Sunday, 30 March 2008

Thinking about the Zoo

I was recently doing some research on conservation when I came across this site dedicated to informing the public about the Byculla Zoo redevelopment plan -

While I do keep track of issues like these through the newspapers and the Net, I must admit that this site caught me off guard. It offers actual scanned copies of the CZA's (Central Zoo Authority's) initial report and its criticisms of the master plan to redevelop Mumbai's only Zoo, previously not seen among the popular media.

The newspapers and T.V channels, by contrast, seem to have not given us the whole picture, and instead have focused on merely reporting actions and reactions from different parties involved rather than conducting an analysis of the gaps inherent in the master plan, leading most of us to believe that every thing's alright with the plan itself.

While I understand many of the concerns about the New Zoo - I can't help but wonder about the logic behind creating a zoo in the first place. This brings up a few interesting questions, which I'd like to tackle through an imaginary friend -

Me - Why do we need to have a zoo in a city that contains a large national park?

My friend - Because the zoo, unlike the SGNP, will have assorted wildlife representing all the diversity of India.

Me - Right, so the Zoo has rhinos, etc. that you wouldn't find in the SGNP, but does that justify building a zoo in the first place?

My friend - Yes, because we can't expect everyone to travel all the way to Corbett or Kaziranga or other such supposedly beautiful national parks where they may or may not get a chance to glimpse a rhino, Marmoset, etc. In short, it's troublesome and expensive. We'd rather bring the wildlife to us than go to the wildlife.

Me - Right, but all you've done is prove to me that it's easier to visit a zoo than a park. The fact that this is a easier option does not in itself justify creating a park in the first place. Don't tell me that the reason you want to create a zoo is because it's easy to visit one. That's not really a reason. That's just an argument for argument's sake.

My friend - Well, we have to have a zoo because zoo's have birds and animals, things of beauty,and things of beauty are a joy forever. We need these things close by for the sake of our children, for education, so they can be made aware of conservation issues. You've said yourself that real conservation begins young.

Me - True, but at what cost, would you imprison an animal just to educate a child, or entertain the public. Surely, that's a mockery of education. Aren't there other ways to do this. Zoos used to exist because the public had no means by which they could marvel at wildlife, other than books or actual travel. Now we have T.V, the Internet, we can watch birds and animals at our leisure. We can travel without leaving our living rooms. And use these very resources to educate and entertain people. Doesn't that render the zoo obsolete?

My friend - No, because nothing compares to seeing one of these creatures in the flesh. You've been to the Dubai zoo. Would you position that experience at an equal level alongside an hour of Animal planet?

Me - Maybe, it depends, I'm not sure. But you're still justifying imprisonment for the sake of personal pleasure.

My friend - And what's wrong with that. A lot of the things we do for personal pleasure necessitate undesirable actions. Think of the ice cream you so love. Think of the ingredients. Milk? Think of the process to acquire it. Don't cows suffer, forced to live in squalid, cramped conditions? You're a non-vegetarian. Don't you advocate animal slaughter? So how can you now change track and be concerned about animal welfare. Or is it just 'exotic' animals that you're concerned about?

Me - You're going off topic. That's a different issue. I do admit that a lot of people out there seem like they're wearing blinders. They seem to want to protect only rare wildlife, yet don't care about strays, or even poor people for that matter. For my part, I believe that killing animals for food is O.K, as long as it's done humanely. And so I don't see any contradiction in being a non-vegetarian and fighting for animal rights at the same time. But what I'm talking about here is both similar and different. We need to make sure no animal suffers unduly for our sake. Food is a different issue. I'm O.K with killing domesticated animals for food. But we can't use that same logic to kill whales and tigers for meat. Why, because there are so few of them. Maybe if we brought the tiger population up to 1,00,000 we could then go about hunting tigers for their meat? That's an interesting point but I don't want to get into that now.

My friend - So what you're saying is you are O.K with killing animals as long as there are many of them and its done humanely. You're also saying that we need to be concerned about animal welfare in general, whether in a zoo or a farm.

Me - Exactly, the only difference, in my opinion, is that zoos are unnatural because we can get by without them, whereas we need farms, and farms being a case where animals are kept captive, we need to make sure their stay is as comfortable as possible.

My friend - I agree with you there, but I'm not clear about the line that you've drawn between domesticated and wild animals. You seem to have drawn an imaginary line between the two , thereby concluding that one group is fit for captivity and the other belongs in the wild only. I know that looking at history, we can see that some animals have become fit for domestication and companionship. But just because we've managed to domesticate some animals because of their nature, does not mean that the rest have to be restricted to the jungles, even if they are dangerous. We can always exhibit them at zoos, making sure they're comfortable, and their level of discomfiture wouldn't really be that much different from any domesticated animals, would it?

Me - I'm not so sure you can compare the two groups. Domesticated animals seem to be fit for captivity. They seem to enjoy it , or have adapted to enjoy it. Zoo creatures, on the other hand, seem listless and sad, confined and trapped.

My friend - Is that really your expert opinion, or a guess?

