Animal Inventory Blog

Keeping track of animals in popular culture.

Archive for June, 2008

Spain Makes Historic Ruling on Ape Rights

Posted by lisagbrown on June 26, 2008

Spain made history yesterday when its parliament was the first in the world to protect apes’ rights to life and freedom. The new legislation will outlaw the use of apes for circuses, TV or film productions and medical experimentation. Zoos will continue to maintain their ape populations, but some 70 percent of Spain’s zoos will have to improve conditions in order to meet new criteria. The legislation was met with mixed responses — no species of ape is native to the country, nor are apes used for medical testing, so Spaniards were confused by the need for the new law. However, international animal advocates from the Great Ape Project to the World Society for the Protection of Animals have lauded Spain’s unprecedented, landmark ruling, and hope that this will set the stage for other countries to follow. Advocates also hope that this will spur Spain to revisit its policies on other animal rights issues, like bullfighting.

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Posted in Animal Welfare, Animals, Ethics, Film, Primates, Public Policy, Television | 3 Comments »

It Ain’t ‘Happening’

Posted by lisagbrown on June 17, 2008

SPOILER ALERT: This review reveals key plot points from the movie The Happening

M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, The Happening, is an exercise in watching the many ways a movie can fail. Yet the most interesting way that Shyamalan fails is in the message he attempts to communicate — a message with good intentions, but poorly wrought in its execution.

If you do not want to know revealing plot points about this film, stop reading HERE.

As the film opens, people in New York City’s Central Park have begun to spontaneously kill themselves. Then, in rapid succession, people in parks, cities and towns across the Northeast do the same. Initially, news reports suggest that an act of bio-terrorism is causing the violent outbreak. But within the first 30 minutes of the film, the major characters have realized that this is not an act of war committed by foreign extremists. No, the toxin that is killing Americans by the thousands all across the Northeast was released by … plants.

In brief and inadequate dialogue, Shyamalan’s characters explain that plants have been known to develop specific defense mechanisms against major threats, and the characters conclude that the plants have developed this toxin in response to human destruction of the earth. They also cite examples of different plant species communicating with each other, and inexplicably determine that the plants have somehow collaborated to create this deadly toxin.

What is Shyamalan’s message? What does he want his audience to learn from his film? I expect it’s something along the lines of: humans are destroying nature and that is a Very Bad Thing to do. This message is hardly original, and lacks all the subtlety of a ten ton brick being dropped on the audience. Nevertheless, it’s a message I would wholeheartedly support, if explored well. So how does Shyamalan fail in communicating his thesis?

Shyamalan’s movie is filled with long, lingering shots of open fields, rustling trees, and flowers and grass swirling in the wind. However, the viewer is not meant to bask in the glory of this beautiful nature. Instead, the audience is meant to identify with the characters Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) who are, of course, terrified of the toxin-emitting plants. As Elliot and Alma run (and boy, do they spend a lot of time running) the audience finds itself in the awkward position of hoping the humans can get away from nature. As the audience witnesses the couple’s terror of the ever-looming plants, the audience takes on the characters’ fear as their own. That is, after all, the point of a horror/thriller — to root for the victim. If Elliot and Alma are the victims, that must mean that nature is the enemy. 

I think what Shyamalan intended to do was to demonstrate that we humans will reap what we sow. If we continue to destroy nature, nature will turn the attack back at us. But instead of asking us to see our own faults, and to recognize the consequences of our actions, Shyamalan perpetuates the alienation between humans and nature. He further reinforces the “us against them” friction that humans increasingly struggle with as we grow more urbanized and farther removed from nature.

In the battle with climate change, the challenge is to create personal, national and global understandings of the integrated relationships between people and nature. The difficulty that environmentalists face is in convincing people that we are a part of nature, not apart from it. The survival of both our planet and our species is inextricably linked. But what Shyamalan has done is to reinforce traditional notions that nature ought to be feared. At the end of the movie, he leaves little possibility other than a war between humans and nature, one in which people would very likely destroy every last plant in order to save the human race. Is that really our only option?

