Animal Inventory Blog

Keeping track of animals in popular culture.

Archive for April, 2008

Inventory of the Day

Posted by lisagbrown on April 21, 2008

This blog entry continues some of the themes explored in the blog entry Animalities.

Today I have created a true inventory of animals. I noted every animal I encountered from morning till night. These included animals that are living or dead, visual representations of animals, and even the sounds of animals.

AT HOME

4:13 AM Am awoken to the sound of a bird outside my window, cooing the same song over and over again. The repetition prevents me from falling back to sleep.

4:45 AM I finally give in to wakefulness and join my cat on the couch. I watch TV while he sleeps.

6:26 AM Am watching an episode of Angel in which the vampire battles a human-sized praying mantis monster.

6:41 AM Simon begins to tap on his food bowl in the next room to let me know that I’ve woken him up, and he wants his breakfast.

THE COMMUTE

8:13 AM On a neighbor’s porch, there’s a sculpture of a stone terrier with a welcome sign around its neck.

8:17 AM Just barely hidden in a garden behind a house, I can see the silhouette of a garden sculpture in the shape of a crane.

8:23 AM On the bus, we pass the White Hen Pantry, whose logo is a fat white hen.

8:26 AM Just a few streets down, we drive past the Swan cleaners, whose logo is an elegant white swan.

8:31 AM Just ahead of the bus, I see the bloody remains of roadkill. It is fresh, but so mangled that it is unidentifiable. Probably a squirrel, but it may have been a cat. It is easily the most gruesome roadkill I’ve seen in a long time. The animal’s flesh reminds me of the boiled chicken I ate for dinner last night and I’m immediately nauseated.

8:56 Got off the bus downtown in front of a 10-foot poster in a bank window of a woman holding a fluffy white terrier dog. A second poster, in the adjacent window, shows a man holding a child in a similar pose. I’m intrigued that the dog and the child seem to be given equal prominence.

AT WORK

10:32 AM A photo of two Wheaton Terriers hangs on a bulletin board in a coworkers cubicle.

11:25 AM As I pass through a sea of cubicles on my way to the water fountain, I catch glimpses of animals: a gorilla stuffed animal holding a banana lounges on a file cabinet, a wolf figurine howls silently, a painting of some sheep hangs on the wall.

11:57 AM A brown cow looks out from behind the Stonyfield Farm logo on my yogurt container.

1:03 PM I overhear a coworker discussing how medieval armor was lined with horsehair.

1:28 PM I eat a salad with chicken slices from the deli counter.

3:13 PM I realize that my black sweater is covered in Yoshi’s white fur.

3:40 PM From the 11th floor, I watch a pigeon wing its way between the buildings.

THE COMMUTE

5:01 PM At the bus stop, I see a woman feeding birdseed to a single pigeon, while dozens of pigeons and seagulls fly 10 stories above.

5:13 PM On the bus, we pass a sculpture of a man and his dog, and a block later I see a teenager walking a calico pit bull.

5:14 PM A deli has an ad for Boars Head Ham prominently displayed in the window.

5:22 PM On the Mass Pike, we pass a billboard with the Red Sox’s Green monster on it, a creature that is definitely not human, but not quite animal either. Less than 30 seconds later, we pass another billboard with Elmo on it, a similarly indefinable being.

5:27 PM The Stockyard Steakhouse uses a large red bull’s head to lure commuters in for an evening steak.

5:30 PM I notice an advertisement above my head for the Walk for Kidney Health, with an incongruous image of kids with faces painted like tigers.

5:32 PM I see a Massachusetts “I’m animal friendly” license plate, with the silhouette of a dog and a cat on it. The car owners have a dog beanie baby in the window.

5:34 PM A woman on the bus is reading A Walk in the Woods. It has a photo of a brown bear on the cover.

5:40 PM There’s an ad at one of the bus stops that reads ‘is your dog licensed? 87% of licensed dogs who get lost are returned home.’ There’s a photo of an adorable Golden Lab puppy on the ad.

5:41 PM We pass a bar whose logo is the image of two Falcons, back to back.

5:44 PM Walking home, I see a white ceramic garden sculpture of two frogs smiling.

5:45 PM A squirrel crosses the street in front of me, just as a very happy Jack Russell terrier is being walked around the corner.

5:46 PM As a father walks past me with his baby, I notice there are colorful stuffed fish hanging from a mobile on the baby’s stroller.

5:48 PM Yoshi greets me at the door, and both he and Simon are ready for dinner.

