Animal Inventory Blog

Keeping track of animals in popular culture.

Archive for the ‘Extinction’ Category

Monkeys, Marsupials and Emus on Superbowl Sunday: A Salon with Sy Montgomery and Dale Peterson

Posted by lisagbrown on February 7, 2010

While the rest of Boston was glued to Superbowl Sunday TV, a small group of animal-minded individuals gathered in the brick annex of Newtonville Books to chat with authors Sy Montgomery (Walking with the Great Apes) and Dale Peterson (Elephant Reflections). The Pen/New England event wasn’t a typical book reading. In fact, no one even cracked open a book. Instead, the two authors casually entertained the group with stories of how they began writing about animals. And when that was through, the group of us stood sipping wine and eating cheese, chatting up the charmingly humble authors in the tradition of an old fashioned “salon.”

Dale shared a story about how he used to do carpentry for Steve Jobs in the 80’s, and how he found his voice while travelling the world in pursuit of the 10 most endangered primates. Sy extolled her love of Emus, and explained the depression she endured when she left her six-month stint in the outback of Australia. Even though both Dale and Sy have books coming out soon, neither read passages from their books. Instead, they shared a little of themselves: their writing process, their personal relationships with animals, and their experiences with publishers. “When you can’t believe in yourself, and I often can’t, you can believe in the animals you apprentice yourself to,” explained Sy.

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Posted in Animal Behavior, Animals, Conservation, Extinction, Human-Animal Bond, Human-Animal Studies, Identity, Literature, Photography, Primates, Representations, Theory | Leave a Comment »

Charles Siebert’s “Watching Whales”

Posted by lisagbrown on July 13, 2009

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When I interviewed Charles Siebert a few weeks ago, we primarily discussed his recent book The Wauchula Woods Accord. However, this past Sunday the New York Times Magazine published a new article by Siebert, “Watching Whales Watching Us,” reminding me that Siebert’s passion for animals extends far beyond our primate relatives. In fact, his commitment animals extends to creatures that he describes as “about as close as fellow mammals can get to being extraterrestrials.”

I’ve always thought of whales as being rather like colossal elephants of the ocean. As it turns out, this common perception is more accurate than anyone could have predicted. The extraordinary intelligence and deep familial bonds that have recently been identified in elephants are astoundingly similar to the complex traits that are being uncovered in whales. As Siebert explains,

Whales, we now know, teach and learn. They scheme. They cooperate, and they grieve. They recognize themselves and their friends. They know and fight back against their enemies. And perhaps most stunningly, given all of our transgressions against them, they may even, in certain circumstances, have learned to trust us again.

Siebert traveled to Baja to experience an unprecedented interaction between gray whales and humans: one that has been entirely initiated by the whales themselves, birthing mothers who should, by all rights, be violently protective of their new calves.

Has Siebert overstepped the anthropomorphic boundary that he so clearly articulated in our interview? Teaching, learning, grieving, sure. But forgiveness? Gray whales have been brought to the brink of extinction multiple times by human hands, and Siebert suggests that these interactions may be the whales’ expression of forgiveness for the many decades (or centuries) of wrongs we have committed against them. And as surprising as it may seem to some people, he may not be far off base.

Toni Frohoff is the marine mammal behavioralist who Siebert accompanies to Baja. And so he poses the question to her, a person who would probably know the answer better than anyone. She responds:

Those are the kinds of things that for the longest time a scientist wouldn’t dare consider…But thank goodness we’ve gone through a kind of cognitive revolution when it comes to studying the intelligence and emotion of other species. In fact, I say now that it is my obligation as a scientist not to discount the possibility. We do have compelling evidence of the experience of grief in cetaceans; and of joy, anger, frustration and distress and self-awareness and tool use; and of protecting not just their young but also their companions from humans and other predators. So these are reasons why something like forgiveness is a possibility. And even if it’s not that exactly, I believe it’s something. That there’s something very potent occurring here from a behavioral and a biological perspective. I mean, I’d put my career on the line and challenge anybody to say that these whales are not actively soliciting and engaging in a form of communication with humans, both through eye contact and tactile interaction and perhaps acoustically in ways that we have not yet determined. I find the reality of it far more enthralling than all our past whale mythology

To read Charles Siebert’s “Watching Whales Watching Us” in its entirety, click here.

