This Is Animal Crackers

When I was a kid, we spent large chunks of the summer at my grandfather’s house in southern New Hampshire. On one visit, we went to Benson’s Wild Animal Farm in nearby Hudson. Benson’s was part zoo, part circus, part kiddie amusement park. I have vague memories of seeing some animals in cages, watching some animal shows, and riding around the park on a little train. Feeling nostalgic recently, I wondered about the history of Benson’s; naturally, I turned to the Internet.

Original Newspaper Ad for Benson’s Opening in 1926.

I learned that Benson’s opened in 1926 but was in a period of decline in the 1970s when I visited. A new owner, Arthur Provencher, bought Benson’s in 1979 and tried to create publicity for the place. One stunt was an attempt to put the zoo’s 500-pound silverback gorilla on the primary ballot for the 1980 presidential election. Colossus G. Benson was driven to Concord, the state capital, to file the forms, but he was kept in the parking lot on a truck trailer, since a gorilla free in the statehouse was deemed too risky. Instead, a chimpanzee in a white tuxedo was sent inside with a note that declared Colossus’s candidacy. Provencher argued that nothing in the US Constitution prohibited animals from running for president. His dream was dashed when Colossus was rejected—not because he was a gorilla, but because he wasn’t thirty-five and didn’t meet the age requirement.

Colossus G. Benson Presidential Trading Card

Ultimately, Provencher was unable to turn Benson’s Wild Animal Farm around, and it closed in 1987, the victim of the economy and a growing understanding of how animals in captivity should be housed and treated. The land it sat on was eventually given to the Town of Hudson, who turned it into a public park in 2010. Some of the original landmarks, like the Old Lady in the Shoe shoe-shaped building and Colossus’s cage, were restored as part of the rehabilitation and are now available for families to explore. The new park gets excellent reviews on Trip Advisor, with one 2013 reviewer, Amanda6500, noting, “I think the favorite part of the park was the gorilla cage that the kids can play in . . . There is a gorgeous mural on the back wall and the kids seem to love the novelty of being in a cage.”

That metal-on-metal sound you are hearing in  your head as you read this is my Internet research coming to a screeching halt, as my brain, fully functioning in 2019, screamed, “Wait. What!? Do they though?” This casual 2013 comment was really jarring when juxtaposed with the fact that our current government has an actual policy of keeping kids in cages.

On an average day in the United States in 2019, our government has more than 2,000 kids being held, without their parents, by the US Border Patrol. In theory, the law says they can be housed for up to 72 hours, but then they are supposed to be released to a relative in the United States. In practice, kids are often kept much longer, and over the last couple of weeks, we’ve learned more about the conditions in which many of the children are held. They are often housed in make-shift cages with a mat on a concrete floor to sleep on. Sometimes, they don’t even have that, if the guards take the mat away as punishment. The government also withholds showers, soap, toothpaste . . .

One Trump administration lawyer tried to argue that they were only charged with maintaining “safe and sanitary” conditions, and soap and toothpaste were unnecessary to meeting that requirement. This prompted clapback on Twitter from Michael Scott Moore, who in 2012 was kidnapped and held for two and half years by Somali pirates. On June 22, he tweeted, “Somali pirates gave me toothpaste & soap.” David Rohde, a journalist kidnapped by the Taliban in 2008, retweeted Moore on June 24, and added, “The Taliban gave me toothpaste & soap.” What does it say about us when the US government has lost the moral high ground to pirates and the Taliban?

Meanwhile, we’re arguing semantics. Are these “concentration camps”? Does this constitute torture? The Trump camp argues no, but under a different presidency, if this were happening in a different country, we would be discussing human rights violations and talking about UN sanctions. A June 21 report by the Associated Press noted after a visit to the Clinton Detention Center in El Paso, Texas, that “kids are taking care of kids, and there’s inadequate food, water and sanitation for the 250 infants, children and teens at the Border Patrol station.”

The outcry after the report was so great that the acting head of Customs and Border Protection, John Sanders, stepped down, and most of the children at Clinton were removed to a tent detention center. But they still remain in the custody of US Border Patrol. I don’t think “Kids in Cages” was the legacy Sanders wanted to be remembered for. We citizens need to continue pointing out the depravity of the situation until the Trump administration as a whole is shamed into following the law and treating immigrants and asylum seekers humanely.

Thus far, however, the current government shows no signs of either shame or willingness to act to rectify the situation. Perhaps then, we need to get Ndume on the New Hampshire primary ballot. He’s a western lowland silverback gorilla who currently lives in the Cincinnati Zoo. Ndume is thirty-seven, so he meets the age requirement. He knows a modified version of American Sign Language, so he is probably better at communicating than some currently serving in government. Most importantly, Ndume knows what it is like to spend life confined—of course, his “cage” has plenty of room and is designed with his health and well-being in mind.

Text © Rebecca Bigelow
Photos © 1 & 2 public domain; 3 from The Lego Movie;
4 screenshot (6/30/19) of Moore’s Twitter post.

RESOURCES

On the history of Benson’s Wild Animal Farm:

On what is happening at the border:

On Ndume:

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Exorcising Your Right to Vote

I once cheerfully disenfranchised my whole family. We were taking a vote on something trivial: what movie to watch—Mulan vs. Aladdin. My husband and kids voted for one movie. I voted for another. Gleefully, the kids crowed about winning. I doubled down.

