This past Saturday I had the pleasure of attending the Explorer's Club dinner at the Waldorf Astoria. This year's theme "Exploring the Ocean" honored those underwater filmmakers, photographers, writers, oceanographers, biologists, and environmentalists that have changed our perspective of the undersea world. The evening's particular emphasis was the rapid decline of our earth's waters and wildlife.
Amidst admirable hours spent reflecting a precarious future and surrounded by accomplished explorers, researchers, and conservationists from the world over, I was therefore shocked to encounter a circus mentality akin to a turn of the century Coney Island freak show: the annual presentation of 'endangered' species. Accompanied by dessert and the cymbal-clanging lame jokes of the organization's honorary president, handlers brought out several terrified animals: a large snapping turtle whose mouth was stretched wide in fear, a monitor lizard, and a mid-sized alligator from the Florida Everglades.
Last year's event was even worse when an arctic wolf was dragged shivering to stage and a falcon was loosed into the Waldorf's ballroom and alighted on a balcony, too petrified to fly back to its falconer. My family has been very active in conservation since early this century. And though I eat meat, wear leather, visit zoos, and do not throw tofu pies at Anna Wintour, something in me stirred at the sight of those terrified wild animals.
While this an anticipated highlight of the dinner, I cannot help but wonder why. Surely, the majority of members and friends are not novices when it comes to the wilderness and to endangered species? The handlers were not showing the animals to poverty-stricken children of the third world to motivate them to forgo the consumption of bush meat and refrain from kicking their dogs. At least the peals of laughter from the audience were tempered by the discontent at my table where several renowned underwater filmmakers were equally disgusted by the unnecessary parading and taunting of the animals, a display that debased the evening's noble discussion of conservation, preservation and our hope for a "Green" future.
This could not have been about education or fundraising. It was simply entertainment. And while some may find it hilarious to see a snapping turtle prodded with a celery stick on stage, I personally cannot see the humor. Perhaps if the president of the organization had dressed himself in a monkey suit and banged on cymbals, then I could have chuckled. Instead I was reminded of the poor Maya Indian at the World Fair, caged, objectified, mocked, and ultimately eradicated.
The falcon lost in the grand ballroom seems something of another era. To be quite frank, in this day and age, it's uncivilized. It is the imperialist mindset that nature is still ours for the taking. And if we continue to regard that which we do not understand with the same myopic glasses that have engendered over a century of environmental destruction, we will certainly never have the pleasure of seeing those animals in their natural habitat, let alone at the Waldorf Astoria.