This chapter explores how human children soften the abusive edge of carceral spaces. Prisons, immigration detention centres, and zoos and aquaria are institutions that attract sustained public scrutiny from prisoner rights, migrant rights, anti-racist, and animal rights movements. Critics and scholars note the entwined nature of race, gender, and species logics that shape and unite these spaces and object to the short- and long-term incarceration these institutions make possible as well as the conditions residents confined within experience.Footnote 1 Prisoner rights, migrant rights, and animal rights critics also contest the messaging that these institutions and their proponents use to assure the public of the need for confinement and the ethical acceptability of the conditions captive animals and humans experience.Footnote 2 These discourses, depending on the specific institution, highlight the larger public “law and order” interests of safety and border control, but also “progressive” interests of rehabilitation, conservation, and education.Footnote 3
In highlighting these latter “progressive” interests, carceral institutions seek to humanize themselves and their work to bolster their social credibility. This “humane-washing” occurs through long-standing rationales about rehabilitation for offenders in the prison context, and more recent rationales about the conservation of nature and conservation education in the zoo and aquarium context. It also, I will argue, occurs through a specific type of marshaling of the human child. I seek to add to the literature on “humane-washing”Footnote 4 as well as contestations and uses of “childhood” and “family” narrativesFootnote 5 in general in this analysis. I apply a multispecies lens to consider how the real and imagined human child in the zoo and aquaria context, and narratives about what is in the best interests of human children in the immigration and prison context, figure into characterizing such carceral institutions as legally and socially legitimate spaces.Footnote 6 The argument acknowledges that these carceral spaces can yield positive benefits for some, such as rehabilitation or rescue of a specific individual or even conservation of a specific species. However, it accepts the existing critical scholarly literature against such spaces overall to focus on the question of how carceral spaces mask their problematic and oppressive nature by integrating the presence of human children.
13.2 The Use of “Children” to Humanize Carceral Spaces
To be sure, prisons, detention centres, and zoos and aquaria are not primarily or simply spaces for children. But this makes the question of when and where children do acquire importance in these “paradigm institutions of domination”Footnote 7 all the more pressing. This part of the analysis takes up this question.
13.2.1 How Children’s Need for Conservation Education Legitimates Zoos and Aquaria
If there is one carceral place where children are encouraged to attend for educational and recreational purposes, it is the zoo and aquarium. A zoo is a place of childhoodFootnote 8 and family.Footnote 9 As one travel writer put it: “Spending a night at the zoo is a perennial childhood fantasy: many a popular children’s book features a lock-in with exotic animals as its plot.”Footnote 10 As one example of this fantasy turning into reality, consider the Edmonton Valley Zoo, where Lucy, an Asian elephant languishes on her own with chronic health conditions, and has been the subject of two high-profile lawsuits by animal rights advocates to move her to a sanctuary.Footnote 11 Annually, the Edmonton Valley Zoo hosts such a “magical evening” for children with disabilities that they call “Dreamnight.”Footnote 12 Edmonton Valley Zoo is not alone in this child-centered initiative. Its website indicates that “Dreamnight now spans over 300 zoos internationally, with more zoos joining each year.”Footnote 13 In Canada and the United States, industry statistics also confirm the tight correlation between zoos and children, with well over half of visitors comprising children under eleven years of age.Footnote 14
With young children’s lives generally being immersed in animal narratives through picture books, television shows, films, apps, and toys and stuffed animals,Footnote 15 it is not surprising that children want to go to zoos and aquaria or that their families wish to take them to these places to see the animals. Yet, with increased protest against animal captivity in zoos as well as the acculturation of accredited zoos to the science of conservation biology, such places have had to reposition themselves to maintain respectable public stature. They have dissociated themselves from their traditional but now increasingly-discredited reasons for why animals have to be in captivity related to imperial history, exotica, leisure, and recreationFootnote 16 to re-branding themselves as conservation and educational centres.Footnote 17 Moreover, when zoos and aquaria are critiqued for keeping wild animals captive or for running captive breeding programs, many point to educational and conservation mandates of their institutions and the social value of wild animal captivity for these purposes.Footnote 18 As Irus Braverman has documented in her comprehensive study of American zoos, zoos emphasize the boost that captive breeding in zoos plays for conservation efforts of wild populations (whether such populations are characterized as in situ, ex situ, or intersitu) in response to animal rights opponents seeking zoos’ abolition.Footnote 19 As well, zoos and aquaria point to their rescue and rehabilitation of injured wild animals and claim to serve a leading role in teaching the public about the need for conservation given the ongoing phenomenon of species extinction.Footnote 20
Although it is not a point that Braverman herself unpacks, we can observe that such justificatory mandates for the continued purported need for zoos and aquaria revolve around the human child. The presence of children in zoos and aquaria as visitors on family outings and school trips is routine and critical to the continued viability of zoos and aquaria.Footnote 21 Some scholars have noted how children are the target audiences for conservation messaging from zoos and aquaria, making them the principal human cohort that is said to benefit from the conservation work zoos and aquaria do.Footnote 22 Conservation discourses are aimed at preserving species for future human generations. We see that above in the Canadian context of the Edmonton Valley Zoo. But a quick look at zoo and aquarium websites worldwide reveal that such messaging is not anomalous; conservation educational efforts are disproportionately directed at children with school visits, overnight stays, birthday parties, and camps as regular parts of the zoo and aquarium offerings and overall experience.
