Archive for the ‘Anthropomorphism’ Category

Is Offshore Whale Watching a Threat, too?

» January 6th, 2014

The following letter just came in to The Pitchfork and I found it intriguing and counterintuitive enough to post. I would love to learn more about the problems in this seemingly benign industry.


An excellent response by Dr. Rose.

On another subject, I have concerns. The present backlash against SeaWorld and other international aquaria will lead to more people participating in whale watching tours to view wild whales. Whale watching is itself an incredibly problematic industry– whales are hounded from sunup to sunset, and are deprived of the right to feed, rest, socialize and breed. There is nothing normal or natural about this kind of interaction between whale watching vessels and orca whales.

The resident orcas of SW British Columbia and the NW United States are a critically endangered species. In BC, they are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, The Endangered Species Act and the Species at Risk Act, yet the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is chronically understaffed and ill-equipped to prosecute individuals and businesses who break these laws.

I just want to let people know that whale watching tours are not a reasonable alternative to places like Sea World. If you ARE looking for an alternative, please consider onshore whale watching. There is less of a guarantee that you will see whales, but when you do, I promise you it will be much more emotionally and intellectually fulfilling. An additional bonus is that you may see the whales from much closer-up (marine vessels are supposed to stay 100m from marine mammals). Please do the right thing for orcas. There are many places along the British Columbian and Washington Coast to view these animals humanely –and similarly, I’m certain there are many places across the globe where you can view them from onshore.

Doesn’t A Killer Whale Suffer in Captivity?

» January 5th, 2014

In the course of researching killer whales for what I hoped would be several posts, I put the above question to SeaWorld spokesman, Fred Jacobs. Here is his answer:

“There is . . . no truth to your claim on stress.  We have displayed killer whales for nearly 50 years.  In that time our trainers have interacted with them hundreds of times a day, every day.  Literally millions of safe interactions with these animals.  SeaWorld is an accredited and respected zoological institution that operates under multiple, overlapping federal and state animal welfare laws.  The overwhelming majority of killer whales in our parks were born in our parks.  They adapt very well to their environments.  Our standards of care are the highest in the zoological community: ample food, clean and chilled water, exercise, mental stimulation, veterinary care and the company of other members of their species.”

Needless to say, I sense something fishy in this answer. So I turned to Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist known globally for her work on orcas. She generously addressed Mr. Jacobs’s response point by point in an email. Here it is:

FJ: There is no truth to your claim on stress.  We have displayed killer whales for nearly 50 years.  In that time our trainers have interacted with them hundreds of times a day, every day.  Literally millions of safe interactions with these animals. 

NR: [T]his claim, which SeaWorld has been making ever since Dawn Brancheau was killed (the company relied heavily on it in the first OSHA hearing), is misleading at best and simply incorrect at worst. The correct metric to determine the safety of interacting with this species is not the number of interactions but the number of whales involved in injuries and deaths.

SeaWorld has held approximately 60-70 whales in its history. Of these, at least 10 (and frankly it’s been more, but these are the ones I know for certain) have been involved in interactions that resulted in people’s injuries or deaths. THAT’s the relevant metric. An analogy would be if there was a car model that had a design flaw that will eventually result in brake failure in some percentage of cars. One might drive any such car hundreds or even thousands of miles before the failure, but eventually the brakes will fail in some percentage of cars because of this flaw. So the relevant metric would be not how many miles one drives before the failure, but the number of cars that eventually fail. If only 1-2% of cars of this model experienced brake failure, they would be recalled.

In SeaWorld’s case, at least a sixth of its whales have “failed” – that’s a double digit failure rate, which in any other industry would result in a recall.

 FJ: SeaWorld is an accredited and respected zoological institution that operates under multiple, overlapping federal and state animal welfare laws. 

NR: The fact that SeaWorld is accredited is irrelevant if the accreditation process itself is flawed, which I argue it is. But regardless, there are not “multiple” federal and state animal welfare laws under which SW operates – this is just a strange claim altogether. SW operates under only two federal laws (there are no state welfare laws that apply to marine mammal display) – and only one of these is significant. The Animal Welfare Act sets care and maintenance standards for captive marine mammals, but has been under fire for years for being out of date (its enclosure size standards, for example, haven’t been updated since 1984). The Marine Mammal Protection Act addresses only one element of captive marine mammal display – education. However, the MMPA requires that a marine mammal display facility only meet professional industry standards for education, so this element is self-policed and in essence means that educational standards have no outside oversight.

