Charlotte's Tangled Web
Several weeks ago, two spider-related items arrived in my email box on the same day. One was from a friend telling me she had taken her son to see Charlotte's Web and was surprised to discover that this childhood classic now comes with a disclaimer. The second was a link to a video clip showing the bizarre webs spiders weave when exposed to certain mind-altering drugs. (The fact that this showed up on a comedy site is equally bizarre but that, as one of my teachers used to say, is beyond the scope of this discussion.) These two events triggered thoughts about our increased use of animals as a means of retreating from reality rather than as a source of inspiration regarding the best ways to deal with it.
Beginning with the Charlotte's Web movie what, exactly, do we as individuals and a society gain from avoiding the reality that, one way or another, all living things will die and sometimes in ways we don't like? Don't get me wrong, I love happy endings as much as the next person and doubt I could write a book that didn't have one. However, what makes happy endings happy is the unhappiness against which to measure it. Just as people who have always had "good" dogs can't begin to comprehend how incredibly special and wonderful a relationship is with a "bad" dog you've had to work hard with to make good, a view of any animal that's all-positive not only becomes dull and boring, it also can be dangerous to the animal.
Dangerous? How can an all-positive Garden of Eden view of animals possibly be dangerous? Let's go back to Charlotte's Web or rather to the children whose parents never read them the book or let them see the movie because of what happens to Charlotte. Similarly, Bambi and Dumbo and all the classics and contemporary literature in which bad things happen to good animals fall prey to their censoring. As the children get older, the parents continue reinforcing the all-positive view and ignore or denounce anything that doesn't support that stance as "inhumane."
I'm sure you can see where this is heading, especially if you are or have been a parent. These parents have created a trap for themselves as well as their children. Either they can prevent their children from having any close contact with real animals, or they can allow them such contact, but then lie to them if anything negative happens to one of those animals. At this point, the bond-web they have woven under the influence of their emotion, rather than knowledge-based ideals becomes very twisted indeed, as well as a potential trap for their children and animals. Worse and ironically, both the children and any animals may suffer needlessly because of what the adults define as their great, and possibly even superior, love for them all.
The kids will suffer on multiple counts. Having lived in an artificial world in which only good animal-related events occur, when something bad does happen to the animal, they'll feel betrayed. Additionally, because they've been so sheltered, even a relatively minor negative event may trigger a disproportionately negative emotional response. This then may alienate them from friends and others with more realistic views"Oh, stop being such a baby about it!"and deny them the support they need the most. Further contributing to their trauma, they won't be able to count on their parents to help them through this if the parents' equally romaticized views leave them as incapable of dealing with the problem as the kids. On the other hand, if the parents can cope because they don't share those views they imposed on their offspring, then the kids must also deal with the fact that their folks lied to them.
Not surprisingly, when such well-meaning but naive parental choices backfire, the animal rather than the parents' lack of knowledge, may be viewed as the cause of the disaster. When such occurs, the results may be one of two extremes for those parents reluctant to give up their limited view. At one extreme we see those who euthanize or get rid of the animal as quickly as possible in hopes that the kids and others will forget this challenge to the parental myth. At the other end of the spectrum are those parents who will deny any problem exists (and thus any treatment for it) as long as possible, not because this is best for the animal, but because they can't bear what admitting its existence reveals about them and their beliefs.
The really frightening aspect of all this to me as a veterinary ethologist is that this isn't a new phenomenon. It has increased as our society has become more urbanized to the point that it's becoming a multi-generational view. Because of this, I propose an alternate disclaimer to be placed next to those others when they occur:
Parental and viewer discretion advised. This book/movie/television show presents an unrealistic all-positive portrayal of animals and the human-animal bond that may impact the views of those reading or watching it. Repeated exposure to such views may result in attitudes that may be detrimental to animal health and behavior.
Consistent with the spider theme that opened this commentary, I'll close with another spider-related item, this one from a story about the first king of Scotland, Robert Bruce. Supposedly when he was sorely depressed by his rousing defeat by the English and in exile on the frigid coast of northern Ireland, he distracted himself by watching a spider try to weave a web between two beams. Time and time again, the spider threw the first line needed to anchor the web and time and time again she failed. When she finally succeeded, Bruce supposedly said, "That spider has taught me a lesson. No more will I be discouraged." Like Aesop and countless other humans before him, Bruce was open to learning the incredible lessons animals can teach us. But if we modern humans insist on editing animal lives and those lessons to fulfill strictly human beliefs, the animals and we will suffer.
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