Consider the mission statement for the global industry-leading San Diego Zoo. In the rotating banner on their website’s home page, it says their mission is to end species extinction.Footnote 23 When a visitor clicks on the banner to learn more, they are taken to a painting of various animals that looks like it is from a children’s picture book, with the caption underneath indicating that the “San Diego Zoo global is a conservation organization committed to saving species around the world.”Footnote 24 After depictions of children along with their parents happily gazing at the animals swimming in a tank, the page goes on to discuss “The Human-Animal Connection”:
For more than a century, people have flocked to the San Diego Zoo to discover animals. The Zoo connects people with wildlife to inspire a passion for nature. Picture the wide-eyed wonder on a child’s face upon meeting a living, breathing giraffe, something she’s only seen on a digital screen before. Or the wonder of encountering a penguin that is looking at you with the same curiosity you have about him. These are the moments that tell the story of the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. It is these connections that spark the desire to protect and save species.Footnote 25
Messaging on the website of other world-famous top-ranked zoos,Footnote 26 such as at Taronga Zoo SydneyFootnote 27 and Singapore Zoo (as part of Wildlife Reserves SingaporeFootnote 28), is similar. For example, under the heading “Our Animals” across from an image of a baby chimpanzee latched onto her mother, Taronga Zoo Sydney states: “Taronga cares for over 4000 animals from over 350 species, many of which are threatened. Find out which fascinating animals you might meet on your visit, and how we’re contributing to global efforts to save species from the brink of extinction.”Footnote 29 Virtual visitors are then invited to click on animals by species to learn more and are taken to new webpages with photos and a short description of the animal species along with how the zoo is saving the species through breeding programs, participation in rehabilitation and release programs, or other initiatives.Footnote 30 Virtual visitors can also watch the animals on Taronga TV.Footnote 31 School excursions are offered, and the website assures parents that there are many “kid-friendly” activities at the zoo.
The offering of “educational” programming for children allows the zoos to present themselves as an essential provider of an important public service: teaching and inspiring the next human generation about the wonders of “nature” and the importance of wildlife conservation. How can a space that children flock to with their families to see cute animal babies and learn about the “natural world” possibly be objectionable? It is challenging to look past the family-friendly veneer of these spaces, especially given the other measures zoos have adopted to erase visible signs of captivity,Footnote 32 to expose the conditions of captivity and the harms they produce. The marshalling of children and families as principal implicit stakeholders for zoos contributes to the humane-washing that zoo critics have already pointed to regarding zoos’ efforts to improve animal welfareFootnote 33 which “make the intrinsic violence of custody and display more palatable, more subtle, and less visible.”Footnote 34
And even when such violence is on display, as it was on February 9, 2014, when the Copenhagen zoo chose to kill a healthy eighteen-month old giraffe they had named Marius because he was seen as a “surplus” animal that threatened the carefully cultivated genetic pool of giraffes in European zoos should he mature and reproduce, children are deployed to rationalize it.Footnote 35 A zoo veterinarian shot Marius in the head outside of the public eye, but the feeding of his carcass to three zoo lions (who were killed a month later to be replaced by a young male lion unrelated to the females in the den) was made public as a children’s “educational” event.Footnote 36 The zoo sought to quell the storm of international controversy that erupted through multiple justifications: (1) the breeding program’s genetic parameters, (2) using Marius’ flesh as food for zoo lions, and (3) conducting a three-hour dismemberment and dissection of Marius’ body in front of a public audience as an educational experience for children in anatomy and the realities of life.Footnote 37 All of these justifications can be impugned. Lori Gruen has noted that the disposable treatment of Marius spurred by reigning genetic logic was also then later applied to kill the lions (a mother and her two cubs) to whom Marius was fed a mere month later.Footnote 38 Despite the reining narrative of conservation, Gruen pointedly observes that “[c]ausing death is what zoos do” not simply due to genetic management concerns but also due to the effects of captivity.Footnote 39
