Friday, August 21, 2009

Sexism & how we see animals (by Suzie)

Two female zookeepers had just finished tossing chunks of meat to three young lions as a man and woman watched. The man asked the zookeepers if the lions were treated differently than they would be in the wild. One responded incredulously, “People don’t throw meatballs at them in the wild.”

Man: “The male is clearly the dominant one.”
Keeper: “Actually, Iris appears to be.”
Man: “Yeah, but when that bird landed, the male showed a real mean streak.”
Keeper: “Actually, he’s very sweet, and we think he’s afraid of the birds.”
Man: “Well, God sure made males ugly. So, he had to give us something!”

“Weird ideas about gender?” I wanted to blurt out. Men calling males ugly strikes me as some attempt to prove their heterosexuality. It would be wrong to say that even a male of another species might be attractive.

These aren’t exact quotes, but they capture the gist of the conversation, which occurred at Busch Gardens in Tampa. It reminded me of a 2007 St. Petersburg Times series on Lowry Park Zoo, which, in turn, was reminiscent of Donna Haraway’s “Teddy Bear Patriarchy,” but not in a good way.

I could better understand a reporter turning in a quick story with sexist anthropomorphism, but Pulitzer-Prize-winner Thomas French worked on the nine-part series for four years. I realize that he was quoting others at times, but he chose how to frame the story, what to quote, who to quote, and whether to give them authority.

He discusses a female tiger and a male chimp, both of whom are dominant and won't mate with others of their species. But the tiger is called a diva. Enshalla doesn't rest or sleep; she "lounges." She doesn't clean herself; she "preens." She flies into "rages" against zookeepers. (How odd for a solitary, territorial carnivore.) She "toys" with males who try to "possess" her.
Her keepers understand the necessity of adding to the world's dwindling supply of Sumatran tigers. Still, they can't help admiring her invincibility. One keeper, a modern woman with modern ideas, takes great satisfaction in Enshalla's refusal to automatically concede to the male imperative. It makes this keeper happy that many of the female animals she works with are dominant.

"All our girls are like that here,” she says, smiling proudly.

As pleasing as Enshalla's independence may be, it poses another threat to her future. Feminism is a human invention, just like morality and ethics ...
French never explains why her own future would be in danger -- unless her inability to bear cute cubs made the zoo less interested in her. He doesn't examine whether the zoo's treatment of Enshalla, including its choice of males, affects her desire to mate. Instead, she is "coquettish," a "bitchy woman who doesn't know what she wants" or one who wants the new male tiger, Eric, to be "forceful" with her.
Finally Eric has had enough. He growls, clamps his jaws onto her neck and holds her down as he mounts her.
Afterward, Enshalla is described as so happy that she "luxuriates" at his feet. At least one Web site on tigers says the male grabs the neck of the female, not to hold her down, but to maintain the best position for mating. Enshalla may have rejected Eric initially for any number of reasons, not because she was a tease who wanted to be forced.

Some rapists think this way: It's natural for a man to take a woman by force, especially if she's flirtatious. She wants it, no matter what she says.

French muses about freedom and captivity, but never in regard to female sexuality. Females must submit for the good of all. Ellie the elephant gets put in a tight cage so that she can't resist artificial insemination. French acknowledges that this, and the subsequent birth, could be traumatic. A veterinarian adds what French did not ask; the vet says pregnancy will reduce Ellie's chance of getting cancer. But we aren’t told whether cancer is a greater risk than giving birth.

In comparison, French blames humans for the chimp's lack of interest in mating with other chimps. He doesn't say Herman is dooming himself or his species, and we have no idea if female chimps are frustrated that he won't submit to a "female imperative." Like Enshalla, Herman doesn't like male zookeepers, but French passes no judgment on him.

Herman wants female zookeepers to expose their breasts. Some refuse, but others -- ones that French identifies by name, quotes and seems to like -- think it's fine to do this to please the "gentle soul" since he has "no control over his impulses." A curator whom French greatly respects "does not make a big deal of Herman's quirks." French adds:
How many human females express similar sentiments about their husbands? Just let him have what he wants, and everyone can continue with their day.
Did female keepers feel any pressure to expose themselves, knowing their boss thought it was OK?

French describes a personality battle among the zookeepers, quoting men vs. women. The women who love animals as individuals see something of the animal in themselves, he writes. Meanwhile, the men "revel in the otherness of their creatures," ones who are dominant, skillful and efficient. Isn't it possible that the man who gets a tattoo of such a creature wants to see those qualities in himself?

At the end, French describes the killing of Enshalla, who walked out of a door that had been left unlatched. A vet shoots her with a tranquilizer. When she lunges for him, CEO Lex Salisbury fells her with a shotgun. Because she's still moving, he shoots her three more times.

Throughout the series, French describes Salisbury as the alpha male who dominates the people and animals at the zoo. He writes as if this is the natural order of things, as if male dominance is natural across all species. He never asks if a different management style, one that was more collaborative, might work better. But there was a happy ending of sorts. Salisbury resigned last year, amid an investigation.
P.S. I enjoyed watching the black-and-white ruffed lemurs this week at Busch Gardens. In addition to looking like cat-monkeys, most are female dominant.