Posted by lisagbrown on July 13, 2009
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
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 »
Posted by lisagbrown on May 20, 2009
The answer, of course, is no. Chance the bull did not get a second chance, but a recent This American Life documents how one family comes to believe that Chance has been reborn.
Chance was a very tame bull — unusually tame — to the point that Ralph and Sandra Fisher considered him a part of the family. They describe him as cuddly and loving — not unlike an extra large dog. Chance appeared in Hollywood films and on television; he was photographed with celebrities and children; he’s probably the most documented bull in history. And when he finally died after more than a decade with the family, everyone who knew Chance was devastated. But this isn’t only a story of people mourning a beloved animal, because the Fishers then proceed to do what many animal lovers fantasize about when their animals die — Ralph and Sandra clone Chance.
When Texas A & M University delivers the cloned calf to the Fishers, the couple become convinced that Chance has returned. They say he’s back; he’s been reincarnated; and they name the bull Second Chance. The scientists and vets try to explain to the Fishers that cloning does not work this way — that, at best, they should think of the new bull as Chance’s sibling. He might not look, act, or think like the originial bull. But the Fishers are so blinded by love and loss that they refuse to believe this. They point to behavioral similarities between Chance and Second Chance as evidence that there is a deeper connection between the bulls. And even after Second Chance gores Ralph so badly that he ends up in the hospital — twice — Ralph remains certain that they’ve gotten back “95% of Chance” in the form of the new bull.
I would guess that most people have thought of cloning a beloved dog or cat, but can’t afford it or come to realize that this would not bring their animal back. It is heartbreaking to hear the desperation in the Fisher’s voices — how fervently they want their Chance back, and how blind they are (particularly Ralph) to the fact that he has not returned. In fact, even after Second Chance dies, the family explains, “it never occured to us that by having the clone [of Chance], we would lose him twice.” In death, as in life, the second bull remains a ghost of the first.
It is hard to imagine how the Fishers become so misguided about Chance and Second Chance, and yet, for anyone who has deeply loved an animal, it’s not that hard. It is as if they never leave the ‘bargaining’ phase of the mourning process because they think they’ve won the bargain. Cloning has enabled them to negotiate their bull back to life, so the Fishers are never required to accept Chance’s death. And even though there are so many ways that that’s wrong, it’s hard to judge them for it.
There are other parts of this story that could be discussed (the danger of misundertanding wild animals, the ethics of using animals in entertainment, the ethical implications of cloning), but what is most prominent to me is how deeply the Fishers loved their Chance. Their love may have caused them to make some bad choices; it might have made it impossible for them to see Second Chance as a unique individual; it may have even made them completely irrational. But in some ways, there is no better way to honor Chance’s place in their family than to reflect on how desperately they tried to get him back.
To listen to the full story about the Fishers, Chance, and Second Chance, visit This American Life.
Posted in Animal Behavior, Animals, Ethics, Human-Animal Bond, Radio, Representations | Leave a Comment »
Posted by lisagbrown on March 12, 2009
To read my interview with Charles Siebert, click here.
One of the challenges of writing with an agenda — that is, writing for the purpose of helping animals, or bringing greater awareness to animal issues — is that sometimes it seems as though lyricism and the beauty of words must be sacrificed. It can be difficult to imbue the language of public policy, welfare and rights, with the cadence of poetry. I started my career as a writer — not as an animal advocate, that came later — and so the weight of words matters to me. I am as much concerned with how I say something, as I am with what I am saying.
Therefore, when I find someone who manages to advocate on behalf of animals, while also creating worlds of imagery with his words, I become … shall we say … enthralled. Charles Siebert is becoming increasingly well known for his New York Times Magazine editorials, and below I’ve gathered a bibliography of his writings. Within each article, book and radio piece, you’ll find a searing analysis of human-animal relationships that is hidden inside the folds of personal, accessible, and above all, poetic writing. He manages to educate readers about the plight of animal sheltering in the United States, the inherent conflicts in caring for adult chimps, and the complex relationships between humans and the environment, all in the context of visceral autobiographical writing that engenders rawness and self-discovery, without becoming remotely saccharine. Enjoy the works below, and don’t forget to check out my interview with Siebert.
2009 The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals (Scribner)
2004 A Man After His Own Heart (Three Rivers Press)
2000 Angus: A Novel (Three Rivers Press)
1997 Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral (Three Rivers Press)
ON NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO:
7/21/09 Charles Siebert: The Wauchula Woods Accord The Diane Rehm Show
6/13/09 The Surprisingly Social Grey Whale Fresh Air
3/06/09 350: Human Resources, Act three. “Almost Human Resources” This American Life
10/06 Are Humans Causing Elephants to Go Crazy? Day to Day
06/09 Watching Whales Watching Us New York Times Magazine
03/09 Something Wild New York Times Magazine
05/07 Falling Down Green New York Times Magazine
04/07 New Tricks New York Times Magazine
10/06 An Elephant Crackup? New York Times Magazine
01/06 The Animal Self New York Times Magazine
06/05 Planet of the Retired Apes New York Times Magazine
09/04 The Genesis Project New York Times Magazine
03/03 Making Faces New York Times Magazine
Click here to see four articles by Siebert published in Harper’s Magazine:
(Please note: You must be a Harper’s subscriber to access the full text.)
