Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Rob Laidlaw

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Ten Questions with Rob Laidlaw

RL:

For many years, I’ve received zoo marketing materials, a significant percentage of them aimed at children, that provide a sanitized and inaccurate view of zoos and what they do. I have also been regularly contacted by children and parents who are concerned about captive wild animals and about school visits to zoos. I thought it was time for an informed, children-oriented response to the propaganda disseminated by the zoo industry. Wild Animals in Captivity is a critical, but fair, examination of zoos and I think it will facilitate a process of critical thinking in the children and adults that read it.

OB:

How did you research your book?

RL:

Since I have been involved in the wildlife protection field, with a specific focus on wildlife in captivity, for nearly 30 years, the information in the book is based on my research and experiences during that time. To date, that has included more than 1,000 visits to zoos around the world, numerous investigative initiatives, a broad range of legislative campaigns aimed at improving laws to protect captive wild animals, attending zoo industry conferences and working with colleagues in other parts of the world on captivity issues. As well, I have an extensive library of books, reports, scientific papers, media clippings, correspondence and other materials that I refer to when necessary.

OB:

When did you become an activist for wild animals?

RL:

As long as I can remember, I have been interested in animals. As a child, I voraciously consumed everything I could find about animals, nature and the environment and I never missed an opportunity to visit a park or a zoo where I could view wildlife. I also wrote to animal protection groups around the world asking for their literature. Even without the internet, I was able to become quite well informed about many animal issues. I clearly remember the moment I decided that I had to do more than just know about the problems. It was during one of the first Toronto screenings of The Animals Film, a feature length documentary examining the exploitation of animals in modern society. I wasn’t really prepared for what I saw. The film was powerful, compelling, disturbing, brutal and unforgettable. In fact, many of the images I saw are still etched in my mind today, more than two and a half decades later. The day after the film, I started looking for ways to help.

OB:

Is there such a thing as a good zoo?

RL:

The best captive facilities are those that place the needs of the animals as their highest priority. They understand that all animals need space, complexity, stimulation and an ability to make a contribution to the quality of their own lives. In my view, the best facilities tend to be small and focused, devoting their time, energy and resources on specific species or becoming specialists in particular functions. Unfortunately, that is not what most modern zoos do. In fact, most existing zoos are based on the outdated menagerie-style zoo model that emerged in the 19th century. While that model is ubiquitous in the zoo world, it should really become a thing of the past.

OB:

Can you tell us about your organization, Zoocheck Canada?

RL:

Zoocheck Canada is a wildlife protection charity that was established in 1984 to promote and protect the interests and well-being of wild animals. We pursue our goals through research and investigative projects, public education and awareness campaigns, capacity building initiatives, litigation and legislative campaigning. While our primary focus over the years has been wildlife in captivity, Zoocheck has also been involved in numerous campaigns to help wildlife in the wild, including polar bears in the Arctic, elephants in Africa and wild horses in the Canadian west.

OB:

What can the average person do to help protect wild animals?

RL:

I realized very early on that when human interests come up against animal interests, the animals nearly always lose, even when the human interests are entirely trivial. Since animals are unable to defend themselves, I believe it is incumbent upon those of us who care to speak out on their behalf. When enough people do, things will change.

The most important action that children or adults can take immediately to improve the lives of wild animals is to become informed by learning more about animals, their natural lifestyles and the issues that affect them. They can then use that information to modify their own lives so they are animal-friendly and to challenge the exploitation of wild animals wherever and whenever it occurs.

OB:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

RL:

I’ve been privileged to travel around the world, so I’ve learned how truly rich with wildlife and wild places Canada really is. I don’t think many Canadians truly appreciate that fact. So, the first book I would recommend is Sea of Slaughter by celebrated Canadian author Farley Mowat. It describes 400 years of wildlife exploitation along the northeast coast of Canada and the United States. It’s a powerful and thought-provoking book that should make every Canadian understand how valuable and fragile our natural heritage really is.

The two other books I’d recommend are The Creation, An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, a beautifully written defense of nature by the great ethnobotanist E.O. Wilson and Dominion, The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals and the Call to Mercy by Matthew Scully, one of the best books ever written about why animals deserve respect and compassion.

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

RL:

The actual environment doesn’t really matter as much as my frame of mind. I have to feel like writing or else the thoughts just don’t flow. Generally, my writing is best when I have my laptop, piles of research materials, very loud music and the right frame of mind.

OB:

What are you reading right now?

RL:

I recently finished reading Nim Chimsky, The Chimp Who Would Be Human by Elizabeth Hess, a remarkable biography of one of the first chimpanzees to communicate with ASL (American Sign Language). It’s also a riveting exploration into the nature of human-animal relationships. I am now nearing the end of God is Not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything, the rather controversial bestseller by Christopher Hitchens, a fascinating and thought-provoking read. I am also immersed in The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis. Her previous book, When Smoke Ran Like Water was outstanding, and this one is even better. I highly recommend all of them.

OB:

What is your next project?

RL:

I am currently working on a children’s book about wild animals in entertainment. It will cover he exploitation of wild animals in circuses, film and television, beach primates in Spain, dancing bears in eastern Europe and Asia, Temple elephants and snake charming in India, alligator wrestling in the United States and the use of animals in educational programs. I don’t believe any of these topics have been dealt with in a children’s book before, even though they tend to be aimed at the entertainment of children. I also have an adult book about zoos in the works and essays for two photo books about human-animal relationships.

Wild Animals in Captivity "A fair assessment of what is bad, better, and best for animals in the world of captivity." -- Jane Goodall


Read more about Wild Animals in Captivity by Rob Laidlaw at the Fitzhenry and Whiteside website.

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