It is instructive that the Copenhagen zoo did not merely rest on the first two justifications about why Marius had to be killed, perhaps aware that its rationalizations about genetic control of animals for conservation purposes and that Marius’ carcass was not “wasted” because three lions benefitted are not sufficient to convince the public about the ethics of killing a very young giraffe. It is likely not fortuitous that the zoo chose to market the killing as an educational opportunity – not generically, but for schoolchildren. Pointing to the absurdity of this particular invocation of the educational value of Marius’ death, Craig Gingrich-Philbrook observes: “It seems never to occur to the zoo officials offering this pedagogical alibi that, if a culture does indeed wish to educate children about the relationships between animals and death, one could easily bus them to a nearby slaughterhouse.”Footnote 40 As Gingrich-Philbrook goes on to note, of course, this does not occur, as the slaughterhouse is not perceived to be suitable viewing material for children or a family-friendly place. Children are not present at slaughterhouses, and industrialized societies take enormous discursive and material efforts to hide the way in which animals are produced from our sensibilitiesFootnote 41 and even from slaughterhouse employees themselves.Footnote 42 Gingrich-Philbrook exposes the not-so-subtle ways in which the presence of children at the zoo is critical to its organizing genetic conservationist logic justifying the zoos and aquaria’s continued need for existence. When the lethal nature of zoo decisions and activities are put (exceptionally) on public display, children are made visible to attenuate negative perception and restore confidence of zoos as ethical spaces that the public should support.
Doubtless, death of megafauna is never on display at a for-profit aquarium like SeaWorld, whose family brand – iconized through the ageless killer whale Shamu – and messaging to children is powered by relentless marketing that suggests to (the largely white or middle class families that visit), that SeaWorld is family-friendly entertainment at its best. In her incisive account of spectacle and performance on display at SeaWorld, Jane Desmond calls attention to the conservation and family-oriented discourses and practices SeaWorld marshals to validate its entertainment and reduce the chance that its adult visitors might question the captivity of orcas for the fun and thrill of watching the ocean’s top predators perform elaborate tricks at the behest of human trainers.Footnote 43 Marketing to families and even children directly is central to SeaWorld’s commercial success – gift shops that sell stuffed animals and toys to children are strategically placed throughout the theme park,Footnote 44 and SeaWorld has launched three SeaWorld Kids apps to target this key demographic.Footnote 45
But more so than marketing to ensure top profits, it is the presence and figure of human children that is critical to the validating messaging of the “good work” that SeaWorld and other animal-display venues (whether for-profit or not) are doing as “family-friendly” places to visit. Without children, the emphasis on “family” is unintelligible given the dominant heteronormative futurist logics through which most of us understand the term “family.”Footnote 46 Further, SeaWorld makes it clear that its educational and conservation messaging is directed at children.Footnote 47 Children are also invoked in legal battles that question captivity. The documentary BlackFish and memoirs by former lead trainers have affected SeaWorld’s bottom lineFootnote 48 as well as its ability to breed any more cetaceans.Footnote 49 BlackFish has also had a similar, if less direct, effect on Canada’s Vancouver Aquarium,Footnote 50 despite the fact it did not then house orcas.Footnote 51 Both have resisted the efforts of legislative bans on future breeding or captivity and animal rights campaigns against them through careful reiteration of their conservation mandate and benefit to human children.Footnote 52
13.2.2 The Use of Children to Humanize Immigration Detention and Human Prisons
In marked contrast to zoos and aquaria, immigration detention facilities and human prisons are not promoted as educational sites for children to visit. Those confined in these facilities attest to their extensive adverse effects.Footnote 53 The scholarly literature documenting the negative effects in general on humans who are kept captive is well established and will not be repeated here. What is lesser known is how children also inhabit these spaces, not only during visiting hours or as teenagers in juvenile detention facilities, but as young children who reside inside alongside their parents, overwhelmingly mothers. In this section, I discuss this phenomenon in the Canadian context and its underlying rationale as something “progressive” meant to improve the conditions of and reduce the family separation and, specifically mother-child attachment, harms that prisons and immigration detention occasion in the first place. I show how human children are marshalled to humanize these captive spaces with known disruptive and often devastating family harms.
