Erenlai - Focus: Human Animals and Animal Humans
Focus: Human Animals and Animal Humans

Focus: Human Animals and Animal Humans

This month eRenlai looks to the other species that inhabit this planet and our relationship with them - non-human animals. We rarely question the licence we grant ourselves in our conception of animals as a ‘lower’ species, in this focus we investigate this idea from several different perspectives. First, Eric Charmetant examines how contemporary research disturbs our ancestral certainties about the difference between man and animals while Conor Stuart has reviewed two films which give an insight into the different ways that people interact with animals, Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man and Errol Morris’s Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. We then move to Professor Huang Zong-Hui who gave us a mini-lecture on the blurring of the conventional line drawn between animals and humans in literature, and an interview on the current state of animal rights in Taiwan and where it will go from here. In a similar vein, Daniel Pagan Murphy explores the gruesome reality behind the stereotypes of Spain commonly held in Asia about bull-fighting. Witek and Daniel, on the other hand, take a look into a more privileged breed of animal in the world of luxury pet food, in a photo-story interview. Laetitia Kernaleguen then casts what could be said to be a more objective eye on animals in her mission to study the demographic evolution of the penguins colonies on Crozet Island, with a special eye to the possible impact of global warming on their diet and their reproduction. Finally Bob Bloodworth explores the myriad reasons behind the decision not to eat animals.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

From Animal to Man


Porous frontiers

The death, on October 30, 2007 at the age of 42, of Washoe, a female chimpanzee who became famous for having learned to use several hundreds signs from the American sign language and who had taught part of it, without human help, to her adopted son Loulis, made the headlines worldwide. This story reminds us how much contemporary research disturbs our ancestral certainties about the difference between man and animals. Could it be the harbinger of its imminent dissolution?

Darwin already pointed out in The Descent of Man (1871) that monkeys were able to crack nuts with a stone. Since the work of Jane Goodall in Gombe (Tanzania) in the sixties, we know that chimpanzees can make tools to catch termites in their nest. And from the end of the seventies, we noticed in chimpanzees and bonobos the behavior of self-medication by plants in case of intestinal diseases. More recently, in 2005-2006, some researchers observed several times the making of weapons (spears) by chimpanzees in order to kill prosimians in Senegal. Man is no longer be the only weapon manufacturer. All cognitive and technical boundaries which separate him from the rest of the animal kingdom do seem to have lost their firmness and sharpness.

Of course, no one will deny that there is a “plus” in the human language, in the human self-consciousness, as well as in the human technology and pharmacology. However, human exclusivity of these features seems to have become completely obsolete.

WashoeAnimal Cultures?

Regarding social abilities, the situation does not seem more favorable to the human being. Cooperation is widespread in the animal kingdom, through various cases of mutual help between fellow creatures, when handicapped for example. Thus, Mozu, a macaque female in Japan, was born without hands and feet and she managed not only to survive but also to raise five babies with the help of her fellow monkeys.

Cases of appeasement after a conflict, named “reconciliations” by Frans de Waal, are well proven although there are still debates about the exact motivation of this behaviour: is it the desire to reestablish a relationship or is it the desire to alleviate one’s stress? The difficulty for the human species to understand the unconscious or final reasons of reconciliation behaviour also casts a doubt on our interpreting other primates’ motivations.

Furthermore, the monitoring of chimpanzees communities during more than 40 years in various African countries showed local variations in the use of tools such as the catching of termites with bits of barks, or in certain gestures such as the handgrip above the head during the mutual grooming using the other hand, or yet in some behaviours such as dancing under the rain during a storm.

In 1999, one article mentioned the “animal cultures”1 while referring to 151 years of cumulated observations in primatology. Other primatologists would rather say “ animal traditions” to indicate that they are still far from the richness of human culture. Yet, even there, the human exclusiveness tends to fade: the transmitting of customs inherent to a group within a same species is no longer the prerogative of the Homo Sapiens.

Objections

Supporters of the insurmountable gaps between man and animal show concern towards these studies which are often accused of anthropomorphism. They point out to what extent the descriptions of animal customs use expressions and words created first for human behaviours such as reconciliation, empathic help or political alliances.