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Posted in Advertising, Animal Behavior, Animals, Art, Food Animals, Representations, Television | Leave a Comment »

Animal Inventory in the Boston Globe

Posted by lisagbrown on April 18, 2008

I’m excited to say that Animal Inventory is featured in the Saturday, April 19 issue of the Boston Globe. The story can be found in the living section or by clicking here:

Monkey in the Middle

Special thanks to Matt Shaer, the reporter who wrote the story and took the time to understand my complicated relationship with animals. Check out Matt’s other work at: Hard Corbeau

And special thanks to Nicole Hill, the photographer who shot the photos and the driving force behind the piece. Her body of work can be found on her website: Nicole V. Hill Photojournalist

Click here to visit the Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled website

Photo by Nicole V. Hill (Adam, Simon’s foster father, puts Simon’s empty bowl on his head after he’s done eating. Lisa Brown and Adam Dardeck raise a Helping Hands capuchin monkey in their home. Brown writes about animal imagery in popular culture, and studies human and animal relationships.)

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Posted in Animal Behavior, Animals, Art, Human-Animal Bond, Human-Animal Studies | 1 Comment »

Simon Says

Posted by lisagbrown on April 18, 2008

I mostly use this blog to talk about representations of animals in popular culture. But today I want to take the time to introduce one of the animals with whom I share my home. Simon is a capuchin monkey, and he lives with me, my husband and our cat. As you may have read on my bio page, I worked for many years at Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled. When I left my full-time position there, I volunteered to become a foster parent to Simon, a role I took on with the support and guidance of the organization.

I have come to know Simon very well. I know that he is afraid of thunder and he likes Jon Stewart. He thinks dried blueberries are a little weird, but fresh ones are a favorite. He grunts when he’s happy and squawks when he’s startled. He adores children – even on television – but is very shy when he meets them face-to-face. He runs his index finger across my hair, face, nails, skin or clothing to groom me as a way of taking care of me, just as I care for him. He smacks his lips together to express his contentment, or to ask me for help in a confusing situation. He laughs when I tickle him and thinks it’s funny when I towel dry him after a bath. He lays on my chest and allows his limbs to sink into slumber on my body because he trusts me. He holds my hand because he loves me. I am his mother, his teacher and his friend. These are things that I know.

Knowing Simon is a privilege, one that affords me the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of the monkey. In my work in the animal field I have learned about other relationships between humans and all kinds of species – birds, dolphins, whales, big cats, wolves, primates, cows, etc. When a person says they know an animal, what they’re actually saying is – someone is in there, inside that animal head, someone who thinks and breathes and feels in a way that may be different, but is ultimately not alien to me.

These are sentiments that I carry with me in all my work, whether I’m looking at film and television, reading newspaper articles, or examining legislation about animals. I see Simon in every animal’s face – not his individual personality – but in the possibility that he represents. To me, he has in part become a symbol of the many ways that animals ought to be appreciated, understood and valued. He has come to represent to me everything that animals potentially offer, not just to humans, but simply by existing. One of the most profound things that I have learned from Simon is that each and every animal is worth knowing, whether or not I take the time to do so.

In creative writing classes, professors often say to write about what you know. On this blog, I try to do just that: I know human animal studies theory, I know the current climate of public policy about animals, and I know some of the history of how and why we look at animals the way we do. But sometimes even this broad foundation of knowledge leaves me without the answers I’m looking for. In those instances, I think to myself, what do I know? And I am reminded that I know Simon.

Photo by Nicole Hill


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Posted in Animal Behavior, Animals, Human-Animal Bond, Human-Animal Studies, Primates | Leave a Comment »

Elephant Paints Portrait of Elephant

Posted by lisagbrown on April 3, 2008

I encourage you to watch the above video of an elephant painting a portrait of an elephant. It is, quite simply, astonishing.

While I am always one to give animals the benefit of their own intelligence, it’s hard not to wonder whether the video is a genuine representation of the elephant’s capabilities. Was this a creation the elephant conceived? Was the video somehow manipulated? Or is this footage of an elaborately trained animal?