 FJ: The overwhelming majority of killer whales in our parks were born in our parks.

NR: This is true, but it’s because almost all of the wild-caught whales SW once had have died. They only have five left, out of 31 total (so 26 wild-caught whales have died over the years at SW). Arguably ALL of those whales should still be alive, since the oldest of them would only be in their 50s or 60s (and orcas can live to be 60-90). But even more charitably, at least half of those 26 should still be alive.

 FJ: They adapt very well to their environments. 

 NR: This statement has absolutely no meaning. This is the very debate we are having in the scientific and public communities. SW obviously believes this, but it has very few data to back it up. I have a lot more data to support my position that they do NOT adapt well at all to their “environments” in captivity. They die young, they have poor dental health, many new mothers do not nurse their calves properly (some outright reject their calves, a very rare phenomenon in the wild, if it occurs at all), they are abnormally violent toward each other and they have injured and killed people.

 FJ: Our standards of care are the highest in the zoological community: ample food, clean and chilled water, exercise, mental stimulation, veterinary care and the company of other members of their species.

 NR: Fred’s claim here is actually completely accurate – SW’s standards of care are the highest in the zoo and aquarium world. But that is not the same as being comparable to natural habitat.

Food at SW is ample, but it is limited in diversity – SW’s orcas are fed fish species that are not necessarily preferred in the wild and some of the whales SW has held were mammal-eaters and had to adapt to eating fish. Frozen fish usually have lower nutritional value than fresh, so most captive orcas have to receive vitamin supplements. Same for water content – frozen fish have lower water content (whales and dolphins get their water from their food – they do not drink) and therefore some captive orcas need water supplements in the form of gelatin.

The clean and chilled water is unnatural – it is “too” clean (even pristine ocean water is not as clean as tank water, which is nearly sterile). It is also often artificial (only SW San Diego uses natural seawater – San Antonio and Orlando use artificial seawater). The methods to keep it hygienic do not allow any fish or algae to be placed in the tank (and such additions would also interfere with visibility during the show). In short, while water quality at SW is the “best in the business,” it compares poorly to natural habitat.

To claim that captive orcas get adequate exercise is simply illogical. These are animals that never stop moving in the wild – even when resting (they do not sleep the way we sleep) they slowly swim forward. In captivity, they can spend hours “logging” (remaining motionless at the surface). This is the epitome of unnatural behavior. Captive orcas are the equivalent of couch potatoes. Some are more active than others, but none are as active as they are in the wild. They almost certainly have health issues that are related to this lack of activity, just as with humans – it is certainly one easy explanation for their shortened life spans in captivity.

As for mental stimulation, I consider that an illogical claim as well. Orcas are not naturally diurnal – that is, they are not active in the day and inactive at night, as humans are. They rest when they are tired, whenever that may be. They are active when they need to be. Daylight means less to them than to land mammals, as they are often at depth where it is always dark (they “see” with sound – echolocation – and their vision is less dominant as a sense than their hearing). So the diurnal cycle they are forced to adopt in captivity is actually completely unnatural, meaning they spend at least 8 hours – during the nighttime when the park is closed – inactive, which is not normal for them. In short, I think boredom is actually the most significant stress they face in captivity – their tanks have no variety, no diversity, no CHANGE. Their environment never changes and they spend a lot of time (unnaturally) inactive.

As for veterinary care, the simple response to that is, wild orcas don’t need veterinary care. Also, as Dr. Chris Dold (the lead vet at SW) testified in court at the OSHA hearing, orca veterinary science is still largely an ART, not a science – they still guess a lot about diagnoses and treatments and often guess wrong.

Finally, while SW orcas do have the company of their own species (which is more than Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium has, for example), they do not have family. SW often separates family members – this is a species that probably has the strongest family bonds of any mammal in the world, including humans. SW’s habit of moving calves to other facilities – sometimes when they are younger than two years of age – is perhaps the most damaging thing that happens to orcas there. Captive orcas are not socialized properly, because they are removed from their mothers far too young. This may be one of the reasons they exhibit unnatural levels of violence toward each other and toward people (the same thing has been observed in elephants – orphans of culls, who are raised “without adult supervision,” are often unnaturally violent when they grow up).


