Animal Inventory Blog

Keeping track of animals in popular culture.

Archive for the ‘Public Policy’ Category

Public Health and Agriculture: An Ongoing Debate

Posted by lisagbrown on August 28, 2009

pig-factory-farmsFor 2 1/2 years, a highly diverse group of experts from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) (a project from the Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) studied the practices of industrial farm agriculture, and came to the conclusion that the abundant use of antibiotics in farm animals has a detrimental impact on both humans and animals. Recent health scares like the Swine Flu and various salmonella outbreaks have forced the general public to look at how their food is produced, and most people seem to agree: there are fundamental problems with our agricultural system.  Americans are growing smarter about how their food is made. Time Magazine’s recent article Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food, the documentary Food, Inc and the success of similarly themed media suggest an increasing concern among consumers about what they are putting into their bodies and how it is made, not to mention the welfare of the animals that are sacrificed in the process. In response, the Obama administration is taking steps to reform the industrial farming industry, with a proposed banning of unnecessary antibiotics in farm animals.

All of this sounds like significant progress, except for a fly in the ointment: the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recently published a response to the PCIFAP’s report, and makes the claim that antibiotic use in farm animals poses a possible risk, not a probable risk. The AVMA says  “We are concerned the Pew’s fear-invoking assertions are going to have an equivalent outcome to the ‘Y2K’ crisis that never happened on January 1, 2000.” They further go on to claim that the Pew’s report contains “major deviations from science and reality.” The AVMA sarcastically calls the Pew Commission’s report “grandiose” and accuses the panel of experts of being biased. With language that borders on slanderous, and a tone that is — at best — unprofessional, the AVMA takes on the Pew’s report as if it were an indictment of the practice of veterinary medicine itself. It most certainly is not, but it leads one to wonder why the AVMA is taking this so personally.

HSUS Vegetarian Eating Guide05I don’t think this will have much of an impact on the movement towards healthier, more sustainable and more humanely raised food. But I DO think that this will impact the way Americans view the AVMA. People who live with animals look to their vets as a source of knowledge and compassion about animals, and it is likely that most people assume the AVMA represents the overarching ideals of their own vets. Sadly, the notion that the AVMA represents the interests of animal lovers and individual vets appears to be as outdated as the AVMA’s perspective on industrial farming. And as a result, many veterinarians are actively and loudly voicing their disapproval of the AVMA’s stance.

With its response, the AVMA believes that it is revealing inadequacies in the Pew’s report, but I believe that it has unintentionally revealed something altogether different. What is now clear is that, rather than looking out for the health and well-being of humans and other animals, the organization is protecting the interests of big agribusiness — an industry that acquires its antibiotics from … veterinarians who work for the lucrative agribusiness. By framing their response as a rebuttal rather than a companion report, they come off looking like a lobbying group on behalf of industrial farm agriculture. Ultimately, if the AVMA’s response gains more attention, I suspect that they will have a PR nightmare on their hands. Shouldn’t an organization that has a mission to “improve animal and human health and advance the veterinary medical profession” want to distance itself from an industry that contributes to significant animal suffering and endangers the environment and human health?

Click here to read the Pew’s report and the AVMA’s response in full and to visit Center for a Livable Future. While there, please also read a fantastic response to the AVMA by Ralph Loglisci.

 *Update* 08/31/09 Please view this insightful response from Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States entitled “Talk Back: Veterinary Conflict of Interest” , who highlights the AVMA’s inherent conflict of interest in its criticism of the Pew’s report. Pacelle also posts responses by individual veterinarians, whose criticism of the AVMA is especially heartening, and supports my belief that the AVMA does not represent the ideals of the average veterinarian. (Also see Pacelle’s original posting, AVMA: Off course from veterinarian’s oath.)