This video was shared among a group of human-animal studies scholars with whom I am well-acquainted, and discussed over email. These emails revealed reactions that are diverse, thoughtful and utterly compelling. After reading the discussion that trickled into my inbox over a period of a couple days, I realized that when viewed as a whole, the emails represent a wonderful range of perspectives on animals and our relationships with them — a cohesive and unique story about what one 8 minute video can evoke. I am honored to share some snippets of our conversation. Some language has been changed for clarity and anonymity:

  • The only thing I can think of is that the handlers somehow trained the elephant to paint this exact portrait — not quite the artistic, creative or intellectual achievement that it at first appears, but a tremendous achievement regardless.
  • Quite possibly, it is BOTH what is appears to be AND a manipulation.
  • My guess is that it is wholly contrived.
  • Assuming that there isn’t some horrific abuse that is at the bottom of this, then this video is one way that people can easily discern elephants’ extraordinary qualities
  • I am concerned about the issue of harsh training.
  • I wonder if some simply can’t believe any nonhuman can do what appears to be going on here.
  • I haven’t found any really effective means of communicating nonhumans’ extraordinary richness of life, family, perception, etc. This video offers possibilities of understanding for humans in a way that I haven’t yet been able to realize with mere words and static pictures.
  • They are special, even if they do NOT do this. But I wonder how this kind of portrayal of elephants can help push our society to see that any living being that is this complicated should never be held in captivity.
  • What makes anyone think that the painting created by the elephant in any way represents how elephants see other elephants? (or themselves?) Visual information is processed very differently by different critters — lines, contrasts, movements, textures, depths, are all emphasized differently in different brains. In my opinion, that was a picture conceived by a human for other humans. The elephant was merely a tool for that purpose.
  • Watching this, I felt incredibly sad and disappointed. Sad that this elephant is in captivity, being praised for another species’ accomplishments, instead of her own. Disappointed that with all of the amazing abilities that human beings have, we continue to value actions, thoughts, individuals, and groups that are like us, and often fail to be amazed, educated, and inspired by others’ differences.
  • I think of the image of the elephant painting a picture and imagine this against an image of a circus elephant, balanced on one giant foot on a small stool, while holding a ball at the tip of its trunk. It makes me wonder, is this the same sort of spectacle? Does it evoke the same sorts of responses from the audience?
  • This may be a misguided or even an egregiously anthropomorphic way of appreciating an elephant, and this does not even account for the possibility of abuse of which the audience may be totally unaware. I guess I want to have some hope that when people see an image like this, as naive as we may be about the morality of it, they feel love and a desire to understand rather than the lure of domination.
  • The elements in the painting suggest a human designer–the perfect side-profile, the outline, and the sole non-outline elements of eye, ear, and lines delineating the overlap of legs. I can’t see how/why elephants would ever have developed a visual vocabulary so identical to ours, in which facial features and overlaps happen to be very important.
  • I have no problem believing that an elephant would have an aesthetic sense.
  • Watching this elephant return to thicken previously-painted lines, I attributed a sense of consistency, form, and pattern to her that I could relate to, and see no reason why humans would have developed special abilities in these areas.
  • I am acquainted with Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain techniques –which involves learning to see images as lines, forms, and angles rather than symbols–and can easily imagine an elephant having similar such abilities to see, understand, and replicate. My guess is therefore this: the elephant is not aware of the meaning of the symbols he/she is painting, but has learned–perhaps with pleasure and satisfaction–to perceive and copy the lines, forms, and angles of a human-designed drawing.
  • The elephants are exactly as good as their “mahouds” (human handlers) who have a hand on them somewhere under their ear and guide every stroke.
  • I know from experience that dolphins and sea lions enjoy painting (they can become quite vocal when asked to paint) Some even carefully attend to what they paint: they back away from the paper and look at it, and typically choose to concentrate most of the paint in the same area of the paper, as opposed to covering all of the white space. Other dolphins or sea lions routinely cover the entire paper with paint, while others seem to prefer either the center or edges of the paper. They did not, however, draw anything that appeared to be a direct representation or depiction of a “real-world” object. I do believe that a talented trainer working with a dolphin who enjoys learning new behaviors or particularly enjoys the painting behavior could “teach” the dolphin to paint a specific object.
  • My instinct is that the painting itself is real, but that it is more indicative of the elephant’s impressive capacity for learning than of artistic creativity/self-portraiture (at least as related to conventions in human-created art).
  • Even if the elephant was trained to create this picture, this does not necessarily indicate cruelty or abuse. Obviously there are ethical issues that need to be acknowledged: Is there ever a reason to keep an elephant in captivity? Should we train elephants to engage in activities for our enjoyment? Should we ask elephants to produce “art” for our sake, representing objects as we see them, rather than for their own sake? Would seeing this video and, at the very least, recognizing elephants’ intelligence influence people to fight against captivity and exploitation? Or might seeing this video just further demonstrate to others how we can use elephants and other sapient beings for our own enjoyment and entertainment?

Author’s note: Please view and add to the conversation that has continued in the comments section of this entry.


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Posted in Animal Behavior, Animal Welfare, Animals, Art, Ethics, Film, Human-Animal Studies, Representations | 4 Comments »