220.127.116.11 Immigration Detention
In immigration detention centres, while some countries enforce the devastating measure of separating children from their caregivers, other countries house parents in immigration detention with their children; and others still take the further step of housing children legally entitled to be in a country (usually because they are born there after their mother entered illegally) with their “illegal” parent in detention centres. As I discuss below with respect to the Canadian context, this practice arises out of a concern for the welfare of the children as well as of the parents who wish to avoid separation from their children while detained. As recent practices at the US-Mexican border have showcased, the forced separation of children from their parents upon detention has attracted overwhelming public outcry.Footnote 54 Family maintenance during immigration processing and detention can thus be a positive measure that softens the harsh edges of immigration detention.Footnote 55
In Canada, however, separating children from their parents is supposed to be a last resort under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.Footnote 56 Minor children are not supposed to be detained except according to their best interests.Footnote 57 In 2017–18, advocacy organizations reported that 155 children were detained, an increase by their count of 4 children from 2016–17, but also a decrease from 232 in 2014–15.Footnote 58 Compared to the militarized and neoliberal border confinement practices in the United States since the 1980s,Footnote 59 Canada’s “last resort” policy appears responsive to the needs of parents and children. Yet, as a recent report prepared by the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law entitled No Life for a Child explains, the situation is anything but.Footnote 60 Parents and children face conditions and resulting harm and trauma even when together. For one, where the children themselves are Canadian citizens, parents must confront the decision of permitting their child to enter the foster care system or having them detained with them to avoid losing their children.Footnote 61 Tracking children defined as seventeen and under, the No Life for a Child report notes that “between 2010 and 2014, an average of 242 children were detained each year” with numbers declining in the last two years.Footnote 62 The authors are careful to clarify that these numbers represent children under formal detention orders, arguing that the figures are higher given that many children also live with their mothers on a de facto basis in Immigration Holding Centres.Footnote 63
Although the children are called “guests” and not “detainees,”Footnote 64 this change in language does not materially erase the violation of their rights or those of children who are also considered illegal under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), a convention to which Canada is a signatory and has ratified.Footnote 65 The CRC stipulates in Article 3 that “the best interests of the child” should be paramount in any state decision (CRC). The authors of No Life for a Child and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Special Rights of Migrants, who wrote the Foreword to the report, both emphasized that the detention of children, even when rationalized as a last resort option, does not comply with the best interests principle.Footnote 66 Children stand to suffer psychologically and have traumatized caregivers even post-release.Footnote 67 The No Life for a Child report, the United Nations Commissioner for Children, and other child rights organizations have called for children to be able to stay with their families outside of detention even while undergoing refugee, asylum, and immigration processing.Footnote 68 Such critiques of “living in” help us recognize the brutalities for children in detention while also recognizing “progressive” policies for families as a welfarist measure that permits the underlying and problematic detention to continue.
