BOOKS: Circus of the Wolves & Tano & Binti

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1994:

Circus of the Wolves, by Jack
Bushnell, illustrated by Robert
Andrew Parker. William Morrow &
Co. Inc. (1350 Ave. of the Americas,
New York, NY 10019), 1994. 34 pages,
with 16 full-page illustrations. $15.00.
Tano & Binti: Two Chimpanzees
Return to the Wild, by Andy and
Linda DaVo l l s. Clarion Books (215
Park Ave. South, New York, NY
10003), 1994. 28 pages, with 12 double-
page illustrations. $14.95.

Both Circus of the Wolves and Tano
& Binti recount the return of wildlife to
native habitat. The authors and publishers of
each lavishly illustrated children’s book
undoubtedly expect praise for their politically
correct resolution of the captive wildlife
conundrum. But in each case they sell their
audience short. The issues these books raise
are more complex than just the rightness or
wrongness of captivity––and even young
children are often quite capable of under-
standing these issues in more depth than the
authors explore.
Both books trip over animal rights
sensibilities on page one, with favorable
depictions of a fictitious circus and––by
inference––the London Zoo.
The wolf Kael of Circus of the
W o l v e s either falls into a pit or a pitfall
trap––it isn’t clear which––and is turned over
to the circus by three men who tranquilize
him and pull him out. Although Kael yearns
to go back to the woods, his handler treats
him kindly, and circus life is tolerable until
he can make a break. When he does, near
his former home, the handler lets him go.
Those who insist circuses are by definition
abusive will see some of the story, anyway,
as pro-circus propaganda. Yet circus fans
will also be offended, as author Jack
Bushnell makes plain that the circus is not the
ideal life either for Kael or for the other
wolves, apparently captive-bred, who also
participate in the act.
“Chimps are no longer secure in the
wild,” Linda DaVolls explains in the preface
to Tano & Binti. “Zoos and wild animal
parks have developed programs committed to
conserving endangered species that ensures
the animals will survive.”
True––but it is true too that compet-
itive collecting to stock zoos in decades past
had an huge part in depleting rare species;
biomedical research demand had an even
greater part in depleting wild chimps. Both
competitive collecting and captures for
research use were gradually halted by the
Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species, adopted globally in
1973, and are now ancient history. So,
however, is the episode this book describes.
“In 1975,” DaVolls recounts,
“two chimps born at the London Zoo had the
chance to return to the wild. Their reintro-
duction was made possible by Stella Brewer
of the Gambian Chimpanzee Rehabilitation
Project who, with the help of semi-wild
chimps living in a protected area, taught the
young chimps the ways of the forest.”
The experiment inspired other
attempts to return primates to the wild. Most
notably, a consortium of zoos in 1983 rein-
troduced golden lion tamarins to the
Brazilian coastal rainforest. Reintroductions
of chimps to Liberia showed similar promise.
Biomedical researchers set up breeding
colonies of chimps, many of them former
laboratory residents, on isolated islands,
with the idea that experiments could be con-
ducted more-or-less where the chimps were,
cutting both costs and the impact of research
use on the species. Friends of Animals
meanwhile founded a chimp orphanage, hop-
ing to return to the wild some animals taken
from smugglers and abusive situations in the
U.S. But both the island colonies and the
FoA orphanage were overrun early in the
Liberian civil war; many chimps were
apparently eaten by soldiers.
Because the habitat for many of the
rarest species lies within the unstable Third
World, there is small hope that these animals
can survive outside captivity. This brings up
perhaps the most problematic of all related
issues. The American Zoo Association has
nudged zookeepers into recognizing that the
public is likely to remain tolerant of keeping
wildlife intensely confined only to the extent
that it recognizes the plight of each species in
the wild, together with the zoo contribution
to species conservation. Some zoos still only
pay lip-service to that objective, but others
have gradually replaced old-style menageries
with zoological lifeboats, in which virtually
all residents belong to species survival plans.
Even most roadside zoos now at least pretend
to a conservation mission.
Circuses have been slower to adopt
conservation rhetoric. Yet some of the bigger
circuses may have much to do with the sur-
vival of certain species, notably the Asian
elephant, as among them they have the most
elephants, the most diverse captive gene
pool, and the most successful breeding pro-
grams. Like it or not, people who care about
Asian elephants may be obliged to deal with
circuses, not only because the circuses have
the elephants, but also because resources for
conservation are scarce and circuses are
among the few venues for elephants that pay
for themselves short of letting trophy hunters
“cull” the herds. Ironically, because ele-
phants are costly to keep, abolishing elephant
acts may be easier than getting circuses to
reform elephant training enough to make such
acts tolerable to most activists. The question
then becomes, what happens to the ele-
phants––both as individuals and as a species?
Meanwhile, the only wolf acts on
the road are the touring lecture-exhibits of
wolf education groups such as Project Wolf,
Clem and Jethroe, and Mission Wolf, in
which the wolves do not perform tricks.
“I’ve never heard of a wolf per-
forming in a circus,” Bushnell admits,
“which is largely why I created that very
thing in this book. It began years ago as a
story to my young son, Zachary. At that
time, I told of a tiger brought from the jun-
gle. But when I sat down to write it, I decid-
ed I wanted a less familiar animal, an animal
mysterious and powerful enough to embody a
natural world as distinct and separate from
the human world as possible.”
He goes on to confess to taking
other liberties––taking the easy way out,
instead of fully addressing the issues.
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