» September 10th, 2013

In his famous paper “Against the Moral Standing of Animals,” the philosopher Peter Carruthers deploys a Rawlsian version of contractual moral theory to argue that non-human animals (qua animals) “make no moral claims on us.” Upshot: “they have no rights.” Big claim. Challenging claim. Kind of annoying claim.

Contractualism, as Carruthers presents it, assumes that rational and consenting humans will, when asked to construct an arrangement (contract) to guide human behavior toward a stable society, reasonably extend basic rights to all humans while denying them to all non-humans. They will, he suggests, make this distinction on two grounds: a) that  non-humans animals cannot offer their consent to a human contract and b) that rational humans could never imagine living their lives as non-human (rational or otherwise) being—hence their placement beyond the pale.

The essential stipulations within contractualism are that humans are rational and able to consent to a contractual agreement. These stipulations, however, would seem ipso facto to exclude humans who are cognitively impaired, senile, or inflicted with dementia. Why–in this act of imagining a social contract— would certain moral rights be extended to these groups of “impaired” humans but not to non-humans? This is a significant challenge for Carruthers (one originally presented by Singer), and his answer to it exposes the devastating weakness of the overall argument.

In essence, Carruthers maintains that while neither group—non-humans nor “impaired” humans—can fulfill the basic requirements for contractualism, the impaired humans would alone be granted rights because a) we love them as family members; and b) we can imagine ourselves in such a condition. This rationale, however, fails for several reasons, three of them marginal and one fundamental. (I’m sure there are more, but I’m trying to sound like I know what I’m doing here.)

The marginal: First, many people in fact love their pets more than their relatives (think of that weird uncle versus your loving dog)—for this phenomenon there is empirical evidence. Second, the privileging of impaired humans over non-humans requires that we accept a reality in which a non-human (say, a pig) who is more cognitively and emotionally aware than a human (dementia patient) has no rights vis-a-vis the human. This second problem would certainly qualify as speciesism, thereby raising the question of how any moral theory that accommodates speciesism could be called fair. Third, contractualism seems to exclude historical reality, one that undermines Carruthers’ claim that humans would automatically think of humans in terms of humans. Historical newsflash: whites would not have thought thusly of blacks in 1800 in America, Germans would not have thought thusly of Jews in 1940, and Tutsis would not have thought thusly of Hutus in 1990. Contractualism fails to accommodate tribalism and nationalism.

But these are only dents in Carruthers’ argument—they could all be, I suppose, hammered out. The big flaw, the fundamental flaw, is a philosophical contradiction. At perhaps the most interesting point in the argument, Carruthers argues that, despite the fact that animals do not have rights, we should not harm them. We should restrain our harm because harming animals harms humans, predisposing us to violence, hooliganism, and general bad behavior. Example: if we came across a bunch of punks beating a cat senseless, Carruthers claims we should object to this behavior not because the cat suffers but because it degrades the humans who are beating the cat, bothers others who witness the beating, and might bleed over into the prospect of humans harming humans.

When Carruthers tossed out this example I knew his case was toast.

Here’s why: what if the punks were beating up a chair? Would the outcome that Carruthers predicts for the cat be the same? Would humans be similarly upset, or reach the same “humans would be harmed conclusion”? Of course not. We’d call it performance art and probably give it an NEH grant or something. The reason for worrying about the impact of beating a cat versus a chair is that we know, on a basic emotional and empathetic level, that the cat suffers. The chair doesn’t suffer. Emotions, in other words, are critical in our assessment of who deserves rights.

Carruthers knows this about emotions. He knows emotions matter when it comes to contractualism. Recall, he said we’d care enough about the drooling invalid family member to grant him rights because, alas, he was someones’s relative and thus subject to the human (and non-human) emotion of love. If you grant emotion in this scenario, you have to grant it in the cat/chair scenario. And if you do that, the contract is drowned by, of all beautiful things, our bleeding heart.