Yet these behaviours are not invented by researchers and they can be quantified: one would talk of a reconciliation when an appeasement contact occurs 15 minutes after an attack. One could invent completely new and ‘non-human’ words to describe these acts in other species, but would it not be anthropomorphism again? This would need the creation of a dictionary in order to translate the new language of primatologists into our natural languages. Furthermore, one would have to denounce as well all the whiffs of anthropomorphism when man talks about God, with the risk of muting the dogmatic theology. Thomas Aquinas was more optimistic regarding the value of analogies.

Another way to discredit these studies is to say that animals are only driven by their instinct while men are free beings. No need to start a complicated debate on human freedom and determinism to notice that the word ‘instinct‘ is a catch-all expression. Are we talking about parental instincts, self-preservation instinct, migration, etc.?

Again, field observations lead to us clarifying the extensions of the word ‘instinct’. For example, great apes are able to adapt to peculiar situations. They wouldn’t punish a Down syndrome baby monkey if the latter jumps on the head of the alpha male whereas any other baby would be severely scolded. Some chimpanzees seem to make very fine distinctions between human intentions: for example between someone who would be kept from feeding them by a physical obstacle and someone who would pretend to give them food when not really willing to do it. Also, one would need to question the uses of the word ‘instinct’ in the human species when one talks about maternal or survival instinct.

What about language?

Then it must be more relevant to differentiate the “poor in world” animal and the “world-forming” man (Martin Heidegger). The animal can live in the world when man can live face to the world. The articulate language would be the archetypal vehicle for this distancing of the world in which humans live.

Along the same lines, one might stress human temporality, including the conceptof boredom in Heidegger’s while the animal is subjected to time. This difference regarding articulate language seems to be based on a variation of the Foxp2 gene possessed by man - and probably also by the Neanderthal after some results from 20072 - whereas great apes do not have it and thus their larynx handicaps them,preventing them from emitting varied sounds. This would also explain the strong “ratchet effect”3 which appears in human cultures thanks to oral and written transmission.

However, the difference conveniently made between animal communication related to emotions and human communication related to a semantic content, is no longer able to exist either. Animal vocalizations are not only emotionally induced, such as for example fear in front of a predator, but they are also likely to carry a semantic content.4 Thus vervet monkeys not only have differentiated vocalisations depending on the predator being a leopard or an eagle, but also take into account the temporal context of the vocalization emission. Two identical cries referred to the presence of one same predator and emitted five minutes apart, lead to distinct behaviours. In the first case, the alert is transmitted and a self-protective behaviour occurs while in the second case, the vervet monkey does nothing.

chimpanzee_v3

Even though the range of vocalisations does not seem quite flexible for the non-human primates, one can observe flexibility in the use or the non-use of these vocalisations according to the context. Then, one is led to explore the notion of animal thought without a syntactic language.

This contemporary researche may seem to destabilise human identity and man’s characteristics as defined in terms of unique faculties or a human nature absolutely separate from the animal kingdom. Yet, they show that human specificity may lie in the more, in the excess of language or in human sociability.

“Ultrasociability” of man

More than all other animal species, man is capable of a great variety of sounds. And more than other vertebrates, he can live in very big groups. As a member of an “ultra-social” species, like the ant and bee colonies but with the difference that his relations are not controlled by pheromones (fragrant secretions), man finds in the development of language the assurance of others’ reliability, the possibility of cooperating with others to achieve common goals, of organising group life and sharing tasks.

The improvement of human language and its ratchet effect on the evolution of human culture are part of what is peculiar to the human species, if we mean what is proper to man. Human language can verily become reason, in the critical distance to the world where we live.

However, this does not mean that we should deny any dimension of reason to animals: the ability to read intentions, to consider other living beings as centres of action and to hold different positions in a coordinated hunt, already indicate a march towards reason in others species than ours. Contemporary studies on animal domestication also show how rare it is among species. Still, ants can domesticate aphids but through using chemicals. Whereas man is able of living daily in contact with animals who are also able of it in return. That means a remarkable capacity to read human intentions, as farmers often emphasize in their stories.