“Put your hands down!” I ordered. I pointed to the twins. “You two aren’t old enough to vote.” Then I pointed to my husband. “And you can’t vote in this country because you’re English. Since I’m the only one in this family both old enough to vote and a citizen of the United States, I win!”

See how easy it is to make it hard to vote? There are all sorts of ways that people can try to take away your vote. Gerrymandering is a fun one. We once lived in Pennsylvania. After we left, the district we were in became one of the most gerrymandered in the United States. The press called it “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.”

Goofy Kicks

Donald looks more like Stitch to me, but regardless, the Republicans in Pennsylvania cheerfully created this district to give themselves more seats in the legislature by grouping together as many Republican votes as possible. Here’s how District 7 looked prior to this 2003 gerrymandering.

PA 7

And when we lived there, the district had even more regular boundaries than that! But lest you think this is only a nefarious plan on the part of Republicans, the Democrats are guilty too. Here’s Maryland’s District 3, which a local politician once said looked like “blood spatter from a crime scene.”

MD 3

Of course, gerrymandering is not a recent phenomenon; in fact, it takes its name from a former governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry. Gerry was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and James Madison’s vice president, but he’s most remembered as the governor whose administration enacted an 1812 law that created more senatorial districts in Massachusetts, thus giving his party more votes. Since one of the newly created Boston-area districts was said to resemble a salamander, the press dubbed it a “Gerry-mander.”

Gerry-mander

Elkanah Tisdale political cartoon of the “Gerry-Mander”

But gerrymandering is only one way to favor a particular outcome in an election. If you can’t redraw the map to make it harder for your opponents’ votes to count in the newly rigged district, you could try implementing a voter ID law. Twelve states, all Republican held, now have strict voter ID laws where voters have to show an approved ID to vote. Eight other states (six Republican, a swing state, and a Democratic state) require the ID, but they will allow voters to cast a provisional ballot without it. The problem here is that voters have to return with a valid ID within a certain time frame (usually a few days) for the provisional ballot to be counted. Which ID is valid varies by state. In Texas, for example, you can show your gun permit, but your university ID doesn’t count.

Opponents liken this mandatory voter ID system to a poll tax because the voter usually has to pay for the ID, and it is often inconvenient for voters to get because they have to go to a centralized location. Poll taxes (essentially a fee for voting) began in the late 1800s in the South as a way to keep African Americans and poor whites from voting, although the latter might be “grandfathered in” if they had a relative who voted before the Civil War. The legality of the direct fee-to-vote system was struck down by the 24th Amendment in 1964. So of course, proponents of strict voter ID laws argue that these laws are not a poll tax at all; after all valid government ID is useful in other situations besides voting. But an analysis of the effect of voter ID laws show that, like the poll tax, they disproportionately prohibit minorities, students, and the poor—the very people who struggle most to find transportation to a state-approved ID facility and the money to pay for the ID—from voting.

Poll Tax

While you might think these voter ID laws are a legacy from years ago, they are actually a relatively new voter suppression tactic. Indiana was the first state to pass a strict voter ID law in 2005. The Supreme Court upheld the law in 2008, and additional states have piled on since. Proponents argue these ID laws are important for preventing voter fraud at the polls, but study after study has found there are actually very few instances of impersonation voter fraud—the type that a voter ID would prevent. According to Justin Levitt, a professor with Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, that number is 31 attempts in more than a billion ballots cast since 2000. That result doesn’t even round to a hundredth of a percent; it is basically zero.

If you’re not a fan of looking at terrible voter ID pictures, you might choose to make it physically harder to vote. You can do that by closing polling places or shortening the hours of voting (both in the period leading up to the election when absentee ballots are cast and on the actual day of the election). This tends to create long lines, causes confusion on where to vote, and often forces the voter to have to travel farther to get to the polls. Again studies show this tactic disproportionately affects minorities and the poor. In the South alone, after part of the Voting Rights Act was struck down in 2013, almost 900 polling places were closed in areas that served these populations in the period leading up to the 2016 election.

And if you find it too much trouble to close down the polling places, you can always just drop people from the voting rolls (sometimes without telling them), prevent released convicts who have served their sentences from ever voting again, change the rules about how the voter has to go about registering, or any number of other methods politicians use to keep people from voting—usually in the fear that the masses won’t vote for their candidates and thus the only way to win is to game the system.

vote here

Sure, it feels great for a minute or two to win that election because you suppressed the vote (after all, I still feel sure my favorite Disney movie, Mulan, is superior to Aladdin,* one of  the kids’ favorites [Mulan is literally a kick-ass female lead; what’s not to love?]), but if we disenfranchise other voters, a tenet of our democracy is lost in the process. If the politician (or parent) has to rig the system to win, they aren’t really representing the will of the people. In the years since the movie incident, I’m pleased to report that my husband became an American citizen and the kids are now duly registered voters. Their votes each count equally to mine, and that’s how it should be.

On Tuesday, November 6, voters will once again head to the polls to vote in the midterm elections. As we’ve seen, plenty of people want to suppress your vote. Don’t let them. Please check your local requirements and take the time to let your voice be heard. It belongs to you alone, and it matters.

Text © Rebecca Bigelow
Photos from Wiki Commons

Additional Reading

 

*Hey, Aladdin fans, I like your movie pick. I just like mine more! YMMV.