Posted in Animal Behavior, Animal Welfare, Animals, Barack Obama, Ethics, Food Animals, Human-Animal Studies, Public Policy | 1 Comment »

Animals on the Internet

Posted by lisagbrown on August 27, 2009

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Animals are everywhere on the internet, and it seems that every day there are more and more viral stories, videos and photos about animals! In order to accomodate the rapid influx of news and links, I’ve started a Facebook page where I can quickly post these items when I don’t have time to write a blog entry. Here’s a sampling of what you’ve been missing, if you’re not a fan of Animal Inventory on Facebook!

  • Monkey Herds Goats; Farmer Approves: An amazing National Geographic video of a monkey in India that herds goats! She has received no training, and does it on a completely voluntary basis — she was set free by the people who tended to some wounds she had gotten in the wild, but has chosen to stay with them and herd their goats!
  • Green Porno: Isabella Rossellini and Sundance channel team up to create very short films about the reproductive habits of marine animals. GREEN PORNO is scientifically accurate yet extremely entertaining.
  • Chimp Outtakes: Adorable outtakes from footage shot by the Jane Goodall Institute of the chimps in Gombi.
  • Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me: The NPR news quiz show hosts an episode that’s all about animals!

And there’s so much more! Articles about: a giraffe and an ostrich that are best friends, how Barry White might help sharks mate, an elephant and a dolphin getting prosthetic limbs. Introductions to cool artists who are inspired by animals, like Jen Mastre’s pencil sea urchin sculptures.  Plus I’ve begun highlighting the animal-related work of Animal Inventory’s fans themselves, an astonishingly talented and prolific group of people: for example, the comics of Nick Abadzis, the artwork of Jessica Joslin, the writing of Leslie Irvine.

There’s much more to come. Don’t miss out on your daily dose of Animal Inventory on Facebook!

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Posted in Animal Behavior, Animal Welfare, Animals, Art, Comics, Conservation, Film, Human-Animal Bond, Human-Animal Studies, Primates, Public Policy, Representations | Leave a Comment »

Japan’s Dolphin Massacre: The Cove in Taiji

Posted by lisagbrown on August 7, 2009

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Dolphins have been massacred by the thousands in the town of Taiji, Japan, but until now, not many people knew about it. Thanks to the dedicated team behind the new movie, The Cove, the cruel, ongoing practice of dolphin slaughtering has been exposed. The horrifying truth is that most people in Japan don’t even know this is happening in their own country and — even worse — they don’t know that some of the fish they eat is dolphin meat. They are purposefully being deceived in order to sustain a lucrative and dishonest industry that provides “show” dolphins to aquariums and “swim-with-dolphins” programs worldwide.

As the film opens, director Louis Psihoyos explains, “we tried to do this film legally.” With this one line, Psihoyos sets up the espionage, intrigue and drama of a film that has Hitchcock-worthy, rapid-fire pacing. The Cove stands as a meticulous documentary whose important contribution to animal welfare is only outshone by its contribution to the medium of guerrilla-style documentary film-making. This is storytelling at its most profound, where structure and content intertwine seamlessly to create a narrative that is as exciting as it is informative.

The Cove traces the story of Ric O’Barry, the dolphin trainer for the 1960’s television show Flipper, who feels responsible for contributing to the captivity of dolphins. During brief interludes, O’Barry shares his profound attachment to Kathy, one of the dolphins who played Flipper. She brought him to a greater understanding of why these beings ought not to be in captivity. O’Barry’s perspective is integrated with information from scientists, divers and others who share personal and professional knowledge, creating a holistic portrait of dolphins as sentient, self-aware beings whose suffering is unjustifiable.

As is the case with most thrillers, there are good guys and bad guys, corrupt government schemers, and a genuine danger of being caught. All these pieces provide the framework, but the dolphins and their plight remain at the heart of every wrenching scene, giving the drama a pulsating urgency that fictional thrillers lack.