In order to contend with the growing number of female prisoners who give birth while in prison – a phenomenon related to the fast-rising rate at which women are being incarcerated – and to respect the mutual benefits of maternal care and bonding for both the mother and child, prisons worldwide have housed young children with their mothers.Footnote 69 The realization by some governments that separating children from their incarcerated parents, particularly their mothers, even for short custodial sentences, entails long-lasting adverse effects on the childFootnote 70 is to be welcomed. It is a significant achievement when contrasted with jurisdictions such as the United States, which incarcerates roughly one-third of the world’s female prisoner population estimated at 625,000 in 2018,Footnote 71 and where the opportunities for children to stay with their mothers are scant.Footnote 72 In such situations of forced parental-child separation, a parental prison sentence is still effectively shared by the child, particularly when incarceration removes a mother from the child(ren) she was caring for,Footnote 73 and not only during the period of incarceration.Footnote 74 Having an incarcerated parent is a prominent “adverse childhood experience” (ACE) that predisposes children to additional ACEs for the child’s future adult years across many measures of success and well-being.Footnote 75 Such effects are heightened further when the incarcerated parent is the mother and contribute to the intergenerational compounding of gender, race, and class inequities given the disproportionate rate at which racialized and poor mothers are incarcerated in the United States and elsewhereFootnote 76 and that the bulk of caring for children left behind falls on related female kin rather than non-incarcerated fathers.Footnote 77
Still, it would be erroneous to assume that programs that allow children to accompany their mothers to prison or stay once they are born for their early formative years are a categorical improvement for children or their mothers. Taking a closer look at the Canadian program helps understand why. In Canada, a woman who is federally sentenced has had the right to apply to live with her child since 2001 when Correctional Services Canada implemented the federal Mother-Child Program (MCP),Footnote 78 following recommendations by the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women in its report entitled Creating Choices.Footnote 79 The Task Force was established after intense media coverage of deaths in the then-existing Kingston Penitentiary for Women in Kingston, Ontario, and widespread reporting of the inhumane conditions therein.Footnote 80 The Task Force was established to change prison conditions for women.
The Task Force’s Report emphasized a “constant touchstone” for its plan to reform Canadian prisons for women, comprising the following factors: the need to “create choices” and for prison programming and operation to “mirror caring responses for women” that they would find “in the community, including Aboriginal and other ethnic communities”;Footnote 81 as in other jurisdictions where colonialism, poverty, and other forms of structural violence form the bedrock for vulnerabilities that place some more than others on a “pipeline” to prison, the incarcerated population in Canada is disproportionately poor and Indigenous.Footnote 82 In stressing the need to “empower women to take responsibility of their lives,”Footnote 83 the report asked that prison initiatives “ensure that women are treated with respect and dignity” and be driven from the ground up by listening to the voices of women who are incarcerated as to their needs.Footnote 84 In sum, the report “envisioned an idealized prison environment that emphasized serenity and tranquility, plenty of space and privacy, was rehabilitative rather than security-focused and recognized women’s particular needs.”Footnote 85 As part of the changes that were then recommended, the report stressed the important need for inmates’ living choices to include “the opportunity for mothers and children to live together based on the rights and needs of the children, mothers and significant others in each individual case” by directing that each prison facility construct “an appropriate environment to enable a child or children to live with the mother” in a cottage-like setting.Footnote 86
As of 2014, MCPs were operational in five of the six federal facilities for women inmates across Canada.Footnote 87 Full-time residency for children under five, part-time residency for children under six (originally available to children five to twelve), and regular visiting for other children are all components of the program.Footnote 88 Despite these options, overall participation is extremely low;Footnote 89 across the country a mere fourteen children lived with their mothers between 2008 and 2014 in federal prisons and only eight lived full-time.Footnote 90 Numerous academic critiques have pointed to systemic gendered, colonial, ability, and class barriers to explain the non-optimal functioning of the program leading to very low rates of participation.Footnote 91 Significantly, however, as Sarah Brennan highlights, despite the program’s minimal uptake, “[i]t is noteworthy that not a single respondent identified a lack of interest on the part of incarcerated women as a possible reason for the low participation rate in the program.”Footnote 92 We can understand that the MCP is of utmost value to women who are mothers who wish to be with their children,Footnote 93 a valuation that is common to imprisoned mothers across the globe.Footnote 94 We can also understand that the presence of such a program in a prison context is one important way prison policies can become compliant with the “constant touchstone” of the Creating Choices Report,Footnote 95 namely, to treat women with respect, dignity, and care and empower them and help generate a more compassionate prison environment. Allowing mothers to stay with their children prevents trauma and other psychological and social ills to both.Footnote 96 Correctional Service Canada (CSC) itself has stated that the program “aims to provide a supportive environment that fosters and promotes stability and continuity for the mother-child relationship.”Footnote 97 In other words, the MCP can be understood as making the prison better and thus a more humane and socially defensible place to live.
