Friday, September 30, 2011

John Durant: Zoos and the importance of natural habitats.

Most of the time, a talk about zoos is going to focus either on the plight of captive animals or how we human animals are trapped in societal zoos. Either way, they are generally pretty depressing. But John Durant is not most people; he's a self-proclaimed modern caveman and a somewhat reluctant champion of the caveman lifestyle, despite his appearance on The Colbert Report.

John's talk at the Ancestral Health Symposium began with the history of zoos and with the story of Jumbo, one of the most famous circus elephants ever. And yes, this part was a bit depressing. The first zoos treated animals like statues, separating them into stark, cement cages and removing them completely from the natural world. The animals did not thrive. Zoos became more sophisticated over time, but the priorities of the zoo designers were off. Habitats incorporated more elements of nature, but they were designed to be visually appealing to people rather than animals. As John put it, the purpose of zoos has changed from status symbols to entertainment to education to, finally, conservation. We have now learned that the key to keeping zoo animals healthy is to replicate as much of their natural environment as possible. The present state of zoos and attitudes toward zoo design follow this paradigm. For example, the depth of water features in penguin habitats are now determined based on the diving behavior of penguins observed in the wild. Studies of wild animals also inform the diets of animals in captivity.

It seems obvious, doesn't it? Any given species, from lions to turtles, evolved in a specific region under specific conditions. Each species found its own way to adapt to its environment and create a niche that would allow it to survive. Hence, animals have the best chance to live and reproduce in those natural environments to which they adapted throughout time. Even human animals.

We, too, perform best under the conditions to which our bodies and minds adapted over the whole of human history. To be clear, John is not advocating that we all go back to living in caves. There are quite a number of novel aspects of our habitat that are positive (flush toilets and antibiotics are two that come to mind). Rather, the idea is the same as with zoos – to the extent possible, replicate your natural environment to enable yourself to reach your full potential. John elaborated on this idea in our interview. Even in a modern world, we can get back in touch with our past by taking walks, eating a prehistoric diet, and sleeping in a dark quiet place, undisturbed by modern “advances” such as alarm clocks, nightlights, honking horns, or that red indicator light on the fire alarm. Visiting zoos, John pointed out, is a great way for us to reconnect with animals and nature in a way that is reminiscent of our paleolithic past. When it comes to exercise, be outside whenever possible. Preferably barefoot.

Barefoot? Yes, John is a big supporter of the barefoot and minimalist shoe movement. In fact, at the interview, he was wearing what looked like a flat piece of wood with a rope cord woven through it, wrapping around his toe and ankle. My flip flops would look like orthopedic support shoes next to these things. As John explained, our feet are designed for walking and running. Up until the very recent invention of shoes, our feet got us everywhere we needed to go, without arch support or motion control or custom orthotics. Our feet are incredibly sophisticated and instantly responsive. They are already the best running shoes we could ever have.

I think what makes people like John Durant is that he is genuine and humble. He lives like a caveman because it makes him healthy and happy, not so he can be famous or rich or sell you something. John practices what he preaches, and I think he's a lot more interested in living than preaching. Despite having been interviewed by Stephen Colbert, John actually seemed nervous to speak with me and worried about how he would do in the interview. John, if you are reading this, it was a pleasure.

But what does all this teach me about ethical eating? When I started this journey, I was most focused on the corn industry, especially the ways in which it contributes to environmental damage and the link between cheap corn feed and the development of confined animal feeding operations. CAFOs do a great deal of environmental damage in their own right. Plus, the animal waste has proven harmful to people in neighboring communities. And, for me, the absolutely appalling conditions these animals have to endure make any food produced in this way totally unpalatable.

As I have learned more about the important links between health and ancestral diets – both for humans and animals – our system looks more and more broken. Grain subsidies (corn, wheat, and soy) make novel, refined foods the cheapest and most abundant calories on the market. Combined with refined sugars, these foods appear to the be basis for Western diseases like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, cancer, Alzheimer's, and many autoimmune disorders. We are sick, and the animals we eat are sick.

I consider an ethical food system to be one that provides healthy food over many generations. To achieve this, we must reject diets based on refined grains, added sugars, and meat from unhealthy animals. One of the things I learned from John is that both animals and humans achieve healthfulness in the same way - by embracing our nature. We depend on animals as a food source; for us to be healthy, we need to keep them healthy too.

Below, you can watch John's interview and follow along with his slides. Eventually, the slides will be embedded, and I'll provide an updated link.

"Wild animals, zoos, and you: The influence of habitat on health" by John Durant

You can also listen to John's answers to my questions in this video (which may also be updated soon):

John Durant Interview at #AHS11 from Ancestry on Vimeo.

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