I’ve heard that some people are fearful of seeing the film because they think they won’t be able to handle the upsetting nature of its content. I hope to dissuade people of this fear. It’s true that there are things that happen in this movie that are incredibly sad to see and even worse to think about, but it would be such a disservice to yourself — and the dophins — if you allow this fear to overtake you. This film won’t destroy you. It doesn’t show you anything you can’t handle. But it will provoke attention and outrage, and it will very likely incite you to take action. In the same way that Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth inspired moviegoers to go beyond the passive experience of movies — and participate in the experience long after the film has ended — The Cove will inspire everyday people to champion on behalf of the dolphins.

What is happening in Taiji deserves scrutiny. It warrants our attention. And it needs to end.

To take action, visit www.takepart.com/thecove

To find a screening in your city, visit The Cove‘s website

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Dolphins performing in Taiji.                                                                                      The filmmakers with two covert filming tools.

Posted in Animal Behavior, Animal Welfare, Animals, Art, Conservation, Ethics, Film, Fish, Food Animals, Human-Animal Bond, Human-Animal Studies, Public Policy, Representations | 1 Comment »

Low-Calorie Monkeys and Roger Cohen’s Meaning of Life

Posted by lisagbrown on July 18, 2009

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In the July 15, 2009 New York Times, op-ed writer Roger Cohen responds to a recently published study that claims that ingesting one-third fewer calories may slow the aging process. The study draws this conclusion based on the controlled eating habits of a group of monkeys where half the monkeys have been denied one third of their regular caloric intake. 37% of the control group, fed a normal monkey diet, have died of old age, while only 13% of the underfed group have passed away.

In his article “The Meaning of Life,” Cohen introduces a new perspective to this story — one that the mainstream media hasn’t considered in its flurry over finding a potential fountain of youth. As he explains, “the issue arises of how these primates… are feeling, and whether these feelings impact their desire to live.” In this short but succinct statement, Cohen has turned the tables on the experiment and the resulting press coverage. Not only is he questioning the validity of the study’s conclusions, he is also asking his readership to consider the experiences of these monkeys as individuals. In wondering about the monkeys’ desire to live, he pointedly forces the reader to examine not just the food intake of the animals, but also their living situation, social structure and enrichment needs, as well. While other media outlets see hope for humans waistlines reflected in the photo of the monkeys, Cohen brings attention to everything in the photo around the monkeys — the sterile cages and metal mesh flooring, and the stark contrast of the brightly colored toys that seemed decidedly un-fun and untouched. Cohen seems to ask his readers whether this looks like a life worth living.

Yet Cohen goes on to dissect the expressions of the pictured monkeys, claiming that the larger simian, Owen (above, right), has a “wry smile” and the slender monkey, Canto (above, left), looks “miserable in his thinness,” and here is where I have to diverge with his line of thinking. It’s difficult to know from a single photograph the lifelong mood or feelings of an animal — or, well, of anyone for that matter. And as some of Cohen’s readers point out in the online comments section of the article, there are other photos of the monkeys in which the thin monkey looks perfectly content, and the plump monkey looks unhappy. It is a fair assumption that Cohen knew about these other photos when he wrote his article. Which begs the question: If pictures are worth 1000 words, then whose thousand words do these photos reveal? The scientists’ thousand? Cohen’s thousand? Certainly not the monkeys’ thousand.

As I read the rest of Cohen’s article, it became clear to me that Cohen was, in part, using these monkeys as a literary device; a means to get to the heart of what he really wanted to discuss — the meaning of happiness in life. He praises the merits of red wine, the pleasures of eating rich foods, and the enhancing benefits of love, all while using plump Owen’s wry smile as an example of the happiness that living lushly can produce. But there’s an uncomfortable dissonance to his point, because despite Cohen’s intentions, his idea of a life fully lived doesn’t remotely resemble the realities of Owen’s captive life — regardless of whether or not Owen has access to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

It is the prerogative of a writer to find alternate meanings in otherwise commonplace events, or to find the common threads in disparate stories in order to bring greater understanding to a theme. This is what Cohen strives to do by pairing the evocative monkey portraits with his musings on living happily. But when I first started reading Cohen’s article, I did not think that the monkeys were a literary means to an end. And for all the obvious reasons, Cohen’s article does not dissect the lives of these monkeys as deeply as I hoped he would.

