Hurry, Hurry, Step Right Up!

Most of us have been to circuses where tamed animals are trained to perform for the amusement of spectators.

In general, the less the performing animals act as they normally would, the more we are entertained. Dancing bears in tutus. Seals balancing balls on their noses. Elephants standing on their heads. Tigers jumping through flaming hoops.

Most of us have been to zoos, where wild animals live in captivity as exhibits for ticket-buyers. They do not perform, but neither do they act as they would in the wild. In zoos, we see no hunting, no mating, no migrating, etc.

Better zoos attempt to simulate more natural conditions, but the animals are always confined, and always in artificial spaces. Animals are also segregated by type: predators and prey do not share cages. Climates are regulated so the lions don’t freeze and the polar bears don’t get heatstroke (often).

Few of us have been on Safaris, which are expeditions led by experts. Here we observe animals in their natural habitats. We see the large scale, the bigger picture, the similarities and differences, the interactions, the environment, the breadth and depth of it all.

Research into the behaviors of study subjects is either circus-like, zoo-like, or safari-like.

  • The worst is circus-like, where study subjects are hired to perform for sponsor entertainment.
  • Most research is zoo-like, where real-life is simulated for sponsor convenience.
  • The rarest and most valuable research is safari-like, where we go where the study subjects are to observe them in their natural environments, for sponsor learning.

At circuses and in zoos, we learn very little about natural behavior. Only when we go out into the natural environments of our study subjects can we learn about what goes on in the real world.  And as all of us know, you get what you pay for.