But if the CSC’s goal is “to provide a supportive environment that fosters and promotes stability and continuity for the mother-child relationship,” it is necessary to ask whether the impetus for the program should not focus on how children can best enter the prison to be with their mothers but, instead, how mothers can exit the prison environment altogether to be with their children outside of captivity and in the community context. Thus far, acknowledging the harms of mother-child separation and benefits of keeping mothers with their children has not persuaded legislatures to stop the practice of incarcerating women who are mothers with children or otherwise have had caregiving responsibility for children disrupted by their imprisonment. Neither has awareness of Canada’s international law obligations as a signatory to the CRC, where all decisions regarding children must conform to the best interests of children. If the “best interests of children” is the ultimate benchmark for state decisions where children are involved, including whether a child can stay with her mother, and it is in the case of the MCP,Footnote 98 surely doing what is in the best interests means incarcerating neither the child nor her mother.
This option has not yet emerged as a priority, let alone a solution, in public government discourse in the year since Inglis was argued and decided. Canada is also a signatory to the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (“the Bangkok Rules”), which emphasize maximizing leave opportunities for mothers where safe to do so and in children’s best interests.Footnote 99 The Canadian government has cited these rules as part of the legal framework underlying a “gender responsive” and “trauma-centred” approach to corrections outlined in a report entitled Gender Responsive Corrections for Women in Canada: The Road to Successful Reintegration.Footnote 100 Despite referencing the Bangkok Rules, and identifying the high proportion of women who are mothers/active caregivers as a key gendered reality of the female prison population, and prioritizing for future work “(o)pportunities that promote stability and continuity for the mother-child relationship,” this “trauma-informed” report makes no mention of non-custodial sentences.Footnote 101
Judicial review of the MCP’s operation has also not led to a questioning of the carceral model for mothers despite the child-centered constitutional and international law obligations constraining government action in Canada. In Inglis v. British Columbia, the only constitutional challenge brought by mothers and their babies in relation to the program, here in relation to the closing of the MCP at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women, the defendants Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor for British Columbia, the Attorney General of British Columbia, and the warden of the prison denied that the decision to cancel the program had to take into account the best interests of the children. The court rejected this argument, citing the CRC as well as the provincial child protection statute’s emphasis on the best interests of children as relevant context for the federal closure decision.Footnote 102 In addition, the court noted other child- and family-related international law principles that were applicable given Conventions that Canada had ratified. These regarded state protection for families in general, state protection for pregnant women and to mothers and newborns, and a mandate against separating children from their families unless necessary according to the best interests principle.Footnote 103 Madam Justice Ross found that the MCP was a program guided by the individualized best interests of each child, as decided by the ministry’s child protective administrative arm pursuant to the Child and Family Community Services Act.Footnote 104 She further observed that given the vulnerability and disadvantage experienced by incarcerated mothers and their babies, and noting in particular the “overrepresentation of Aboriginal women in the incarcerated population and the history of dislocation of Aboriginal families caused by state action,” that the MCP “represented a significant step forward in the amelioration of the circumstances of the mothers and their babies.”Footnote 105
The court went on to find that the closure violated section 7 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the country’s constitutional rights-protecting document vis-à-vis state action. It did so by denying both mothers and their infants their security of the person and liberty interests in remaining attached to each other and enjoying numerous benefits that attachment to mothers and breastfeeding bring for both parties now and later in life.Footnote 106 The court also held that the closure violated the equality rights of the mothers.Footnote 107 These violations could not be justified per the rationale and effects of the decision. The judicial remedy, in the end, however, was only to set aside the Corrections decision to close the program and the policy underlying it and to order the prison decision-makers to retake their decision. The mothers remained incarcerated.Footnote 108
The Inglis outcome is a “victory” for its plaintiffs in terms of the parameters of the constitutional challenged launched. Against the larger socio-legal landscape of the adverse effects of prisons on adults, but particularly children,Footnote 109 and the possibility that the MCP itself, similar to programs elsewhere,Footnote 110 is operationalized to judge women for their mothering in prison and thereby serves as “another mode of social control,”Footnote 111 the “victory” quickly loses its sheen. The option to remove mothers into the community to be with their babies or other children is not considered despite the strong rights vindication the court provides. As in the zoo context, the interests of human children, even the “best” interests of human children informed by national and international legal recognition of children’s rights, are not sufficient to question the need for incarceration of their mothers in the first place. With zoos and aquaria, animals’ incarceration is seen to be necessary to the conservation and education mandate. And in human prisons, the ongoing incarceration of mothers is presumed to be necessary presumably for reasons of public safety and deterrence. The presence of children in these carceral spaces helps to soften or gloss over the wide-ranging violence and vulnerability these spaces promote to make the captivity they embody less contentious.
