Posts Tagged ‘The Dodo’
Ironies abound in our treatment of animals. Melissa Cronin at The Dodo reported today that “The CEO of a catering giant will be stepping down after video footage revealed him kicking a doberman puppy in a Vancouver, Canada elevator. Des Hague was the CEO of Centerplate, a $6 million company with over 350 clients, many of them major sports stadiums.”
The public outrage dictating the resignation of a corporate giant–the guy’s full name is Desmond Hague– is a noteworthy display of justice for sentient creatures. One is inevitably put in the mind of Michael Vick and the remarkable public censure that enveloped him after he was busted for running a dog fighting ring in 2007. Although one should never underestimate the motivating power of simple self-righteous condemnation, I think it’s safe to say that the hammer of public opinion came down on this CEO-dog abuser for the basic reason that we know causing gratuitous suffering to an animal is whacked.
Recall, though, that this man was the CEO of a catering firm, one whose menu includes every kind of animal-based product you could ever want for your event. Here’s one of its menus. So, it seems only fair to ask: why wasn’t this man taken to the woodshed much earlier? He was, after all, profiting from the sale of animals who were not only abused, but slaughtered so his firm could rake in millions. What some nameless and faceless low-wage worker did to those animals in an abattoir doesn’t compare to this CEO’s crazed outburst against his poor dog.
The fact that the vast majority of people calling for the CEO’s head would have happily eaten from one of his catering menus confirms something disturbing. Not only is our moral consideration of animals arrestingly situational, but we lack the ability to disentangle context from principle. Place some salt and pepper besides a cloth napkin and fine silver, arrange the plates in a circle at a convention, bond with friends over the steak on your plate, and all is fine. Kick a dog in a lift and your a pile of shit.
Here is what an orca whale eats, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: “a wide range of prey, including fish, seals, and big whales such as blue whales.” They also consume herring, cod, squid, and octopus. They are actually the largest known marine mammals to kill and eat other mammals, consuming 375-500 pounds of food a day.
In no way bound to the ethical standards of humans, they are, nonetheless, massive destroyers of sentient life. They have to be in order to live. But they don’t, as it turns out, eat humans. Not because they take pity on us. But because we’re too bony and don’t smell right. Plus, they never see us in the wild. We generally don’t swim in their waters.
I mention these details not as a lead-in into yet another story on SeaWorld, but as an attempt to make sense of Jeffrey Mousaieff Masson’s truly bizarre recent claim that, “I would rather have been born an orca.” Evidently he’s serious. “No kidding,” he writes, “I really would.”
Why would he want to be an orca? Humans, so quick to the pull the trigger on each other, have dismayed Masson so thoroughly—we killed 200 million of our own in the 2oth century–that he wants to join the orca clan because orcas have “killed exactly zero of their kind.” In this respect—the fact that they spare their own—he adores their “gentle lives.” Intended to be a plea for compassion, Masson’s gambit is really an expression of self-preservation and moral exoneration.
First the self-preservation. Masson’s main problem with humans, at least as he articulates it in the article, is that we kill other humans. This intra-species violence is why he wants to jump ship from humanity and join the “gentle” orca community, a species that shreds to death some of the smartest creatures alive and eats their children. Note that Masson doesn’t condemn humans for killing other species, as orcas do (and he would get to do as an orca), but only for killing each other. So the claim, although hardly his intention, ultimately suggests that Masson wants to leave the human world and join the orcas because he’d be safer and maybe live longer.
Being an orca would also let Masson off the ethical hook, allowing him to become a guiltless shredder of ocean animals while garnering respect from Masson-types as peace-lovers for not killing their own (or humans). In his tirade against his own, Masson writes, “There may be no orca heroes, but nor are there orca psychopaths . . .” What Masson fails to acknowledge is that, because there are no orca psychopaths, there are also no orca animal rights activists. There are no orcas who will stand up and say, “stop the slaughter of our octopi brethren!”
So, if Masson were an orca he would a) destroy blue whales while b) bearing none of the ethical responsibility for doing so. As a human, though, he admirably has assumed the burden of responsibility (writing wonderful books on animals), a burden that he would, if his wish came true, toss off as casually as he did this silly article.
The media fails animals. All the time. Tragically. Part of this failure boils down to the fact that it can. And part of the fact that it can reflects the reality that animals cannot speak for themselves, at least not in the press. You cannot, for example, call up an animal to ask his perspective on what it’s like to be owned for the purposes of commodification.
And so what the media does, as Dan Frosch of the New York Times recently did, is project onto animals stereotypical assessments that ignore the most basic tenets of animal ethology. To wit, as a kind of toss off remark, Frosch writes that a cow up for auction “stared blankly out at the crowd.”
For anyone who knows the first thing about cows, this is almost too much to take. “Blankly,” of course, implies without emotion or thought. It implies that the cow didn’t know what was up, that she’s just a clueless fat beast that we needn’t feel bad about killing and eating. But does anyone–I don’t know, say, an editor–ask Frosch to provide a source for the implication that the cow was clueless?
Of course not–that cow is just an animal and, as our blinders ensure it, the cow does appear to exhibit a “blank” stare. So we let it go and take another sip of coffee. And, really, what kind of average reader would think to question the portrayal? Thus the self-serving stereotype is further normalized.
The common acceptance by the media of this kind of projection is why we need to wage a war on how animals are covered in the press. There is, after all, zero evidence that there’s anything blank about the cow’s stare. To the contrary, that stare harbors a world of emotion, a universe of doubt and fear. Frosch could have, should have, in the future must, call someone who has a clue about cows to ask what’s going on behind that stare.
Until he does, we need to push back. Hard. A brilliant example of how this push back might work appeared the other day at The Dodo. Not to pick too much on the Times (although its reporting is chronically insensitive to the animals it covers), but after Stephanie Strom wrote a deeply misinformed article on the rise of humanely raised pork, she was taken to the woodshed in a very productive way by none other than a pig farmer, a man named Bob Comis. You can find Strom’s piece and Comis’ response here. It’s worth reading in its entirety, both to appreciate how dreadfully wrong Strom got the story, her sclerotic reason for getting it wrong, and the measured tone of Comis’ response.
I suppose if we went back into journalistic history we could trace a line of enlightenment in the way reporters wrote about minorities, the poor, and the disabled. Before How the Other Half Lives was published, for example, reporters described the tenement dwelling masses as dirty and lazy. Few questioned this portrayal because (and this is the insidious aspect to today’s animal coverage) it conformed to a set of unquestioned assumptions. People basically didn’t know to question the stereotype.
Today, of course, the media covers the impoverished with considerable sensitivity to the hard reality and perspective of poverty. We must start working to ensure that a similar transition happens with the way animals are covered. (And, please, if you are about to yell at me for equating the economically disadvantaged with animals, just stop it.)
This war is urgent. Right now, Chipotle is undertaking a campaign to promote “humane” farming through tactics taken right out of the Big Tobacco playbook. There will be more on this issue to come. But for now note that through “native advertising” the company is working under the “Farmed and Dangerous” slogan to establish a broad cultural pretext to support Chipotle’s rise to fast food dominance. When a company spends millions on advertising and never mentions its name you should be very scared.
This rise cannot be covered by the media without a consistent reference to the suffering experienced by the millions of animals that fuel the company’s rise into rarified wealth through both ideological seeding and burritos stuffed with animal flesh. We need to let the world know that this flesh came form animals who did more than stare blankly into space. And that those seeds are toxic.