Pets, Kids, Rescue, and Adoption

Two fascinating documentaries about relations between dependent animals and their human “owners” have got me thinking about adoption. Specifically, the movies Blackfish (recently aired on CNN) and Parrot Confidential (part of the PBS Nature series) caused me to reconsider, not only our relationships with our pets, but also the power relations between parents and their dependent children. You may be surprised to see the parallels between animals under human care and adoption in terms of ethics, social justice, and the possibilities for reform that were brought up for me in watching these two documentaries.

Blackfish is Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s take on the forced captivity of orcas and other sea-going mammals. The film shows the ways these beautiful and intelligent sea creatures are exploited for the amusement of human audiences at marine theme parks such as Sea World. The process of exploitation, that is, capturing and confining wild animals to put them on show for our entertainment, begins with the capture of baby whales in the wild, and the film captures this moment vividly. Watching as sailors and hired divers abduct helpless newborn whales to separate them from their anguished mothers is nothing short of heart-wrenching. One of the now repentant sailor-abductors speaks movingly on camera, describing the harrowing cries of the whale parents as they try frantically to reunite with their corralled offspring while the hired workers round up their crying babies. While I try not to anthropomorphize non-human species, I still found the scenes of baby whale abduction very hard to watch. The film doesn’t get much cheerier; viewers are shown how the theme parks that house captive whales, dolphins, and seals are nothing more than concrete pool-cages that, to wild sea-going mammals, must feel more like miserably shallow bathtubs that are simply too small and restrictive.

Allison Argo’s documentary Parrot Confidential addresses, as you might guess, the plight of parrots, which if treated and cared for properly, can live to be eighty years old. This film documents the pet industry’s questionable practices of kidnapping baby birds in the wild to be sold in the global exotic pets marketplace. Viewers witness how the interventions of self-serving humans often lead to the collapse of the social systems among various bird species, not to mention the havoc we wreak on entire ecosystems. Former pet store owners, parrot abductors, and bird breeders speak eloquently about how they used to think rather naively about the pet industry 40 or 50 years ago, when they first became interested in keeping parrots and other “exotics” as caged birds. We see how some of these former pet breeders and collectors have become more aware of the long-term needs of the birds they used to buy and sell, spurring some to become reformers and activists for more humane treatment.

As I absorbed the poignant scenes unfolding in both movies, I couldn’t help but think about how arrogant we humans can be. The films forced me to confront my own mixed feelings about pet stores, zoos, aquaria, and marine parks. By way of disclosure, I have always lived around animals, and I currently share my home with a cat. At the local shelter where I met her as a rescue kitten, I had to sign “adoption papers” before I could bring her home. In the past, I’ve kept fish tanks (although I never considered that I had “adopted” the fish in the same way that I “adopted” my cat), and I confess that I’ve taken my kids to Sea World and various zoos over the years. Yet, the two documentaries together point out quite convincingly how strongly the pet and dependent (or captive) animal industries dominate and manipulate our thinking about how humans should relate to other species. They challenge taken-for-granted anthropocentric understandings of what is considered the “best interests” of our non-human fellow Earthlings.

As painful as they were to watch at times, the two films offer messages of hope, even for human transformation, if not redemption. It is inspiring to hear from former industry insiders, such as animal breeders and trainers, who now regret their involvement in profit-making marine parks and pet stores. Some of the employees featured in Blackfish have become animal rights advocates and are now working to expose the unethical practices of their former employers. They discuss on screen their personal transformation process, from collusion with an industry they once believed in whole-heartedly to a more evolved understanding of their complicity in a questionable line of work. Others articulate how they came to think differently about their individual roles in a business based on exploitation. They share insights about how they came to question the dominant narrative put forth by the industry that insists that the business they engage in is benign, or even somehow operating for the animals’ own good. Predictably, Sea World issued a response to the damning Blackfish documentary, decrying its biases and asserting proudly how, as a renowned zoological institution, the park rescues and rehabilitates hundreds of animals every year. Adoptees, I ask you: Where have we heard this argument before?

Blackfish highlights several sensational animal attacks on humans at various marine parks, including one case in which a captive orca actually killed a trainer, seemingly intentionally. The former employees-turned-animal rights activists explain how they interpret these attacks as the only way in which desperate whales can communicate their intense suffering to their captors. Rather than explain away these attacks as isolated anomalies, these advocates have been moved to reimagine their previous line of work from the animals’ perspective.

As if witnessing their human change of perspective isn’t inspiring enough, we also get to watch these former pro-marine park workers transforming into animal liberation activists and humane treatment advocates. For me as a viewer, the important lesson was realizing that just because not all captive orcas lash out violently at their captors (thankfully), it doesn’t mean that the system of animal exploitation isn’t still rotten to the core and in need of serious reform. It’s not as if the majority of captive animals must rise up violently before humans start paying attention to their exploitation, pain, and suffering. Translated to the field of adoption, I wonder how many more angry adoptees must bleed and weep publicly before adoptive parents are moved to action on behalf of social justice in child welfare.

As in Blackfish, viewers of Parrot Confidential get to witness anthropocentric naiveté and ignorance transforming into heightened awareness and activism. The film shows how some pet store operators watched the baby birds they originally sold or “placed for adoption” being returned when bird owners realized how demanding and hard to care for adult parrots can be. As breeders and pet store owners grew more knowledgeable about parrot behavior and animal psychology, some of the more caring individuals responded in humane ways, taking the birds’ needs and desires more fully into consideration.

