Friday, February 11, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wild animals deserve respect, not ridicule

Special to The Times

TUCKED in the back corner of Seattle's world-famous Woodland Park Zoo is a remarkable exhibit. Visitors to the "Northern Trail" wander around a ridge, where a pack of endangered gray wolves occupies the high ground, their hot breath puffing from their nostrils in the cold winter air. Walking around the bend, bald eagles are visible in the distance, with mountain goats hugging a rocky wall to the left.

An alcove beckons visitors. Inside, the alcove opens to a large room where the visitors find . . . not animals, but dozens and dozens of schoolkids. The kids have their noses pressed against giant plate-glass windows, screaming excitedly at the brown bears playing in the water only inches away from them.

Seattle parents flock to the Woodland Park Zoo, their families in tow, because they inherently understand that wild animals are best understood in habitats that are natural, and parents feel that the zoo offers animals in a context that is much closer to nature than a circus.

Feld Corporation, the parent company of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, said they see no difference between animals in zoos and animals in circuses. But the difference is clear; it is what has made Woodland Park Zoo among the most respected zoos in the world.

Circuses featuring wild animals have long presented lions, tigers, elephants and bears as ferocious animals, tamed by brave ringmasters. To keep the wild circus animals at bay, they are necessarily kept most of their lives in cramped cages, small enough to fit on a rail transport car or the back of a flatbed truck. They are trained to perform stunts that nature has rarely seen fit to call upon them to perform in the wild.

Few elephants in the wild have ever found it necessary to perch precariously on a small stool. Few tigers have found themselves in the jungle, balanced on a wobbly chair, needing to jump through a flaming ring and onto another wobbly chair. And few bears have found it necessary to put on a vest and fez, and walk on their hind legs for extended periods of time.

Kids delight at the Woodland Park Zoo bears specifically because they intrinsically understand that the bears are just like them; following their natural instincts in a naturalistic environment and having a blast.

Seattle citizens have come to respect the Progressive Animal Welfare Society for our experience directly caring for animals. There are 100,000 Seattle-area families whose lives have been enriched through adoption of a cat, dog or rabbit from our companion animal shelter over the past 30 years.

Our wildlife centers in Lynnwood and McCleary care for more than 6,500 wild animals every year. Our wildlife veterinarians and staff take great pains to make our wild visitors' time at PAWS as stress-free as possible. Unlike our domesticated animal friends in our shelter, the wild animals are kept as far away as possible from the sights, sounds and smells of people.

Making our animal visitors as comfortable as possible is one reason why we have been able to successfully release 25 bears back into the wild over the past few years. Like the Woodland Park Zoo, we are committed to protecting the animals under our care in the most natural setting possible.

That's why circuses featuring performing animal acts are such an anachronism in Seattle. In P.T. Barnum's day, a wild animal at a circus represented proof that humans could control and dominate a fearsome animal. PAWS has long-since shown that our community would rather respect animals, not dominate them.

David Hancocks, former director of the Woodland Park Zoo, supports the notion that animals are deserving of dignity. "When (circuses) portray animals as freaks and curiosities, devoid of context or dignity, circuses are perpetuating outdated attitudes," Hancocks wrote in a recent Seattle Times guest commentary. "Wild animals in the circus are reduced to mere caricatures of their kind, exhibited just for financial gain. In this way, they corrupt our children, promoting the notion that exploitation and degradation is acceptable, even brave or funny."

Like wild animals, we have natural instincts. Our instincts tell us that a bear in a rhinestone vest, furiously cycling around a sawdust circus ring, is not natural. Our instincts tell us that the brown bears of the Woodland Park Zoo are playing, fighting and frolicking in a way that is probably more like the 25 bears that PAWS has released into the wild over the past few years than the muzzled, chained bears of the circus.

And the wild bears from PAWS are living wild and free, the way it should be, naturally.

Will Anderson is director of advocacy for the Progressive Animal Welfare Society. Kathy Kelly is executive director of PAWS.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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