57. Footloose in Thrall (10/2012)

by brettthevet

Captivity has become a natural predicament for our domestic animals. They have devolved through their association with man to become completely reliant for all their needs. We gain insights into their optimum physical and mental health because we know how wild animals thrive. Our own basic needs are virtually the same as those of all non-human animals. We understand that access to food, water, and a comfortable place to sleep are essential. Ample space for movement and to engage in normal behaviour are also highly desirable in order to preserve their dignity, but we often choose to ignore this aspect of their wellbeing.

The paradox of freedom for the domestic animal must be achieved by incarceration. If animals were to be released from our prisons, life would be very difficult. Of course there are exceptions where certain populations of feral cats, wild horses, mutinous pigs, or stray dogs prevail because they can survive without relying directly on humans. Remaining in captivity can be bliss for some, but excruciating for others.

Jock had been permanently tethered by a rusty chain since he was very young. He was kept out of sight behind the house, away from human interaction ‘to make him aggressive’. Over the years the tight fitting collar fabricated from nylon rope had made rough scars where it had cut into his soft neck skin. His diet of meagre scraps had left him undernourished, revealing the bones of his back, ribs, and hips. His mangy skin was covered in sores where he had scratched himself raw. The vacant look in his eyes indicated that he’d given up hope of expecting any attention. He cowered whenever anyone approached him. A bed of old cardboard supplied little warmth in winter, and a scrap of corrugated iron shelter cast shade in summer, but also intensified the ambient heat. One day a link in the chain broke and Jock broke free. He ran from the yard and continued along a dirt road faster, and faster. By the time a car pulled up beside him he was completely exhausted, and collapsed in the dust. A stranger picked him up and started caring for him. Only then could he experience the innate relationship of his longing.

Freedom is always relative but it’s something that every living creature seeks in some way. The urge to flee and explore the unknown is satiated when love conquers fear. A sense of belonging beckons: estrangement repels.

Animals, like most humans, remain strangely spellbound by their circumstances finding it almost impossible to escape the status quo. The certainty of daily routines gives comfort within that predictability. An outward form of imposed captivity reduces one’s options and is usually readily accepted, often providing contentment, while the possibilities of apparent liberty are relinquished. The unknown is then avoided lest it is worse than pain currently endured, or pleasure relished.

Sometimes, against all odds, individuals break free. There are countless stories of the one that got away: a bullock baling out of the slaughterhouse bound truck on, a bird finding the flight gap, fish slipping the excruciating hook… the one that got away, even if only for a temporary respite. These individuals have occasionally become national heroes and attained special status because of their apparent defiance of their imposed sentence. Such stories appeal to our sense of autonomy triumphing over servitude, and we are compelled to offer compassionate recourse.

For the masses of animals that remain trapped within their illusions of freedom, we appease ourselves with the delusion that they are somehow deserving of their lot.