13.3 Human Child–Animal Nexus: Understanding Child-Invoking Carceral Discourses as Perverse Deployments and Betrayals of Childhood
It is well established that certain human bodies are associated with nature and animals more than others. As Western societies were industrializing, human children were posited as closer to nature and surrounded with animal figures (through the rise of stuffed animals, companion animal keeping, and jungle gyms) even as societies and families transitioned from rural to urban landscapes.Footnote 112 In contemporary times, the association of children as closer to nature and animals is still intact through the continuation of stuffed animals and companion animals as normative in middle-class households,Footnote 113 coveted outdoor early childhood educational curriculums,Footnote 114 children’s picture books, readers, and other literature that is highly mediated by animal figures,Footnote 115 and, as we saw above, zoos and aquaria that pitch themselves as the ideal place for family-friendly outings where children can see “wild” animals. With this nexus in mind, this Part illuminates how this human child-animal nexus is marshaled to harm both animals and human children.
13.3.1 Children, Nature, and Innocence: Policy Drivers
The naturalization of children with an idea of pristine nature also marks their ostensible innocence and need for protection from those who would prey upon them.Footnote 116 For many non-white children in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere, the narrative of childhood innocence does not reliably apply as they (and their families) are animalized to the extent of being dehumanized.Footnote 117
What can we make of the fact that human children are naturalized and animalized more so than adults, which helps to mark them out as innocent and in need of protection, and yet certain human children are animalized to such an extent that they lose the “innocence” marking and may be rendered (like animals) dispensable if not disposable? First, the partiality and instability of the childhood innocence frame confirms that although all human children are vulnerable to exploitation because of their developmental stage, this vulnerability is differentiated according to the social location of a child. But the juxtaposition also highlights how “childhood” is a socially constructed category, a reality brought into sharp relief not only through the prism of race- and class-based concepts of innocence, but also through the implicit human qualifier that delineates the concept of “children” and denies that status to animals, often leading human exceptionalists to protest any attempt to draw analogies between human children and animals.Footnote 118
This type of “boundary maintenance”Footnote 119 to shore up the fiction of humans as not-animal alerts us to how the figure of the child can be deployed in contested social arenas to validate certain policies or laws, and dismiss or otherwise marginalize alternative possibilities, a correlation others have established.Footnote 120 I have been arguing that with respect to the ongoing socially contested nature of zoos, prisons, and detention centres, the human child helps to validate the social acceptability of zoos, prisons, and detention centres by ostensibly humanizing these carceral spaces. This dynamic ensues even as vulnerable, disproportionately poor, and racialized human children within prisons and detention centres suffer inside them and even as ideologies about improving human children’s education and futures through exposure to zoos and aquaria violate the bodies and terminate the lives of animals and their children.
13.3.2 Inculcating Human Exceptionalism through Childhood Familiars
It is important to point out the particularly perverse dimensions of this deployment of the human child in these spaces. With respect to sites of animal captivity, it seems perverse that human children, whose social worlds are immersed and entwined with those of animals,Footnote 121 who closely identify with animals,Footnote 122 and who come to them for acceptance, resilience building, and to learn social-emotional skills,Footnote 123 learn through zoos to objectify, commodify, and dominate them instead.Footnote 124 The magnitude of this perversion is amplified particularly in zones of zoo and aquarium captivity. In these sites, both for growing insurance populations to buffer possible extinction in situ and for attracting visitors and revenue, captive breeding is practiced and thus the deliberate practice of bringing animal children into this world to grow up in conditions of captivity if they are permitted – unlike Marius and the two lion cubs to whom his body parts were fed – to grow up at all.