On July 6, 2009, Cohen wrote an extraordinarily moving article for the New York Times about the tyranny in Iran called, “A Journalist’s ‘Actual Responsibility’.” He uses the disturbing events in Iran to define his purpose as a journalist. He explains, “In the 24/7 howl of partisan pontification, and the scarcely less-constant death knell din surrounding the press, a basic truth gets lost: that to be a journalist is to bear witness.”

Cohen defines “bearing witness” as a physical presence: to bear witness a journalist must actually see something with his or her own eyes, be present for the smells, sights and sounds of a story. But in my mind, and I think Cohen intended this as well, bearing witness is also the revolutionary act of seeing what others refuse to see, hearing what others refuse to hear, and documenting, for all posterity, what others refuse to document. And in this sense, physical presence is secondary to emotional and intellectual presence.

When I began to read Cohen’s article about a new fountain of youth — delivered on the backs of underfed and under-enriched monkeys — I saw that he was bearing witness to this story in a way that no one in the mainstream press had; everyone else saw their own fears of aging, but he saw a suffering that was going unnoticed. He was bearing witness to stark metal cages and sad thirty-year lifespans. He seemed to be acknowledging a truth that many members of the media ignore — monkeys (and all animals) live lives that are worth witnessing. But Cohen’s reliability as a witness fell just short of the mark when he supplanted his own meaning of life over the faces of monkeys whose lives are defined by what they have or have not eaten.

Perhaps Cohen has cracked open the door of Pandora’s box (aside from the obvious dogs and cats, mainstream media still has a difficult time acknowledging that animal well-being matters), and so, in that context, Cohen’s stance is actually somewhat brave. But those two monkeys — even the very thin one — can’t fit through a door that’s only open a sliver. They need a door that’s thrown wide open, and a witness who is focused on the meaning of their lives, not his own.

Posted in Animal Behavior, Animal Welfare, Animals, Ethics, Human-Animal Studies, Literature, Primates, Public Policy, Representations, Theory | Leave a Comment »

Minding Animals, July 12-19, 2009

Posted by lisagbrown on July 14, 2009

minding_animals_logo-1If I could be anywhere in the world right now, I would not choose the sandy beaches of Hawaii or the Caribbean. I would not be wandering the romantic streets of Paris with my sweetheart, nor would I be observing wild capuchin monkeys in South America. No, if I could choose to be anywhere in the world instantaneously — right this very moment — I would choose to be in Newcastle, Australia.

You see, some of the most important animal studies thinkers of our time have gathered at the University of Newcastle, Australia, for the Minding Animals conference, a first-of-its-kind meeting of artists, scientists, scholars and activists. NYU philosopher Dale Jamieson has called it “the Woodstock of the animal rights movement.” Over 400 participants are spending the week lecturing about, discussing and pondering the state of animals in our world. For over a week these brilliant minds of animal studies will be sharing their thoughts on topics as varied as law, ethics, literature, film, veterinary practices, education, conservation, zoos, consciousness, ethology, cruelty, species … and so much more! (For a complete listing of the conference’s panels, visit the Minding Animals website and click “Download Final Programme.”)

I must not be alone in my utter despair for not being there — the Minding Animals conference organizers, Dr. Rod Bennison and Dr. Jill Bough, have kindly organized podcasts and live-streaming of some of the panels, in partnership with ABC Newcastle NSW. To listen in on this historic conference-in-the-making, visit the ABC Minding Animals channel.

Though there is no official twitterfeed for Minding Animals, several of the attendees/speakers are live-tweeting the panels they attend. Follow @andrewbartlett @leerhiannon @JohnAtASI @_caroljadams @VoicelessFund (And while you’re at it, follow Animal Inventory at @lisabrown, too!)