Me - More of a guess based on observation. Assuming I'm right, that zoo creatures do suffer unnaturally, then that would negate your argument about exhibiting creatures for personal pleasure, with the caveat that this suffering is really unnatural.

My friend - We can imprison animals in enclosures that simulate their natural settings, removing their feeling of imprisonment...

Me - But would that be enough? I feel we need more research here. My questions are these -

1. Do wild animals differ from domesticated animals in that they suffer to a degree that we can't ignore when they're placed in zoos?
2. Do their offspring suffer as much?
3. If yes, then is the existence of zoos suspect if all they do is exhibit creatures without using them for conservation purposes like breeding, etc.

And here's where we end our discussion, with doubt...

I'm still searching for answers.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Movie Reviews - Wings of Desire, Yojimbo

Wings of Desire (1987)

This is a German-English language movie by Wim Wenders. Mostly German actually. The story takes place in West Berlin before the wall fell. Our main characters are angels who roam the city watching over the folks who live there. The movie ends with one of the angels becoming human after falling in love.

The bulk of the movie is taken up by the angels wandering the city listening to people's thoughts. These thoughts are mostly lengthy monologues that are almost poetry in themselves.

Now, they did make a Hollywood remake of this movie with Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan. But there's absolutely no comparison. The German movie fits the description of an epic. Besides, it had no script, a majority of the dialogue being a series of monologues that are not spoken but only heard by the main characters. In fact, this movie has got to contain the shortest amount of spoken dialogue by main characters with so much screen time. The Hollywood version (City of Angels) is more of a romantic movie while the German one focuses on life and its meaning. Also interesting is the way the angels see in black and white while everyone else sees in colour.

This movie has to be watched for the following reasons - excellent monologues, good acting, a guest appearance by Peter Falk (as himself and not Columbo), excellent visuals and music.

Yojimbo (1961)

A Kurosawa movie that seems to be quite similar in look and feel to a Hollywood western. The story is a bout a wandering Samurai who encounters a village divided against itself, with a lot of fighting and death going on. He decides to exploit the situation by hiring himself out as a bodyguard to the highest buyer. This does not go completely according to plan however and survival son becomes a priority. Interesting watch, though not much of a moral, unlike Kurosawa's other films.

Movie Reviews - High and Low, Ikiru

High and Low

A Kurosawa movie about a kidnapping. One of his modern non period movies.

The kidnapper gets the wrong boy. Takes the chauffeur's son instead of the rich man's. Rich dad has to decide whether he should pay for the release of his chauffeur's son.

The second half of the movie is made up of mostly a police investigation tracking down the kidnapper and seems to be more suspense filled compared to the first half that deals with family emotional turmoil. Not Kurosawa's best movie but still interesting enough.


Another Kurosawa flick. An aging bureaucrat finds out he's dying and comes to term with his death.
A few scenes in this movie make it better than Kurosawa's other flicks. The scene towards the start where a group of women are shunted between different departments passing the buck is classic, hilarious and really portrays the worthlessness of bureaucracies.

Another good scene is in the hospital also towards the start where the main character upon listening to another patient talk about cancer and death, realises he has the same symptoms and may in fact be dying.

This movie nears a resemblance to Kurosawa's High and Low in that it also consists of two halves. The first half in this movie is spent by the main character coming to terms with death, first by trying to live the life he hadn't all these boring years and the when understanding the secret to life, resolves to spend his last 6 months on earth doing one last thing that would make him proud of himself.

The second half is more of a series of flashbacks by the main character's colleagues and relatives, as they, at his remembrance service, try to understand why he spent the last 6 months of his life living so differently (none of them knew he was dying).

The closing scene of the movie is also memorable . A man sitting on a swing in the snow, spending his last few seconds singing with a sense of accomplishment and happiness.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Movie Reviews - La Strada, Dust to Dust

La Strada (The Road) (1954)

The story of a travelling entertainer and his young innocent apprentice. Compelling watching. The first Frederico Fellini movie I've seen.

Read about it here:

Por la Libre (Dust to Dust) (2000)

The classic story of two people who hate each other and are forced to team up to get a job done and end up being best friends by the end of the movie. I've seen a few Hollywood cop flicks based on this premise.

Anyway, we have a slightly dysfunctional family in a Mexican city. A grandfather, his three kids and two grandsons - both cousins. The two cousins love their grandfather but hate each other. One is a modern sophisticated guy; the other seems to be a kind of anti-social loner who enjoys breaking traditions.

When their grandfather dies, they are the only two people in the family who want to respect his last wishes to throw his ashes to the Acapulco sea ASAP, even though the rest of the family don't show much interest. So they embark on a road trip. Along the way their enmity only seems to grow. They reach Acapulco (this town reminds me of Goa).

Once in the city, they meet certain 'acquaintances' of their late grandfather's, and that's where the story changes. The boys are forced to confront a hidden side of their grandfather's.

While the acting isn't perfect, I loved the way the movie portrayed the nature of relationships and how they can gradually change.