To listen to Charles Siebert and Toni Frohoff discuss their shared experiences with the whales (and their respective new books) on NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross, click here.

Illustration by Ivan Chermayeff

Posted in Animal Behavior, Animal Welfare, Animals, Conservation, Ethics, Extinction, Human-Animal Bond, Human-Animal Studies, Literature, Public Policy, Radio, Theory | 1 Comment »

An Interview with Writer Charles Siebert about His New Book, The Wauchula Woods Accord

Posted by lisagbrown on June 22, 2009

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Charles Siebert has made his name as the New York Times Magazine animal writer. In the past several years he has written articles about animal shelters, elephant culture, chimp behavior, and humans’ relationship with the natural world. He has also written several books about animals and nature (for a complete bibliography of Siebert’s work, click here).

Now, Siebert adds to his impressive body of work with the book The Wauchula Woods Accord, in which he explores the lives of retired chimps living in America. Siebert takes us on a coast to coast trip as he visits a number of sanctuaries and zoos that house former chimp actors (and retired medical research subjects, as well). Building upon carefully compiled scientific, historical, biographical and cultural research, Siebert paints a vivid portrait of a species in crisis. In a style that has become Siebert’s signature, he ties this story together through the lens of his own personal experiences, and encourages his readers to see these animals as he sees them: as “primatological doppelganger[s]” of ourselves.

Perhaps most compelling is his relationship with Roger, a chimp who takes an immediate liking to Siebert, and whom Siebert is convinced he met at some point in his life. The quiet and profound friendship that grows between them fuels this book, as much as it fuels Siebert’s desire to see these apes living lives more befitting such intelligent, sensitive beings.

Recently, Siebert very graciously answered my questions about his relationship with Roger, and about his new book.

Animal Inventory: Much of the time you and Roger spend together you simply stare at each other. And yet, it seems that much occurs between you in the course of your endless gazing. At one point you say, “You can learn a lot, I’ve found, from just daring to remain within a chimpanzee’s stare. Far more than you can from a fellow human’s (p 5).” How so? What do you think was happening between you two during those times?

Charles Siebert: The very dynamic, if overtly static, process of daring to stay within another animal’s gaze (especially one as close to us in body and mind as the chimpanzee) is one of escaping the relentless keeper of human consciousness; a process of getting past my restrictive and seemingly exclusive identity as a human and thus throwing open the doors on all the other creatures that I know myself to be, or to once have been, biologically, evolutionarily, and intuitively. That all may sound like some horrible mish-mash of Walt Whitman, Transcendentalism and Buddhism, but there it is. I often feel I’m traveling in place when I look into an animal’s eyes, whereas with another human one has to get past all the self-conscious and pre-possessive entanglements that obtain your own brain. I’m not saying that the inscrutable muteness of an animal and its otherness allows me to endlessly project my thoughts and ideas and will upon them. I’m saying that animals allow me to divest myself of all those things and, to paraphrase Emerson, resign myself to the common biology that breathes through all beings and accompany that.

9780609804681AI: I thought a lot about your book Angus as I was reading Wauchula Woods – mostly because of the contrast in how you communicate animal sentience in each. In Angus, you write the book as a memoir from your dog’s point of view. In Wauchula Woods, you rely on observation, context and history. The circumstances – not to mention the species – in each book are quite different, but did you ever consider writing Roger’s story from his point of view?

CS: In Angus I was more or less operating on the premise that (and now I’m channeling Bogart in Casablanca) it is not an anthropomorphizer that I mind so much, it’s a cut-rate one. All I know is that I kept trying to write that book from my point of view, but the writing seemed horribly bland and flat. And then one day this voice came into my head that sounded to me like the essence of the spirit of Angus: daring, edgy, all attitude and aggression. As the book opens, he’s lying there at the edge of the woods, near death from a coyote attack, and so the sense I try to instill in the reader is that the actual Angus has been somehow transformed by the experience of the attack into a suddenly far more sentient, knowing rendition of his former self, a kind of wry Rilkean dog angel, hovering somewhere between life and death, and seeing both of those anew. With The Wauchula Woods Accord I knew I already had in Roger such an advanced intelligence (and this is based on neurological research into the chimp brain, not anthropomorphic conjecture) that to attempt to write the story from his point of view would have resulted in the very bathos and cartoonishness that I decry in the book with regard to our typical treatment of our nearest biological relative. Thus, it seemed to me the simple and often stark juxtaposition of my expressed thoughts and emotions with Roger’s unspoken ones, would be far more powerful.