Former animal breeders are shown on screen describing “rehoming” as a semi-responsible option on the part of many ill-equipped and unprepared parrot owners. I say semi-responsible because at least the re-homers made a plan for the care of their dependent animals, unlike the totally irresponsible pet owners who simply abandon their unwanted pets in the woods, in the Everglades, or, in one tragic case shown in the film, by simply packing up to move, leaving their unwanted pet behind in an empty house.

As I thought more about right relations with non-human species, I could not help but consider how another industry in which many of us participate is similarly built on human hubris and self-aggrandizement. The adoption industry parallels the pet and dependent or captive animal industry in several noteworthy ways: First, both are rooted in and dependent on the separation of parents and offspring. Without this crucial separation, which is repeated over and over, both industries would cease to exist. Secondly, both industries invoke powerful narratives of rescue and rehabilitation. Both rely on calculated dependency that renders the “adopted” offspring helpless and in need of the interventions that can only be provided by well-meaning adopters/rescuers and owners/trainers/parents. Both industries are socially sanctioned and legitimized. Both offer the rescuer/adopters social status and approval for doing a good deed, privileging that experience—the act of adopting—as the prioritized experience in the grand narrative. In the process of praising the adopters, the dominant narratives of rescue suppress attention to the least powerful players (the adopted offspring and their original parents), effectively rendering them voiceless and opinion-less. The cumulative result is the minimization of the pain and exploitation upon which both industries rest. It becomes almost heretical to offer any sort of critique of either industry that appears to be the natural, God-given order.

As I watched the baby orcas being rounded up, I could not help but think about my own birth mother and the birth mothers of my adopted sons. I imagined again, as I often do, how each of these mothers must have felt when their children were taken away by well-meaning social workers. I thought about the hundreds of Native American children ripped away from their families to be placed in far-off boarding schools in the bad old days of Indian child removal used as a tool of cultural imperialism and assimilation. I thought about how my own role as just another arrogant, self-appointed do-gooder, along with social workers, pet owners, animal trainers, educators, adoption attorneys, adoptive parents, and how we all too often delude ourselves from thinking about the harshness of the transactions in which we participate. I thought about how wrong we are to deny awareness of the fact that we have benefitted precisely because another parent suffered—and usually continues to suffer—a most unbearable loss. I thought about all the times people have told me how much better off adoptees are, as if that somehow mitigates the suffering and justifies the exploitation that surely goes hand in hand with adoption.

In conscientious efforts to rebalance the power relations between separated offspring and their original parents (adoptees and birth parents and all those on the other side—adopters, adoption professionals, adoption attorneys, social workers, agencies, orphan ministries, and so on), we could take a cue from the animal rights activists portrayed in these two films. The films show convincingly that in order to correct the imbalance between human and non-human species, individual humans must come to awareness and learn to imagine the world from the perspective of the very beings for whom they originally set out to create interventions. Not stopping at awareness, the films call us to action on behalf of justice for the very beings we claimed we were helping in the first place. By listening to the stories from the objects of our well-intended interventions, individual humans can grow in compassion and empathy, and begin to craft more humane responses to the very predicaments we unwittingly had a hand in creating.

In the adoption arena, the dominant narrative that valorizes rescue and emphasizes child helplessness is finally giving way to subaltern voices from the margins. Principally, more and more adoptees and first parents/birth parents are becoming empowered to speak and share their experiences. The collective narratives of adoptees and parents who have lost children to adoption can provide a counter narrative to the dominant one that has shaped common understandings about adoption for too long. People of goodwill motivated by social justice can choose to lower the volume on adopter narratives of rescue, child dependency, and rehabilitation. As we pursue social justice, we can raise the volume on narratives of adoptee empowerment, first families agency and advocacy, and right relations between parents and children.

We can commit to the pursuit of social justice in all aspects of life, including in child welfare and animal welfare. Let us start by acknowledging our complicity and personal responsibility for participating in corrupt systems based on exploitation. Let us deconstruct the notion that the separation of children and parents is a social good. Let us remove financial incentives from the equation, so that no one is allowed to profit from parent/child separations. Let us remember that adoption is always a response to a crisis; adoption is therefore not something to be “celebrated,” as some pro-adoption advocates would have us do every November. Adoption should be understood as an unusual intervention of last resort, not an “option” reserved for the convenience of adopters and protected as the bread and butter for agencies, orphan ministries, and other pro-adoption organizations.

As we rethink our individual roles in this social engineering experiment known as adoption, let us keep in mind the pursuit of right relations between dependent children, their original families, and the future families they may have to connect with when adoption becomes necessary. In my view, this requires that we set aside our hubris and inflated sense of self-importance, and start paying attention to—and finally HONORING—the voices and perspectives of the previously silent and ignored objects of well-intentioned interventions. This is the only way for participants to move from an egocentric position of knowing what’s best for helpless others to standing alongside others as allies in struggle. Once this shift in awareness occurs, once previously marginalized perspectives are moved to the center of the conversation, then allies can begin the process of educating themselves about the nature of the struggle, and be in a much better position to figure out how to respond in principled, ethically responsible ways. This is what the animal rights documentaries brought out for me: humane alliances are far more preferable to lording it over those “Others” whose status we would like to keep dependent, mute, infantilized, and malleable to the financial motives of industries rooted in their exploitation. In the final analysis, each of us is accountable for the pain and suffering heaped upon those with less power. Each of us must take responsibility, and start making amends for the intergenerational damage we pass on through human arrogance and folly.

~ Dr. John Raible