What is also deeply troubling is that we misrepresent to children what they are seeing or otherwise apprehending when we take them to the zoo to see newborn animal babies or otherwise. These visits idealized as family-friendly educational outings are excursions to enjoy a particular type of spectacle and performance, one that expresses human domination and entails torture and misery for the captive animals that is hidden or explained away.Footnote 125 Early work on learned helplessness in animals has shown that animals suffer from “behavioural despair” when repeated attempts to escape aversive conditions are unsuccessful.Footnote 126 They also experience neuroplasticity loss and long-term activation of parts of the brain that are adverse. The problem is not just solitary confinement, but massive overcrowding and under-stimulation or over-stimulation that leads to repetitive pacing, swaying, and other signs of captivity-induced madness.Footnote 127 The observation of animals in captivity, in the end, does not inculcate a conservationist mindset; the claim has no substantiation though it is oft repeated.Footnote 128 To the contrary, studies have demonstrated that people leave zoos with a human “superiority” mindset intactFootnote 129 even if they learn something about biodiversity.Footnote 130 The zoo is clearly a site where animal childhoods are always already compromised and the almost boundless level of control that humans legally exert over animals to instrumentalize them for human purposes is on display. What the typical zoo and aquaria-going human child and animals experience in this setting (and generally) is incommensurable.Footnote 131 But we also betray human children when we present the zoo as an innocuous space rather than expose it as one that teaches them that the ideal human subject denies their kinship with animals and learns to dominate them.
13.3.3 Incarcerating Children for Their Own Good
It also seems perverse to rationalize the incarceration of human children so that they can stay with their mothers (or other primary caregivers). How can being incarcerated be in their best interests when it is demonstrable that it is better for children and their mothers to be out of a carceral environment, however socioeconomically compromised their home living situation might be?Footnote 132 Attachment theory tells us that human children suffer on multiple levels when separated from their primary caregivers.Footnote 133 But to imagine that attachment theorists would accept prison as an acceptable way to maintain family bonds, rather than return human children with their families to their communities where the family poses no risk to the child and can be supported with proper services, is a disingenuous and deeply flawed deployment of attachment theory.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the bans on public gatherings it has entailed gave many humans worldwide their first experience of lockdown, shelter in place, and of generally not being able to leave their homes for many weeks if not months. Even if they could leave, the closure of familiar places of learning, recreation, and business did not allow them much choice as to where to go and what to do. Although the privileged among us had our many digital devices as per usual, many media stories appeared, presumably meant for those securely resourced and at home but now without their regular range of mobility, as how not to get bored,Footnote 134 how to keep children entertained and stimulated,Footnote 135 and how generally to keep a positive mood and get through the experience.Footnote 136 Although doubtless a stressful experience for even those privileged by class, geographic location, and species, the reality is that we place captive animals and humans in something markedly worse and vulnerability-inducing than a COVID-19 lockdown every single day of their captive existence. What this chapter has shown is how the presence of the human child helps to obscure the chronic harms of the permanent lockdown sites our societies normalize as well as justifies their continued existence.
The social and legal remedy for zoos seems straightforward (which is not to say it will be easy to implement or that other social supports will not be needed for transitions to sanctuaries or other models of living for the former captive animals). As Pierce and Bekoff argue, the vast majority of the world’s zoos should be shut down and technological exhibits should replace live animal ones in the remaining zoos that remain open and are well managed. They write: “If zoos are mainly for children (and, as the paying addendum, the parents), these interactive exhibits have the potential to be more fun and more educational than traditional zoo animal exhibits without the collateral damage of real animal lives … Zoos with live animals would become a thing of the past.”Footnote 137 As for the captive breeding argument, zoo administrators themselves admit the limits of this argument given the increasing difficulty of introducing animals back into the wild and the loss of their natural habitat in any case.Footnote 138
The answer to the harms that prison and detention centers occasion for children also behooves us to seek out alternative justice models and community-based alternatives to prison and detention while processing immigration claims.Footnote 139 If countries, like Canada, have signed and ratified the CRC, then they have committed themselves to upholding the CRC’s championing of the best-interests-of-the-child test as the primary consideration involving all state decisions regarding children and their parents.Footnote 140 Given the literature showing both the harms to children in prison or detention as well as the harms if they are separated from their parents, particularly mothers, the answer here also seems straightforward: children and their mothers or other caregivers should not be incarcerated or detained.Footnote 141 Instead of bringing children into captivity to avoid separation, the mother or caregiver and child should remain together outside of captivity (where there is no safety risk to the child and older children able to decide for themselves wish to do so). The rights and present and future interests of the child in remaining with a loving mother or other caregiver must take priority over incarceration rationales. The funds used to support incarceration and detention can now be redirected to the social services that will be required to implement alternative justice models and housing arrangements. These funds can also support the mother and her child(ren) in the community and mitigate vulnerabilities in communities in general which shape most adults’,Footnote 142 particularly women’s, pathways to prison.Footnote 143