Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Rob Laidlaw

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Rob Laidlaw

Rob Laidlaw is an animal rights activist, biologist and explorer. He talks to Open Book about his new book On Parade: The Hidden World of Animals in Entertainment (Fitzhenry and Whiteside) and the challenges of educating youth and adults about the chillingly common practice of animal exploitation.

Open Book:

On Parade is your second book. Can you tell us about it?

Rob Laidlaw:

My first book focused exclusively on animals in zoos, so the issue of animals in entertainment was left out. Since I’ve been involved in trying to stop the exploitation of animals in various forms of entertainment for a long time, it was a topic I wanted to address. On Parade, The Hidden World of Animals in Entertainment covers a range of subjects, including the use of animals in circuses, film productions, racing, tourist photo shoots, educational presentations and other situations. However, it’s not just focused on the problems. The book also discusses alternative forms of entertainment that don’t require live animals and describes several successful campaigns that have helped stop performing animal exploitation. Ultimately, I hope the book generates discussion and changes at least a few hearts and minds.

OB:

What motivated you to target your book to young adult readers? Do you feel young people have a unique outlook on animal rights issues?

RL:

A key reason for writing a children’s book is that kids are the target audience for most animal entertainment businesses. I think it’s important for children to understand what’s actually happening to the animals, so they can make an informed decision about whether or not they want to support that kind of activity.

Yes, I think young people around the world are better informed about animal issues than their parents are. I also think they are far more receptive to placing the interests and wellbeing of animals as a high priority. I expect that’s largely due to the availability of information about animal issues and to the work of thousands of animal protection groups around the world who are now able to publicize their work through the internet.

OB:

How do issues around animals in entertainment differ from issues regarding animals in captivity generally?

RL:

One key difference is that many animals in entertainment live rootless lives moving from place to place. Some of them may be kept on the road on a more or less permanent basis, while others may reside at a fixed “home base” only to be shunted around when income generating opportunities arise. This kind of animal management has enormous challenges, especially when large, potentially dangerous, highly intelligent or extremely social animals are involved. Satisfying an animal’s full range of biological and behavioural needs when they’re moved from one location to another is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Another major difference is the severe confinement many entertainment animals experience, not because it’s good for the animals, but almost always because it’s convenient and cheap for the operators and handlers. The tiny, wheeled best wagons, often just 3-4 m² in size, that routinely house big cats or bears in circuses are an example. They’re basic, cheap and can easily be rolled back and forth between trucks, rail cars and performance venues. The real needs of the animals, such as the need for space to move and behave normally, aren’t even considered.

OB:

Do you think it is possible to include animals in entertainment in an ethical way? If so, what steps can be taken?

RL:

In most cases, there isn’t an ethical way to feature animals in entertainment, nor is there even a need. Today computer generated imagery (CGI) can recreate any animal in a very realistic way. If you look at movies like the 2005 King Kong remake or Jumanji, you see astonishingly realistic animals. In the Jurassic Park movies, there were amazingly lifelike computer generated dinosaurs. But there’s more than just CGI. There are also models, robotic animals and all kinds of other technologies that circumvent the need for using live animals. And in some forms of entertainment, such as circuses, the use of animals is anachronistic and should just be stopped. Since they’re such an inconsequential part of the circus anyway, animal acts could easily be replaced with human performers.

OB:

What is your organization, ZooCheck Canada, working on currently?

RL:

Zoocheck Canada is active on a number of different zoo, circus, exotic pet and wildlife issues. During the past couple of years, a lot of people have heard about our elephant captivity campaigns. Probably the highest profile has been our effort to convince the City of Edmonton to relocate Lucy, a socially isolated 35-year-old female Asian elephant, from the Valley Zoo to a US sanctuary where she could have far more space, a complex environment, warm climate and the company of other elephants. Unfortunately, most zoos are loathe to give up elephants and dismiss any suggestion that they should, even when the conditions they provide are substandard, so these initiatives are always a struggle.

OB:

You often speak in school visits and in your writing about what animals need. Are there any common assumptions about animals’ needs that you find yourself correcting?

RL:

One of the more common misconceptions is that animals have relatively simple needs and are easy to keep in captivity. Personally, I think nothing could be further from the truth. Whether small or large, animals have lives that are far more complex and involved than most of us realize. They inhabit expansive, complex spaces, live in specific environmental conditions, engage in a broad range of movements and behaviours, make choices and exercise a degree of self determination. In captivity, those things are severely restricted or entirely eliminated.

Space is one example. Most animals in captivity live in accommodation that’s thousands to millions of times smaller than the smallest home ranges of their wild counterparts. They don’t have enough room to move or behave naturally.

I believe every animal should be provided with as much space as possible, appropriate environmental conditions, an ability to engage in a broad range of species-typical behaviours on a continual basis, freedom of choice and a suitable social context. I think we should recognize that the needs of almost every animal, from a goldfish to an elephant, are anything but simple.

OB:

How did you conduct your research for this book?

RL:

I’ve been working on animals in entertainment issues for a very long time, so I was able to draw on my own work and experiences over the years. But I also included a few issues I haven’t worked on directly, but that I felt were important. For those issues, I reached out to my network of contacts in Canada and around the world, as well as utilizing more traditional information sources, such as books, reports, newspapers, magazine articles and, of course, the internet.

OB:

How does your writing fit with the other aspects of your career as a biologist and activist?

RL:

A lot of people don’t realize how badly animals are treated. They’re given a sanitized view of animal lives, so they end up believing circus animals have fun, dolphins enjoy swimming with humans and animal actors live comfortable lives free of neglect and abuse. While much of it is smoke and mirrors, the misconceptions are still a challenge to address. Books aid the process of correcting those misconceptions and, in my case, are really just an extension of my advocacy work. They provide an opportunity for full disclosure of the facts, so people can make informed choices about how they live their lives and what they want to support.

OB:

What are some of your favourite animal characters in fiction?

RL:

I have to admit that I’m not much of a fiction reader. Since I was very young I’ve read non-fiction almost exclusively. Primarily books about animals, the environment, science, politics, biographies and adventure travel. Having said that, there are a few fictional animals that stand out in my memory, such as the rabbits in the Richard Adam’s novel Watership Down and the cougar in The White Puma by R. D. Lawrence. I recently ordered Kenneth Oppel’s Silverwing novel series about a colony of bats, so I suspect I may be adding bats to that list fairly soon.

OB:

What is your next project?

RL:

Working in the animal protection field has provided me with an opportunity to visit animal rescue centers and sanctuaries around the world, so I’ve just started working on a children’s book focused on those kinds of facilities. The stories of the animals and the people who rescue them are truly inspiring, so I hope the book motivates readers of all ages to get involved. In the meantime, I have a book, entitled No Shelter Here, Making the World a Kinder Place for Dogs, set for a fall release. It covers a wide range of dog issues, many that I expect readers may not have heard of before. I hope the book opens some eyes, generates discussion and inspires people to change the way they view and interact with dogs.

Rob Laidlaw has spent the over 30 years campaigning to protect wild animals in captivity and in the wild. His work has taken him from the polar north to tropical Asia and includes more than 1,000 visits to zoos around the world. A Chartered Biologist, avid outdoorsman and cave explorer, he is a founder of the wildlife protection organization Zoocheck Canada.

For more information about On Parade please visit the Fitzhenry and Whiteside website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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