If you choose to see this movie, I recommend an exercise that will palpably demonstrate the failure of Shyamalan’s message. When you leave the theater, go to a place with some trees and look at them. Ask yourself: do you feel kinship with those trees? As the wind blows through the leaves, do you feel shame about what humans have done to the earth? Do you see human connection to nature in a new way? Or, alternatively, do you feel the slight urge to run away from those trees? Do you have the ominous and irrational sense that the trees hate you? Is there some small tiny part of you that wishes nature would just go away for a little while?

If you’re like me, you’ll feel the latter — and you might resent Shyamalan a little bit for making you feel that way. 

Posted in Animals, Ethics, Film, Representations | Leave a Comment »

Fish Frenzy at the World Trade Center, Boston

Posted by lisagbrown on June 5, 2008

GOldfishEvery morning I see goldfish in the metro. The Boston World Trade Center station is home to an unusual piece of installation art that places commuters at the center of a fish frenzy.

The two-dimensional photographic image, by artists Jason Asselin and Marybeth Mungovan, is called “You Are Here.” At about 4-feet tall and 90-feet wide, it is the first thing MBTA riders see as they ascend the escalator. As each person walks the length of the art, the goldfish appear to swim and flutter because of holographic manipulation. In the center of the image there is a dot alongside the words, “You are here.”

The piece’s image and words force the viewer to reflect on his or her role as one individual, among many. It imagines commuters as fish, busy with movement and momentum. Yet it also brings to mind other animal-centric imagery: people who follow each other blindly, like sheep; people being herded like cattle. As a downtown commuter, I often feel like I am blind, following my path out of rote habit. I am accustomed to being herded by MBTA shepherds who bark at crowds with the force of a verbal cattle prod.

While the artists seem to reference these common animal phrases, I don’t think they intend to reinforce the meanings behind them. We commuters are not interchangeable like cattle or sheep. In fact, I think the artists might say that cattle and sheep are not interchangable either. Though their goldfish are jumbled together in a flurry of movement, the artists capture individuality in their subjects: scales that shimmer, a fin lifted in motion, eyes that see the subway below. 

Commuters, like fish, appear to undulate and move as a single unit. However, when you get up close, we are unique and shiny, as glittery and beautiful as bright orange goldfish.

 

To learn more about “You Are Here” and its artists, read a description in the journal Big, Red & Shiny.

Posted in Animals, Art, Fish, Identity, Photography, Representations | 1 Comment »

Who, What, Where, When, Why: Human-Animal Studies

Posted by lisagbrown on June 3, 2008

WHAT is human-animal studies (HAS)? This is a question that scholars continue to debate, without much consensus. In my mind, HAS is an interdisciplinary perspective that examines the relationships between humans and other animals. More specifically, it is (ideally) a perspective that values the experiences and intrinsic worth of both humans and animals. HAS embraces art, literature, science, social science, philosophy … all with an eye towards a greater understanding of animals, and our interactions with them.

WHO are animals? Who are we as nonhuman animals? And who are we to each other?

WHERE, WHEN and WHY: One way to begin answering these questions is by exploring the literature that deals with this broad range of topics.

HAS scholar Wendy Lochner (the Columbia University Press animal studies editor) has written a post for the Columbia University Press blog. In it, she briefly explores what HAS means to her, and how the literature she reads deepens her scholarship. An excerpt from her blog entry reads:

I began to read work by Cora Diamond, Cary Wolfe, John Coetzee, Alice Crary, and others, who convinced me of the power of literature to advance the animal issue. Soon I discovered that many ethologists, religion scholars, and sociologists were also committed to showing the scientific, social-scientific, and humanities bases for a loving involvement with animals as part of a worldview in which the “question of the animal” becomes a fundamental concern of critical inquiry, one in which the terms, concepts, and forms of evidence that we use can themselves be questioned in terms of the presuppositions they make about animals and human—and nonhuman—animal relationships. What is required is no less than a radical rethinking of the nature of humanity itself as inextricably cojoined with our nonhuman kin and in common cause with them.

Lochner’s short essay can be read in full by going to Why Animal Studies Now? A Short Personal Note from the Editor.

A list of animal studies titles available from Columbia University Press can be  accessed on their website.

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