AI: You posit that, despite the cages that usually restrict nonhuman apes, humans are “by far the more imprisoned species (p 44).” Can you explain what you mean by this?

pppCS: Well, this goes back to the relentless keeper’s consciousness, and the awkward and often beastly ways in which our own self-awareness causes us to behave, the very need we have, for example, to take a creature like Roger and dress him up as a cellist in an all-chimp orchestra at Ringling Bros., or to simply put him and any number of other creatures behind bars in order to stare at them. I think we do such things, on one level at least, because we’re lonely. We sense that we’re at once a part of, and apart from, other animals and so we want to bring them into our context as coerced companions, ongoing, living glosses on who we are. It’s a primal urge in its own right. Our brain’s added neurons, the ones that allow for our so called higher cognitive functions, are also what give us that sense of isolation from the rest of being. Why, we’ve long wondered, are we the only ones who can turn around and call all other things names? This sense of isolation is, of course, at the heart of all creation mythology, the notion that we humans went astray somewhere, committed some sin and so got ourselves expelled from the rest of nature. But as I say someplace in the book, we were never expelled from anywhere. We walked out: the first upright forays toward new environments and challenges that our earliest primate ancestor made, new environments and challenges that spurred, in turn, the growth of those same added neurons that have since contributed to our sense of isolation. Still, one great source of absolution—and I use that theurgically tinted word in the context of the above creation mythology rap—is now being offered to us by of all things science. More and more studies of other animals—fellow primates like Roger, elephants, whales, dolphins, and certain species of birds—are revealing that they, too, possess in varying measures many of the same highly specialized neurons and attendant behaviors, such as communication skills, social interactions, tool use and cultural transmission of knowledge, that we once thought to be exclusive to us humans. We are not alone after all. We just have no way, at present at least, to speak other creatures’ languages.

AI: In the course of your book you often suggest that our fraught relationship with chimps is partly due to how they remind us of the animality we deny in ourselves. Can you envision a way for humans to accept our own animality? What would that look like? And do you think that chimp welfare is dependent on our ability to accept our animality?

CS: Hmmm, I ponder that one often. One answer, I believe, and it may be somewhat pie-in-the sky, both literally and figuratively, is that if we humans could, in our ongoing need to apprehend the infinite and the spiritual nature of our existence, could learn to redirect our gazes downward rather than skyward, if we could come to better know and embrace the billions of years of biology that it took to go from the one common ancestor of all life to life as it is today in its myriad of forms, we would discover that the infinite, somewhat paradoxically, inheres in the minutae of all life’s making. “God”, in that sense, truly is in the details. I think we as a species are either far too oblivious or dismissive of the wonders of the actual story of life’s emergence. Science doesn’t dispel our wonder. It merely reinvents it. As for how such a new embrace of our own animality and common biology would affect the fate of other species such as chimps, I suppose I could quote the very words of The Wauchula Woods Accord that Roger and I arrive at by the end of our time together: “The degree to which we humans will finally stop abusing other creatures, and for that matter, one another will be measured by the degree to which we come to understand how integral a part of us all other creatures actually are.”

AI: At one point you explain, “Science has obviated anthropomorphism – the crime of projecting our stories upon the animals – by, of all things, repeatedly pointing out to us just how uncomfortably close to our stories so many aspects of theirs actually are (p 134).” By contrast, you seem to embrace a kind of anthropomorphism that uses human perspective as a tool toward a greater understanding of other animals. How have the scientists that reject anthropomorphism responded to your work?

sc0009c0b1CS: I’m not sure I can answer that one except to say that I’m always as careful as I can be in my research, and my interviews with scientists, and in my actual writing, about the so called “spectre of anthropomorphism”. I try to let the science lead my imagination and these days that’s a very effortless dance indeed. Ultimately, however, all we humans have is anthropomorphism. We have to, by the very nature of our own biological alignment, project upon and conjecture about what might be going on within the bodies and minds of biology’s other alignments. What science has forever changed, however, is the substance and tenor of our projections and conjectures. Whereas once we had to proceed from the inherently unanswerable question: what it is like to be in Roger’s day, or a whale’s, or a dolphin’s or an elephant’s, now science has told us enough about the behaviors and the brain structures of these other creatures to allow us to conclude that they all clearly have their own parallel days, ones that are in many ways as complex and woundable as ours, and therefore as commanding of regard and respect.

