Join the Fight to Stamp Out Zoochosis


November 17, 1993|By STEPHEN SHIH

You know how they say it's a jungle out there? Well, its worse than you think. Zoo-chosis is an epidemic.

What is zoochosis? As a certified PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) Zoochecker, I feel that I am qualified to inform you. Zoochosis, apparently derived from psychosis, is mental illness in caged animals.

My first field experience as a Zoo-checker occurred in August. I was in Washington, and decided to go check out the National Zoo. Naturally, I went to see the giant panda. Why else would you go?

At the zoo's entrance, I was silently greeted by a dour-looking woman in some sort of uniform: blue polo shirt, tan shorts. Must be a zoo employee, I thought. She was handing out brochures and pencils, which I assumed were maps to the zoo. One man, I noticed, refused the brochure. At the time, I ignored it; he probably knew his way around the place. Now I know that he was making a political statement. He was refusing to help all animals all over the world.

The woman was handing out Zoo-checker brochures. I took one and set out to change the world.

The brochure described the various manifestations of zoochosis: pacing around; beating the head repeatedly against a wall; vomiting, then eating the vomit, then vomiting again; self-mutilation; unnatural twistings of the neck; excessively violent behavior. I, as a Zoochecker, was to search out and report any sign of zoochosis.

And I did. I went to see the deer, the hippos, the red pandas, the giraffes, the bison and the elephants. Nothing unusual. Then I went to the small-mammals exhibit and saw mice, prairie dogs, sloths, rats and more mice. Again, nothing. It was now panda-feeding time, so I made my way to the panda house. There I saw my first case of zoochosis.

The panda was fine. He, or she, was chowing down on massive quantities of carrots and bamboo.

But this one human was definitely not acting naturally. He was stretching his neck most unnaturally -- this way and that, much like a giraffe. It was a classic symptom: He was out of his natural environment and was torturing himself.

In a corner of the panda exhibit I observed a second zoochotic, a woman pacing back and forth, obviously in severe mental distress.

The third case of zoochosis involved attempted cannibalism. Now, cannibalism was not actually listed in the brochure, but surely it should be reckoned as a zoochotic behavior. A man appeared to be attempting to bite off and swallow a woman's ear. This is what happens when animals are removed from their natural habitats!

I duly recorded these cases of zoo-chosis on the questionnaire provided and gave my report to the dour woman who had first given me the brochure.

Three weeks passed and I received a thank-you note from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It reported that the PETA office was flooded with Zoocheck questionnaires describing ''the very same despondent behaviors you listed, often in the very same animals.''

Clearly, zoochosis is an alarming human epidemic -- possibly, when its extent becomes fully known, a bigger problem even than AIDS or malnutrition. It is time for a more compassionate name; we must dispel the myth that zoochosis is only a problem for animals that live in zoos.

Schools are somewhat related to zoos, as are many other workplaces, and perhaps that is why the animals inside suffer from mental distress. We have all heard of kids picking on each other and setting off stink bombs. Those are cases of zoochosis.

Disgruntled postal workers who suddenly seize guns and start shooting people? Bona fide zoochotics. Sexual harassment of co-workers? Getting drunk and telling off the boss or the spouse? Obvious manifestations of zoochosis. Yet some of these victims are put into the even stricter confinement of jail. How can this possibly help? Zoochosis, I remind you, is mental illness caused by captivity.

Sweeping changes are called for in the moral treatment of human beings. But what is to be done?

I suggest we take PETA's approach. First, an organization must be formed. This organization must make the facts known. It also must be willing to picket workplaces and, in the tradition of the Animal Liberation Front, raid those places where zoochosis is most widely prevalent.

Maybe PETA can organize this new group. Send a letter requesting -- demanding -- the ethical treatment of humans now. I am.

Stephen Shih writes from Niskayuna, New York.

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