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On the Road with RoxAnna - 6

Are animals happy?

RoxAnna Breitigan July 23, 2018

As the time passes in the desert, many topics come and go. The concept of animals being happy has been one of the many that have been discussed here. The definition according to Websters dictionary for happiness is, "a state of well-being or contentment or a pleasurable, satisfying experience." Do animals experience happiness? Do all animals experience happiness? Do all animals experience the same levels of happiness? If they do experience happiness, how often are they happy? Does it matter where animals live whether they are happy or not? How do humans affect that happiness? All legitimate questions that have been asked. There is no easy answer and some people would probably discuss this matter passionately. Here we have taken a more laid back approach but have still asked the questions.

Are the animals that roam free in the wild more or less happy than animals in human care? I realize many people would have firm convictions of that answer but since we cannot be inside the mind of the animals truly we do not know. Is it better to know where your next meal is coming from or to wonder where the next green patch of grass may be? Is it better to have fresh water filled each day near your home or need to wander for miles only to find the waterhole dry? Is it better to have shade provided for you to gain sanctuary from the sun or walk for miles to find one small tree you can find some temporary comfort in? Is it better to learn a routine and not fear that your next meal will not be provided for you or constantly be on the lookout for your next source of sustenance? Is it better to have protection surrounding you to keep you from the hunger of predators or constantly be on the alert as a prey animal? Is it better to gain potential diseases, injuries or parasites or have quality health care provided to you in case of illness? Arguments and support could be made for both.

We talk about providing animals in human care the best well-being we can and I do believe that is our responsibility. These animals have their lives committed to be animal ambassadors for their species, that is their role. Our role in human care is to provide them freedoms of opportunity, we will not always succeed in providing them the most close to the wild experience. But after watching the animals in the wild, I am not sure some of the animals in our care would want that life. We can, however, provide choices, opportunities to make some of their own decisions and a high quality of care. Maybe each animal can have its own level of happiness no matter where they are. Can it just be that simple?

This project has taught me that putting all the animals back into the wild is not the answer. Believe me, if I thought we could I would be one of the first to sign up to make it happen. But animals in the wild are faced with an increasing number of threats, threats caused by humans primarily. Just putting one species back into the wild has been a long, difficult undertaking and will always have its challenges. We cannot think that setting them all free is the answer so we do what we can, for the ones in our care and the ones in the wild. To make them both as happy as we are able. In the wild, we preserve habitats, we organize land cleanups, we stop using plastic, we recycle, we do what we can. In human care, we provide a good home, meals, water, enrichment, vet care, we do what we can. As long as we are consistently striving to exceed expectations for both, isn’t that what really matters? If we can do our best, if we can be awesome for animals, will they not ultimately be as happy as they can be, no matter what side you look at it from? I often think we concentrate too much on our differences instead of what we have in common. If there are two camps on this subject of animal’s happiness, maybe the commonality really can be that simple. Instead of debating the subject, we just support each other in our efforts knowing our intent is a positive one. We do our best to help them be happy no matter where they are.

When thinking about this subject of animal’s happiness, it is hard not to think about our own happiness. I think it is funny that people expect animals to be happy all the time, when we do not even expect that of humans. We are not happy 100% of our days and people who you would never think could be happy, find happiness, so how can we expect that of animals, no matter where they live. Is happiness something we can only outwardly see or can the emotion be felt deep within? I know my dogs are happy when I come home and nobody can tell me differently. Their wags and bounces tell me they missed me, love me and are happy I am home. The orangutan I’ve known for over 20 years that I visit once a year who gingerly comes over to look into my eyes and touch my hand through the glass, is she happy to see me? I know she recognizes me and I think she is happy to see me but by our standards it is not entirely clear. So, who is to say, if animals can be happy or not? I think they can be content and we can do whatever we can to be awesome for them so that if they can be happy we are contributing to that happiness, no matter where they may live.

We all have the power to do something to help with that happiness. For some it will be living in the middle of the desert for years, months or days to reintroduce a species to its homeland, for others it will be saying no to the use of straws for a month or longer, for some it will be donating funds to support conservation projects so the good work can continue As the end of National Zookeepers week winds down, I am thinking about the work the animal care team does on a daily basis to provide that happiness for the animals at The Living Desert. I also think about all the other teams that lend support to the animal care team so that we can provide that happiness. We all have a role in the happiness of the animals, we must take responsibility whatever our role and do what we can, no matter where we are or where they are. Their happiness and ours depends on it.

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