The Hen

» September 8th, 2013

It’s training season for long runners in the ATX and I ran 20 miles (and change) yesterday morning (ultra marathon coming up in November). Before my run I ate my standard piece of whole wheat toast slathered with a sliced banana, apricot jam, and nutritional yeast.

This did the trick as my energy level never flagged during the run, which we did at talking pace. To recover, I had a kale/mint/turmeric/banana smoothie from Juiceland made by Bryce (on right) and a soft whole wheat taco with faro, chia seeds, avocado, hemp seeds, and lentils. The recovery, assisted by a 30-minute nap, was immediate. Was able to swim laps with ease later in the day and, this morning, do eight more miles, again slowly, on the Greenbelt. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I could never do any of this before going vegan.

Then I met friends, running buddies, for a beer. A delicious pint of local beer. We drank our local beer, we admired the woodwork (longleaf pine), we appreciated the table that held our beer aloft (live oak wood), and we talked about, well, running, and we made running plans. I had to leave a little early and, as I hopped on my bike, a squall came out of nowhere. I began to ride. White clouds crowded out the blue sky (pic above), layers of gray formed in the distance, and winds of 40 mph flew in from the south to turn the intersection where I rode into a swirling dustbowl.

I pedaled off in a mild panic as this little weather event unfolded. It’s hard to explain (it always is) but it was if a mini tornado had exploded in the ten square feet around me. The gusts, which had been channelled into a funnel by the loft high rises around me, were strong enough to almost blow me off my bike. I veered without meaning to veer very close to a row of parked cars.  Dust covered my eyes and as I pedaled down the middle of the street into the teeth of the gale and a rock the size of a blueberry landed in my mouth. I spat it out and, as I did, I found myself staring down at an impossibly beautiful speckled hen.

I thought she was an apparition. But she was real—an escapee, no doubt, from the land of the locavores– and she seemed scared. We locked eyes for a moment, as if we were both saying what the hell are we doing here and then she skittered under a parked car.  I envisioned placing her in my saddlebag and riding home, but then began to wonder how my dogs would react. In any case, I got off my bike to take a look, peeked under the car, and she was gone.


Is the Hen Trend about to End?

» February 22nd, 2013

Is it my imagination or is the trend of keeping backyard chickens on the wane? This is obviously a very difficult thing to measure. But I ask the question for a basic reason. In the last month two hen keepers I know well have announced that they’re phasing hens out of their lives. Not a statistically significant sample, but perhaps a harbinger?

Both have found safe homes for many, but not all, of their birds. The ones that remain behind, not surprisingly, are finished laying eggs and, because it would traumatize the kids,they’re also immune to becoming dinner. They are, in essence, a major headache. One that will be around for another decade  for these well-intentioned but misled locavores.

Unlike my friends, many hen keepers acquired their birds on a lark. They saw a show on television, read an article or two, digested one too many foodie books, or decided they had to “know where my food comes from.” The wave of support that encouraged the hen trend abjectly failed to come with warning labels. It’s sooo easy, everyone said. And now the truth is coming home to roost: it’s not.  There are realities that the media never mentioned. These birds might be self-sufficient in the wild, but not in your little crabgrass frontier.

Chickens get killed by dogs, hawks, snakes, and foxes. That’s a bummer. The kids get attached to the chickens and when they stop laying eggs you cannot slaughter them without racking up psychological bills for life. When you head to the Cape for the summer, you now have to pay someone to care for them. Your colleagues get over the novelty of eating local eggs. The calm hen turned out to be a crazy rooster and your neighbors now hate you.  Hen or rooster, their poop sort of stinks.

Humans may be gullible but we’re not stupid. Given that enough clueless consumers bought hens, and given that the downsides have had plenty of time to sink in, perhaps we can take some solace in the prospect that maybe, just maybe, my friends aren’t alone in saying “never again.”

tomorrow: a report on my bill and lou project (and a request)

A Cat on a Quest

» January 22nd, 2013

The most read story. at the New York Times as of this morning was about a lost cat, Holly, who traveled 200 miles over two months through Florida to find her owners. The Times piece quoted our friend Marc Bekoff, who said, “I really believe these stories, but they’re just hard to explain . . .  Maybe being street-smart, maybe reading animal cues, maybe being able to read cars, maybe being a good hunter. I have no data for this.” No data indeed–how could we have data on such an event? But a lack of data hardly means we shouldn’t draw some important conclusions from such an astounding feline accomplishment.

