Media Mix, June 24, 2012

Don’t call me cute, biped!

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about wild animals escaping from captivity and the excitement such stories cause in the media. Though most people will likely see nothing strange about the coverage, unless the escape has safety ramifications, such as those initially associated with the bear incident, the stories are inherently childish as long as they dwell on the whole adventure aspect. As pointed out in the column, escaped animals are simply following their instinctual impulses to be free, and by anthropomorphizing them into rebels or criminals we say more about ourselves as their self-appointed masters than we do about their behavior, which is perfectly natural. One can take this line of thinking too far, I know, especially since much of the coverage has an underlying tone of self-awareness that becomes more obvious as the story becomes more trivial. The squirrel escape from the Inokashira Park Zoo is the best example, since it’s quite likely Inokashira Park is already home to a lot of wild squirrels. What wasn’t mentioned in the reports–and which may have added something significantly newsworthy to the story–is whether the zookeepers were afraid that the escaped squirrels, all belonging to a species indigenous to Japan, would run up against the invader American species of squirrel, which, like all Americans, are larger and more aggressive. Such a story could have been a jumping off point for a discussion about invasive species and the dangers they pose. It could have even provided some sort of justification for putting squirrels in cages in the first place, i.e., to protect the purity of the species, which is one of the purposes of a zoo. But that would spoil the core entertainment component of the story, because the media doesn’t really think people want to know anything more about animals that they already think are cute. It’s why there’s no consistency to coverage of animal-related stories; no connection made between Japan’s lethal whale research policy and dramatic stories of people trying to save stranded or beached whales; no relationship between the anachronistic slaughter of dolphins in Taiji and sentimental stories about dolphin “therapy,” wherein people interact with marine mammals to achieve some degree of “healing.” And while this has a tangential bearing on Japanese people’s ability to compartmentalize anything they consume–cows and pigs can be simultaneously adorable and delicious–it mainly has to do with avoiding truths that might make viewers and readers uncomfortable. With regard to human relations, bears can be cute but most of the time they’re dangerous, so there’s no problem in reporting that the six escapees from the Hachimantai Bear Farm were shot and not question whether the bears really deserved to die, even if they killed two humans. The justification is too plain: Nobody can take chances with such unpredictable and vicious creatures. But that should give rise to another question: Why was this “farm” allowed to keep 38 bears in captivity in the first place, especially since its purposes were completely commercial and not conservatory? Like I said, when it comes to animals, it’s better not to get too complicated.

Update June 27: This morning the Asahi reported that Akita Prefectural officials are worried about the “image” of the prefecture if they go ahead and kill the remaining 27 bears in Hachimantai. Apparently, they think such adverse publicity will harm tourism. The article also says that prior to his arrest, the owner of the farm suggested a solution for the caretaking problem: reduce the food for the bears by one-third and let them fight it out amongst themselves “through natural selection.” Then the bears that survive will just starve to death in two weeks if they aren’t fed.

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