AI: You cite the work of Eve Abe and Gay Bradshaw, two scholars who suggest that wild elephants are experiencing a collective psychological and cultural breakdown of epic proportions, caused by human interference (habitat destruction, poaching, culling, translocation, etc.). What can we draw from these findings that will inform us about the future of wild chimps?

CS: Wild chimps are experiencing the same encroachment, habitat destruction and attendant breakdown of their society that elephants are. The future of both species, and that of any number of large land-based animals with whom we share the planet, is more or less entirely up to us. We are the ones who’ll have to determine how important it is to us to keep these animals around, how impoverished we’d be without them on the earth. And then we have to make the effort to preserve enough extant wilderness in which those animals can prosper. That, of course, involves very complex, geo-political maneuvering and cross-cultural co-operation and negotiation.

AI: Towards the end of the book, you state that we need “to finally get past ourselves and our story and, through acts of deep, interspecies empathy…to become a part of [other animals’] story (p 175).” On the one hand this seems like a simple request, but on the other hand this requires a radical shift in perspective. Can you explain what you mean by this?

CS: In one sense this involves us human beings collectively coming down off of our high horse, if you’ll excuse the old expression. The more we begin to see and understand ourselves as one more extension of the greater biological forces that created and control all life on earth, rather than as beings apart, entities anointed by some higher authority, the more the “inter-species empathy” I speak of, or what Gay Bradshaw calls the “trans-species psyche”, will be allowed to flourish. This will all still bring us to the same tough decisions and compromises that I alluded to earlier, but what a better premise it is to approach them from such a new collective interspecies empathy, as opposed to the ongoing parochial factionalism rooted in old rival religions and the false notion of human exclusivity.

AI: Finally, do you have any new projects in the works that we can look forward to?

CS: I’m currently completing an upcoming July 12th cover story for The New York Times Magazine about whales and all the amazing new things that we’re learning about them and their culture. I’ve also got a number of new books in the works, one about the hopefully doubtful future of the zoo; a novel about a hardware shop owner who happens to discover the common ancestor of all life on earth; and, finally, a collection of poems.

Image 1: Cover of The Wauchula Woods Accord

Image 2: Cover of Angus

Image 3: Siebert’s new friend, Roger

Image 4: Engraving by Nicolaes Tulp (1641). An image of an ape who is thought to be the first live chimp brought to Europe

Special thanks to Kate Bittman at Scribner

Posted in Animal Behavior, Animal Welfare, Animals, Conservation, Ethics, Extinction, Human-Animal Bond, Human-Animal Studies, Identity, Literature, Primates, Public Policy, Representations, Theory | 6 Comments »

Antennae, Issue 10

Posted by lisagbrown on June 21, 2009

Please visit Antennae‘s website to download (for free!!) the newest issue of the ever-wonderful Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture. The theme of the issue is heat. As Giovanni Aloi, the journal’s editor-in-chief, explains:

This issue of Antennae is fully dedicated to climate change. “Heat” pieces together a selection of artists’ responses to climate changes as experienced in different geographical, social and cultural realities. In doing so, we have tried to evenly divide our attention through a range of issues related to and departing from global warming.

Also, towards the end of the issue, please check out my interview with Geralyn Pezanoski, the director of MINE, an incredible documentary about the fate of companion animals during hurricane Katrina.

Antennae Issue 10

Posted in Amphibians, Animal Behavior, Animal Welfare, Animals, Art, Conservation, Dogs, Ethics, Extinction, Human-Animal Bond, Human-Animal Studies, Literature, Photography, Public Policy, Representations, Theory | Leave a Comment »

Frogs: The Thin Green Line

Posted by lisagbrown on April 3, 2009

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post about Allison Argo’s Crash: A Tale of Two Species, a film about shorebirds and horseshoe crabs. I’m happy to say that Allison’s unique perspective on animals is back, this time on behalf of frogs. Frogs: The Thin Green Line premieres this Sunday, April 5th, at 8PM on PBS (check your local listings). As Allison explains in this sure-to-be stunning visual feast, dozens of frog species have completely disappeared over the last decade. This film is both her love letter to these strange amphibians, and also a murder mystery. Where have they gone? And what does their disappearance mean for other frogs and other animals … and for us?