For of-the-moment blog coverage, visit the ASI Diary on the Animals & Society Institute website. John Thompson, Ken Shapiro and others are posting daily blog entries about their experiences at Minding Animals.

Posted in Animals, Human-Animal Studies, Public Policy, 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 »

Filling the Ark: Animal Welfare in Disasters

Posted by lisagbrown on June 18, 2009

filllingHurricane Katrina was a pivotal event in animal welfare in the United States.  However, it’s only now, some four years later, that we can begin to understand what happened in New Orleans. I’ve previously highlighted the film MINE,  a documentary feature that explores the impact of Katrina on humans and nonhumans. Now, the book Filling the Ark: Animal Welfare in Disasters  takes a broader look at how animals are handled in disasters — not just during Katrina, but during many of the most recent hurricanes, tornadoes, oil spills, and other calamities.

In Filling the Ark, author Leslie Irvine weaves a tale that is both eye-opening and tragic. She reveals some of the most horrific repercussions of Katrina, and places them in the context of America’s “lesser” disasters. In the wake of Katrina, it has been easy to forget that other disasters set the stage for the inadequacies that became apparent during Katrina. But Irvine does a great service to animal welfarists, humanitarians and aid workers by putting all the pieces together in one place, and showing how cultural views, economic challenges, racism, and inadequate infrastructure combine to create disasters within disasters. It is not necessarily the hurricane that is tragic, she suggests, but our response to it that is.

Thus far, most of the attention to animal welfare in disasters has been placed on companion animals — people’s pets. But Irvine shatters that boundary by revealing the unfathomable impact that disasters have had on animals in factory farms, birds and marine wildlife, and animals in research facilities. For example, in hurricane Rita alone, 30,000 cattle died. When the media reports on losses like these, if at all,  it frames the deaths as economic hits to the farmer. The reality is that there is very little structure in place to provide for these animals (or zoo animals) during disasters.

In her final chapter, Irvine suggests ways that we can begin to mend these holes in our disaster plans. As she explains, her goal is not to promote a radical animal rights agenda, but rather to establish sound structures within a culture that — for now — is “deeply entrenched” in its use of animals for food, science, and companionship. She says, “By incorporating welfare considerations into our existing uses of animals, we also reduce vulnerability — overall and during disasters. I believe we can accomplish this goal without imposing undue hardships on people (p 17).” Her purpose is to change practices in a way that is achievable, realistic, and cost effective. The biggest issue now, it seems, is how can we get this book into the hands of people who will listen,and who have the power to implement these changes?

Posted in Animal Welfare, Animals, Birds, Cats, Dogs, Ethics, Film, Fish, Food Animals, Human-Animal Bond, Human-Animal Studies, Literature, Public Policy, Representations, Theory | 1 Comment »

Eqypt Orders Mass Pig Slaughter to Prevent Swine Flu

Posted by lisagbrown on April 30, 2009

pig

According to MSNBC, the Egyptian government has ordered the slaughter of the country’s 300,000 pigs, in order to prevent an outbreak of the swine flu. Many farmers are refusing to carry out the proposed slaughter, at least until the goverment develops a plan of compensation for losing their livelihood.

“We remind Hosni Mubarak that we are all Egyptians. Where does he want us to go?” said Gergis Faris, a 46-year-old pig farmer in another part of Cairo who collects garbage to feed his animals. “We are uneducated people, just living day by day and trying to make a living, and now if our pigs are taken from us without compensation, how are we supposed to live?”

However, the government issued a statement saying that farmers are permitted to sell the meat of the slaughtered animals, so no compensation is necessary. Egypt was among the hardest hit nations during the recent Avian flu pandemic. The country’s extreme reaction to the swine flu is likely a result of lingering memories of the bird flu’s impact.

Posted in Animal Welfare, Animals, Ethics, Food Animals, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »