all discovered species of bird migrate. For reasons not entirely known to science, they are compelled to fly every year. For caged birds, they must have this urge too but can do nothing about it. This would be a torture that we as humans, would know little about, perhaps this urge turns them crazy, that is if the prevention of their natural movement hasn’t already done so. This innate purpose for existence, taken away from them, all in the name of having a pretty thing to look at and admire.
Impromptu bird scenario: Jane has a parrot. “Percy” is his name. Jane named him “Percy” for alliteration. A clever literary device. Well done Jane. Jane has even trained him to say a couple of phrases to impress guests. Percy is adored by all and guests lose it every time he says, “fuck off” to them. Of course, Percy can’t really speak. Percy is merely reproducing sounds he’s heard from his environment. If Percy could speak, however, he’d probably still tell them to fuck off for making him live a false life in a four by four-foot isolated cage or a harrowingly miniature mad house. But what does Percy know? He’s just some dumb bird. Albeit a pretty bird.
Maybe us humans just like playing God. Maybe, by keeping something all to ourselves and having it depend on you for food and thus life, we’re granted a position of carer, who without, that something (be it bird, lizard, cat or dog) would perish. This makes it ok, better even, noble of us to carry out this role when in fact the role is often more closely related to that of prisoner and prison guard. As we become the provider for a helpless being and are in turn rewarded with a friendship, a bond. Even if that being is incapable of recognising this bond as anything other than something it’s known as normal for its entire life. If they wag their tale, purr at us, or in Percy’s case, tell us to fuck off, surely it means they’re happy? Perhaps all our pets are lifelong sufferers of Stockholm Syndrome.
I’ve only ever had one pet of my own, Charlie, an aptly named King Charles. Charlie was, in my eyes, exactly like me: lazy, ginger, grumpy, and above all, utterly shameless about farting in the family living room. Looking back on it, I think it’s fair to say he had a good life. I can also see how it can be easy for bird owners to say the same thing and am aware of how my argument may be considered hypocritical. Maybe I am, maybe I’m wrong to dismiss bird owners as animal rights abusers having kept a pet dog of my own. Then again, I remind myself that Charlie did not live in a cage, at least a physical one. For he wasn’t entirely free. If he ever tried running away we’d go bring him back straight away, out of love, of course. His life may not have been how nature intended, but he had space to move about, albeit within a small bungalow and average sized back garden, the only exception being his nightly walk where he got to go around the racecourse grounds near my house which he waited for with great anticipation every day, the mere sight of the walking leash would send him into hysterics.
Another question: do wolfs live better lives than dogs? From a human standpoint on a good life, yes. From an otherwise animalistic standpoint it’s hard to tell. Maybe we’ve made dogs more human than dog. The concept of “dog” we know is one due to human intervention, before we started domesticating them as pets thousands of years ago, the “dog” did not exist. As we gave rise to the “dog”, so aren’t dogs just an extension of ourselves?
Human beings are strange things. Why do we need to keep pets at all? Why do I find myself wanting another dog? Is it the loyalty and certainty they provide? Is it the reassurance that when you get home after a bad day in college or at work, your pet will always be there to welcome you at home, cute and cuddly as ever? I don’t know. Human nature is a mystery, a mystery I don’t foresee me unravelling anytime soon.