Such as: maybe it’s not all that astounding. Perhaps cats—and all the animals we think we know so much about—possess remarkable abilities that humans, stuck in a self-referential gaze, fail to recognize. This seems to me a likely scenario. After all, whenever scientists do take a systematic look at animal behavior, they always find something new, and the regularity with which we are making surprising discoveries about animal cognition and behavior strongly indicates that we’ve barely scratched the surface of animal minds. The Times captured this sentiment back in a 2006 editorial. It wrote,  “We keep probing the animal world for signs of intelligence—as we define it—and we’re always surprised when we discover it. This suggests that something is fundamentally wrong with our assumptions.”

It’s a great point. Unfortunately, the lack of data to explain these sorts of happenings allow skeptics to reduce clear cases of animal decision-making to instinct. I say “reduce” because it’s a willful denial of situational thinking, the kind of thinking that would raise serious questions about the overall ways we treat “higher” animals in general. It is a testament to our deep-seated fear that we may be very wrong about animals that so many of us, scientists included, refuse to be swayed by an overwhelming example of a house pet using what appear to us as stunning navigational skills to go from Daytona to West Palm Beach.  To grant that Holly figures that business out on her own is to force a reexamination of our opinions of animals in general, and how we treat them.

The other point to keep in mind–in addition to the obvious point that Holly was making situational choices only partially based on instinct–is that, as we continue to document animal intelligence irrespective of instinct, we must remind ourselves that intelligence mustn’t be the yardstick for lending animals moral consideration. That honor belongs to sentience—which I see as basically the ability to experience suffering as a conscious being.  Fetishizing intelligence in animals can be dangerous because it creates a situation in which the animals we study—and, inevitably, find intelligence—will be the animals that get our moral consideration. And that, of course, is no way to evaluate animal rights. It’s too arbitrary.

In the end I see Holly’s geographical conquest as a heartwarming story that affirms the power of the human-animal bond while reminding us that there is so much we do not know about animal cognition and behavior. In a more optimistic interpretation, it might also serve as a gateway of sorts for people who never think about animal rights to start thinking about them and, in so doing, move toward a basic appreciation of sentience as a moral arbiter.  In any case, three cheers for this amazing cat.





Wisdom of the Weevil

» January 11th, 2013

In 1575 a French court brought legal charges against a band of weevils. The upstart insects had allegedly destroyed local vineyards. The French, then as now, aren’t all that friendly when someone gets between them and wine. The beetles, who were granted the same due process as humans, were appointed a couple of lawyers to argue their cause, as it were.  One the attorneys made a fascinating case, a case that really dropped my jaw. (And no, this is not the pretext for a Monty Python skit.)

He insisted that the weevils were innocent because, although they had indeed infested the intoxicating fruit of the vine, their right to do so was protected. It was protected because, according to Genesis, they were there first. In other words, when it came to access to environmental resources, weevils had right of first refusal based on seniority of species.  As the case proceeded, the townspeople, evidently not offended by this line of argumentation, helpfully arranged an alternative space for the beetles to eat, one that was situated far away from their cultivated vineyards.  (How they would have informed beetles where to eat goes unexplained.)  We don’t know how the case ended because the legal document was destroyed by—not kidding here—weevils.

Let’s leave Genesis out of it for now and explore the implications of this first-on-the-cosmic-scene rationale for resource consumption.  If we take the liberty of updating this case for contemporary analysis, we might contemplate a usable environmental ethic that recognizes humans as serious latecomers to the game of life, and thus last on the list justified to privatize and consume its natural riches. It’s not that out of the question. Freshly aware of our newly minted status, we certainly could have, at some point, drawn on the sixteenth-century lawyer’s logic to nurture our role on earth as humble managers rather than greedy consumers. In this formulation, human complacency as the greatest link in the chain of being would have been rusted up by the force of time—eons and eons of time during which the complexity of biological interaction laid the basis for our frontal lobes to become froth and screw everything up.

