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Clara and the Ethics of a Human-Dominated Planet

As a conservationist focusing on preserving global biodiversity, I have for a long time weighed the question of right human relationship with other species. Jean-Baptiste Oudry's portrait of Clara the rhino provokes thoughts and questions in some surprising ways.

A Complex Consciousness
There is an old Zen Buddhist koan, or puzzle for contemplation, that asks: Does a dog have "Buddha nature"? The classic response in Chinese is "MU!" which can be taken as "No!" or "Not!" The latter translation is, perhaps, a rejection of the legitimacy of the question itself.

Looking at Clara, it seems clear that she is a unique and sentient being. As we consider the still-emerging details of her story—see for example Michael Dee's analysis—it is also clear that she has a truly unique history. The fact that we can entertain different "readings" of the look in her painted eye, as Peter Singer suggested, suggests the complexity of her consciousness.

An Emissary for Wildness?
There is, of course, also a question about the fairness of Clara's treatment. Why was she carted around a continent so far from her home? Was this humane? Some argue that the only fair treatment of animals is to leave them alone in settings that are as natural and close to wild as possible.

(The California poet William Everson once asked: "And when the last coyote's tagged...?" In his novel The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy eloquently and sadly tells a story of a she-wolf and a Texas boy seeking a return to wilderness. And yet, coyotes, shape-shifters that they are, are turning up in Hollywood and even in New York's Central Park!)

We must face the reality that humans have already transformed the entire planet. In 1994, one estimate suggested that there were then 9 billion, 350 million chickens on the planet—more chickens than people—and that, taken together, humans plus our domestic and commensal plant and animal partners (cats, dogs, cattle, rice, wheat, corn, etc.) already dominated the earth. Recent acceptance of the reality of global warming merely confirms the fact of our human dominance over the planet.

I believe that the best course is to accept conscious responsibility for stewardship of all life, as opposed to continuing our unconscious and destructive impacts on other species. This poses a more complicated ethical problem than simply arguing for islands of wilderness. It raises the question of what sustainable relationships with all animals and plants might look like.

This brings us back to Clara and those who followed her in captivity. Is there a possible role for captive individuals, and the images of captive individuals, as essential emissaries for wildness? Can Oudry's portrait of Clara provoke us into new wisdom?

Using Animals for Our Own Ends
And what about zoos? Many zoos have been sensitive to criticisms from animal rights groups and wilderness advocates and have attempted to transform themselves. The Bronx Zoo is now part of the Wildlife Conservation Society, and many zoos are directly involved with conservation and captive breeding programs, which seek to preserve populations at viable levels and to maintain genetic diversity among species and within species.

(In the early 1980s, many conservationists argued that we should let the last California condors die in the wild—"forever wild." Because of captive breeding, we now have condors in the wild, although we do not yet know if they can establish truly viable breeding populations.)

What about using animals as means to human ends, whether displaying them in zoos and aquaria or killing and eating them for food? Is continued harvesting of wild populations sustainable? Is domestic captivity and killing for food cruel? Many of us continue to eat meat and to tolerate, at least implicitly, the cruelty and violence of a factory farm system that is qualitatively not much different than William Hogarth's four stages of cruelty, which Peter Singer discussed in his lecture at the Getty Center on May 24.

Oudry's portrait of Clara raises, for me, all these questions. She offers us much food for thought.



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