05/97 Our Machines, Ourselves
02/93 The Artifice of the Natural
05/91 Where Have All the Animals Gone? The Lamentable Extinction of Zoos
02/90 The Rehumanization of the Heart: What doctors have forgotten, poets have always known
Posted in Animal Behavior, Animal Welfare, Animals, Cats, Conservation, Dogs, Ethics, Fish, Human-Animal Bond, Human-Animal Studies, Identity, Literature, Primates, Public Policy, Radio, Representations, Theory | Leave a Comment »
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!
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 »
Posted by lisagbrown on November 10, 2008
Stuart 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 »
Posted by lisagbrown on November 2, 2008
Monday morning, November 3 at 8:30 am, Eastern Time, Animal Inventory blog and Animal Inventory TV will be featured on KZUM radio’s Canine 360 (89.3 in Lincoln, Nebraska). I discuss the purpose and goals of Animal Inventory in a lengthy interview with the show’s host, Jill Morstad.
Morstad describes Canine 360 as an opportunity to “pause to take a look around, to consider the concentric circles of home and family, neighborhood and community and explore how dogs create and reflect our values and ideals, and our conceptions of the good life and the good state for dogs and people.”
Listen to the show LIVE (8:30 am, Eastern Time) by going to the KZUM home page and clicking on the LISTEN LIVE icon on the left side of the page. If you miss the show, don’t worry — I hope to post a podcast of the episode within the next couple of weeks.
Posted in Animal Behavior, Animals, Art, Cats, Dogs, Human-Animal Bond, Human-Animal Studies, Radio, Representations | Leave a Comment »
Posted by lisagbrown on July 31, 2008
Officials have begun foreclosure proceedings on the greyhound racetrack ‘Wonderland’ in Revere, Massachusetts. The track owes around $800,000 in back taxes. Animal welfare organizations have tried to shut down greyhound racing in Massachusetts several times, specifically targeting Wonderland, and a proposed dog racing ban will be on the ballot again this fall. (Previous ballots have failed by extremely narrow margins.) This new development will seemingly be a boost for animal activists, who can now cite fiscal irresponsibility, alongside animal welfare concerns.
News of the foreclosure was on television, radio and the internet this morning. However, as of the publishing of this blog entry, there is no news on the potential fate of the animals, should the racetrack be shut down. In fact, the welfare of the dogs was not even mentioned in any of the news coverage that I saw, read and heard this morning. Hopefully, as the story unfolds, this unforgivable omission will be remedied by news outlets.
Why do animal welfarists object to greyhound racing?
The following is an excerpt from the website of Grey2KUSA, a welfare group devoted to ending greyhound racing nationwide:
A Life of Endless Confinement
While at the racetrack, dogs are confined in small cages barely large enough for them to stand up or turn around for long hours each day. On average, over one thousand dogs live in warehouse style kennels at each racetrack.
Dogs Suffer Serious Injuries
Thousands of dogs are seriously injured each year at commercial racetracks, including dogs that suffer broken legs, cardiac arrest, spinal cord paralysis and broken necks. Unfortunately, not all of these injuries are reported to the public because some states do not even keep records on the number of dogs injured each year.
Dogs are Killed When They are No Longer Profitable
Thousands of dogs are killed when they are injured or are no longer fast enough to be profitable. According to the pro-racing National Greyhound Association, an estimated 5,000 dogs were killed in 2003.
Economic Pressure Leads to Animal Neglect
To racetrack promoters, dogs are short-term investments. Even the fastest dogs only race for a few years, and are expected to generate enough profit during that time to make up for the cost of their food and housing.
The pressure to generate gambling profits can lead to negligent care. Adoption groups frequently receive dogs in a general state of neglect, including dogs suffering from severe infestations of fleas, ticks, and internal parasites.
To cut costs, dogs are fed the cheapest meat available. According to Care of the Racing Greyhound, the primary sources for meat used to feed greyhounds in the United States are “abattoirs that have commercial products of 4-D meat for Greyhounds.” It goes on to add, “The ‘D’ stands for dying, diseased, disabled and dead livestock … this meat is used because it is the most economically feasible at this time.”
The quality of veterinary care a dog receives can also be compromised by financial considerations.
Dogs are Trained With Live Animals, Such as Rabbits
Some members of the dog racing industry believe that training dogs with live animals, such as rabbits, causes them to run faster when competing. While the industry has publicly denounced this practice, it does still occur. In 2002 a greyhound breeder and owner had his state license suspended after he was caught using domestic rabbits to train his dogs. At least 180 rabbits were found at his kennel in rural Arizona.
For more information on greyhound racing, click on the link below.
Posted in Animal Welfare, Animals, Dogs, Ethics, Public Policy, Radio, Television | Leave a Comment »
Posted by lisagbrown on March 16, 2008
There was a wonderful story on NPR last week about a woman and her relationship with her parrot. You can read or listen to the piece here:
A Delightful, Awful Marriage to a Pet Parrot
Writer Julie Zickefoose provides a great education about how pet parenting is not a job to be undertaken lightly, particularly in the case of an animal that lives a very long time. Her relationship with Charlie is loving, intimate, and devoted, and she has all the scars to prove it. Literally. Her honesty over the trials and tribulations of parenting an exotic bird is already bringing her kudos from rescuers who try to warn people away from adopting or purchasing animals that don’t make the best companions. Yet, her devotion to Charlie (despite behavior that would typically be incompatible with most people) is admirable.
You can read more about Julie and her thoughts on birds at her blog, Julie Zickefoose.
Posted in Animal Behavior, Animals, Human-Animal Bond, Radio | 1 Comment »