Yeah, I know. More magical thinking.  But it’s interesting—inspiring maybe—to think about how it might have been, how the human-animal relationship, much less the overall human relationship with the environment, would have evolved if, when the world’s population was about 350 million people, humans had smoked a bowl, chilled out, stared at the clouds, and adhered to the logic of the weevil case, ceding to weevils what were weevils’ due.  Instead, the bloated footprint of our species, one that has practically smothered the earth, has suffered a case of caffeine-infused gigantism, stomping upon the unfathomable tangle of biological complexity , fetishizing the teleology of materialism, and, throughout it all, shoving as much of the world as we can into our big mouths.

So, yeah, it’s helpful to sometimes think how it might have otherwise been, that paradise we chose to kick into the ditch of the past. Because if the environmental Cassandras are singing the right song, dreaming is all we have left.  The day of the weevil has passed.


Acting Like Animals

» January 10th, 2013


I don’t fully believe what I’m preparing to propose here, but some very intelligent people do so I want to put it out there. Plus, I’ve been wrong more than a time or two and have deep respect for the power of unintended consequences. Finally, as someone who happens to be quite comfortable doing nothing more for animals than reading, writing, and thinking about them, this task of second guessing conventional claims hits the bullseye (apologies) of my comfort zone. So here’s the idea: by collapsing the species barrier in an effort to treat animals with due moral consideration, we may—in our intimate interaction with them—justify the adoption of animal habits that would be atrocious for the prospects of human decency.

I don’t know. It sounds crazy. But think it through. Animal rights advocates work hard to create porous boundaries between humans and non-humans—especially relatively intelligent invertebrates. A primary justification for doing so is the hope that, in tearing down these walls of separation, humans will incorporate animals into our circle of compassion and treat them with appropriate dignity and respect for their ability to suffer as sentient creatures. Very rarely do we wonder, however, about the influences animals might have on humans if, indeed, the boundaries between us and them were made more fluid. The bad influences, that is.

Yes, yes, animals can be altruistic and cooperative—I get that. But they can also be, sorry, “animals.” They can, in other words, adhere to a vicious form of justice and retribution, one admittedly unmarked by free-will, but still marked by violence, survivalism of the fittest, and blatant prejudices rooted in biological realities. Humans have spent a great deal of history striving to wean ourselves away from racism, sexism, violence, and other forms of maltreatment that degrade the potential of our species. What if animals—the beings to whom we want to intermingle with in the realm of moral equality—offered us an excuse to indulge in what we have worked so hard as humans to minimize? What if they erased our progress, as it were?

I know many people—most of then warped by institutional thought—for whom any door even slightly opened to the prospects of “animal behavior” would be one that they’d charge through like a rhino. Most of them are gun toting Republicans who have to work hard to repress their racism while seeking to abolish all vestiges of the welfare state—but I digress. Actually, I don’t. In any case, I think there is a lot to contemplate when it comes to the impact animals might have on humans in a world that many animal rights advocates want to see emerge. At the least, we need to consider how our coevolution with animals in a post-speciesist environment would look like before we put our shoulder behind this idea and push it into the public forum. As usual, I’m just thinking out loud here, which is mostly what I do, but I do think much of what we envision happening as we meld with animals is a lot of magical thinking. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


Making Animals Pat Us on the Back

» January 6th, 2013

Chickens cluck when they encounter a fire. Flames scare them. Cats undertake daily migration patterns that often include arranging an assortment of objects in one place. They nitpick nature. Presumably, these habits, or at least their genetic rudiments, preexisted the emergence of human beings. These observations bear on a couple of animal stories that have been making the feel-good media rounds of late.

Hoopla has been made over a chicken, presumably kept as a pet, who saved a family from a house fire. One report declared that this bird was “one cluckin’ smart chicken” for this act of heroism. The other news item was about a cat who adorned his owner’s grave with twigs and other supposed mementoes. “Loyal Italian Cat Brings Gifts to Owner’s Grave,” declares one headline. “How sweeeeeeet,” we’re supposed to say after hearing these stories.

Time for a deep breath here. It is the height of human self-regard for anyone to think that the chicken clucked for the sole purpose of intentionally awaking his family and, in turn, saving their lives. Likewise, there’s zero evidence (to my knowledge) that feline cognition is such that a cat can get all sentimental for a lost owner, much less express that sentiment with symbolic objectification.

I’m not saying that these animals are stupid. Quite the opposite. I’m arguing that much (if not most) of their considerable intelligence exists and thrives independently of human interaction. Neither chickens nor cats (unlike dogs) have experienced the depth of interaction with humans to explain such human-directed acts of altruism. They reserve their altruism and intelligence for each other. They need not us to be brilliant. Myopically, we fail these animals when we reduce their behavior to implausible demonstrations of affection for us.  Frankly, these stories only appear because they are mash potatoes for media whores.

Plus, if these animals could act with such implied intentionality, they wouldn’t save and honor us. They’d kick our ass—especially the chickens. Given the level of cognition suggested in the anthropomorphous-ness of these interpretations, chickens would use such human-directed cognition to make it loud and clear that we have treated them with unconscionable disdain. Perhaps we construe these chicken-saves-people and cat-mourns-owner stories as we do because we know, deep down, that our treatment of these animals has been a colossal crime.



The Animal’s All Knowing Gaze

» January 1st, 2013

What do humans do when we feel shame?  Typically, we hide from it. We duck away from the source of that shame, from the person or situation that evokes our feelings of inadequacy and cowardice. We build walls and indulge in irony. Very few humans I know are truly brave enough to face the deepest sources of their weakness and deal with personal failures in an aggressive and honest way. We rely on our impressive frontal lobe to dissemble, protecting ourselves by any means necessary, and doing so most notably by avoiding the mirror that throws our shame back at us with a fury. Because, well, that can hurt.

Animals are, in some respects, our mirror.  They can hurt us with the sincerity of their gaze. It’s easy to reduce the animals around us—the companion animals to whom we toss a frisbee, the cockatiels to whom we whistle and talk, the horses on whom we canter and admire—as innocent creatures here to make us happy, to enrich out lives. A source of pleasure alone.  Of course, anyone who thinks seriously about the inner lives of animals knows this opinion to be dangerously false. But what’s rarely (if ever) questioned is the extent to which an animal’s gaze, if we submit to it, evokes our shame, highlighting our failures as individuals and as humans, and shakes us to the core.  Of course, the only way we can submit to that experience is if we are physically with animals, willing to endure a hard look from one species into the darkened heart of our own.

This idea came to me while continuing to read Kari Weil’s fascinating Thinking Animals. Especially thoughtful was her remark that our shared lives with animals “can make us feel small or powerless, deprive us of our place of privilege . . .” I simply chose to think about that shared experience with animals in terms of shame, posing the hypothesis that the human habit of avoiding direct confrontation with our deepest insecurities may be challenged by an honest relationship with an animal. This avoidance, I would surmise (controversially), is one reason that many animal rights activists advocate that we stay as far away from animals as possible, vowing not to house, ride, leash, or exploit them in any way. It’s a response framed in part by personal fear of knowing our demons.

I can already hear the angry fingers banging into the keyboards. But rest assured: I’m not saying that the motivation to steer clear of animals is not coming from a genuine interest in protecting animal rights. It surely is. What I am saying, though, is that such a noble motive might not be a pure motive (what motive is?). It might have, even subconsciously, the ulterior and self-interested purpose of saving us the discomfort of being under the hard gaze of an animal, a gaze that can, in its purity and honesty, say to us, “why do you not do more for me?; why have you destroyed my environment?; what have you done to my genetic heritage; who the f*** do you think you are? Why are you so weak and selfish?” These sort of questions, the ones that make us, you know, feel ashamed.

So, the hypothesis, one that I think is worth developing in the context of the popular “leave animals alone” argument, might go something like this: the presence of animals is sort of like a dose of truth serum. Those who seek that presence, on whatever psychological level, might be indirectly seeking greater insight into and recognition of their own insecurities, the sources of their own shame and cowardice. By contrast, those who seek to leave animals in peace, free to live on their own terms, might be partially driven by fear of the power of that serum, and the kind of truth it will ask us, as humans, as individuals, to face within ourselves. To want to be free of all animal relations is to want to be free from knowing our deepest, truest selves. Who knows? But it’s not a bad idea to start off the new year with.

2013. How did that happen?

Have a happy one.