Check the PBS website for a remarkable preview of this film.

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Posted in Amphibians, Animal Welfare, Animals, Art, Conservation, Ethics, Extinction, Public Policy, Representations, Television | 1 Comment »

Best of the Blogs…

Posted by lisagbrown on December 7, 2008

There is nothing I love more than perusing my favorite blogs. Too often, the medium of blogging gets a bad rap because anyone can have a blog (and almost everyone does!) But that’s not the medium’s fault. Just like there are terrible and wonderful books, movies and art, there are terrible and wonderful blogs, as well. You just have to know how to sift through the bad to find the good, and this can be an intimidating endeavor. I highly recommend every single one of the blogs listed on my blogroll, but I thought I’d highlight the ones I’ve been completely addicted to lately. Enjoy!

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Antennae isn’t actually a blog (it’s a journal), but it’s full of fascinating articles, interviews, art and tidbits by many of the most influential contemporary animal/nature writers and artists. Download the current issue “Botched Taxidermy” as a PDF on their website.

This blog is authored by Vanessa Woods, a Bonobo researcher who is stationed at Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary in the Congo. Her blog is full of vibrant color photos, descriptions of her relationships with the bonobos and a no-holds-barred personal account of the politics of bonobo protection.

You may have noticed my previous enthusiasm for this blog, but it bears repeating. Daily Coyote is the day-to-day account of Shreve Stockton’s efforts to raise an orphaned coyote pup. Not only are her photos breathtakingly beautiful, but Shreve’s determination to chronicle this adventure responsibly (i.e., to reiterate that she will never again undertake an experience like this, and that coyotes are not meant to be pets) is commendable.

For a more intellectual and theoretical perspective on animals, check out the blog of Boria Sax, one of the stand-out powerhouses in the burgeoning field of human-animal studies.

Red Star Cafe is undoubtedly one of my all time favorite blogs. I like to imagine that I’m the only one who knows about this amazing treasure-trove of writing. I’m only sharing this little secret with you because I know you won’t tell anyone else about the intelligence, insight and originality with which they write about animals and nature in culture. Shh. Don’t tell. Our secret.

This blog is the ‘notebook’ of Boston-based writer and professor Steve Himmer. Steve posts his favorite highlights from blogs, books and more, and all of it is about nature, animals and writing. It’s a great source of inspiration, and a way to find hidden gems.

In the past, my own blog has been called, “wonderfully specific,” a compliment that I’d like to pass on to Taxidermy: Ravishing Beasts. It is a smart, engaging blog about the beauty, controversy, and power of taxidermy.

This bilingual blog by a Columbia University doctoral student combines her love of 18th century literature, contemporary American popular culture, and razor-sharp autobiography, into one big, diverse, delightful read.

Posted in Advertising, Animal Behavior, Animal Welfare, Animals, Art, Birds, Cats, Comics, Conservation, Dogs, Ethics, Extinction, Film, Fish, Food Animals, Human-Animal Bond, Human-Animal Studies, Identity, Literature, Music, Photography, Primates, Public Policy, Radio, Religion, Representations, Television, Theory | 3 Comments »

Facing Extinction, Facing Ourselves

Posted by lisagbrown on November 10, 2008

lg_cube_lemurStuart Pimm, one of the world’s leading experts on extinction, was today’s guest on NPR’s “Species at the Brink” on On Point with Tom Ashbrook. According to Pimm, up to one half of the world’s species could be extinct within 100 years. But instead of trying to frighten people into joining the cause by provoking our deepest fears, he provides worthwhile, achievable steps that every individual can take to help prevent this global nightmare. Click on the link above to listen to this fantastically informative hour of radio.

Or, to go straight to the source and visit Pimm’s web project, savingspecies.org, which connects potential donors to organizations that make a direct impact on species preservation and carbon neutrality.

Photo: Lemur in Madagascar from savingspecies.org

Posted in Animal Welfare, Animals, Conservation, Ethics, Extinction, Public Policy, Radio | Leave a Comment »