One of the peculiar characteristics of man has been to be able to broaden his ability to feel for his fellows beyond the human circle so as to include some animals in his habitat. As Darwin wrote:” Sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is humanity to the lower animals, seems to be one of the latest moral acquisitions. It is apparently unfelt by savages, except towards their pets. How little the old Romans knew of it is shown by their abhorrent gladiatorial exhibitions.” 5

The point is not to enter too quickly into a concordism between christian faith and science, but one can note that these studies in zoology and primatology illustrate well two aspects that are often underestimated regarding the imago Dei: the coevolution between man and animals as well as the divine ultra-sociality.

colonie_de_fourmis_v2

One can find that coevolution of the man-animal relation resonates deeply with the prophecies that mention the Kingdom of God in terms of a peaceful coexistence between animals and man. It is a shame that factory farming widely destroys this dimension of coevolution by objectifying domestic animals. In fact, humans do not treat their fellows any better in many political regimes and contemporary genocides. Far from excluding each other, benevolence to animals and mutual respect between humans go together.

In the same way, human ultra-sociality, as emphasized by the zoologists’ works, calls for us to put back the divine ultra-sociality in the first position instead of the representations of God as reason only. The imago Dei is first to be searched in a Trinity-God, himself a relation who directs the living towards ultra-sociality. More generally, the porosity of frontiers in the definition of the human characteristic, emphasizes man’s evolutional roots into the living world. Then, should we question certain traditional views that assert the difference in nature between man and animals so as to resolutely choose a straight difference of degree as Darwin did in his time?

The possible freedom

Bergson in The Creative Evolution (1907) observed the strong propinquity between man and animals, especially in their ability - even limited - of invention, but he also maintained the rupture, the difference of nature between both: from animal to man, we go from the limited to the unlimited, from the closed to the opened, from conscience enclosed in its automatisms to freedom. However, one can remark that man also goes through a long way to freedom in his development to adulthood, as freedom is not innate to birth. It needs an important work of education. Thus this possible freedom always remains fragile in the practice of human existence. Man goes back easily to his routines, his automatisms, his closed morals.

As to animals, they are limited in their march towards freedom by their elementary and not cumulative enough culture. But is it definitive? Nobody knows because the evolution and the transforming of the living is far from finished.

 

First published in Choisir, June 2008

Translated from the French by Cerise Phiv with further editing by Daniel Pagan Murphy, illustrations by Marie Baron.

 


1 Andrew Whiten et aI., " Cultures in chimpanzees ", in Revue Nature, n' 399, 17.0

6.1999, pp. 682-685.

2 Krause et al.. « The derived Foxp2 variant of modern humans was shared with Neanderthals ", in Current Biology, vol. 17, 6.11.2007, pp. 1-5.

3 Cf. Michael Tomasello, Aux origines de la cognition humaine, Retz, Paris 2004, p. 19.

4 Dorothy Cheney et Robert Seyfarth, Baboon metaphysics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2007, pp. 233-247.

5 http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?viewtype=side&itemID=F937.1&pageseq=114

 

Friday, 11 May 2012

Animal Rights in Contemporary Taiwan


(The Chinese reads: If you're not a teahouse cat, please don't sit on the scooter)

Huang Zong-Hui, Professor of Languages and Literature at National Taiwan University and animal rights campaigner give us a run down of the current state of animal rights in Taiwan:

Friday, 11 May 2012

The Line Between Humans and Animals in Literature


Huang Zong-Hui, Professor of Languages and Literature at National Taiwan University discusses Kafka's 'Report to the Academy' and Roald Dahl's short story 'Pig' and how the concepts of anthropomorphism and zoomorphism function within literature to define the shifting boundaries between the human and the animal:

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Pet Shop Boys

Wan Anzhong is a pet food store owner very different from most others. His store focuses on products that are of a high standard, look great, and are actually good for the pets. We talked to him about his store and his inspiration. We also visited other stores which sell animals, food, and clothes for pets, and asked the owners the reasons why they believe people buy pets.

cakes

Cakes made in the shape of paws for the delight of dogs.

Are these kinds of delicacies more expensive than traditional ones?

In fact, they are just a little bit more expensive, not much more.

So, what’s the difference between your food and the normal one?

Normally the snacks we buy in shops are unhealthy. That food contains lots of preservatives. Our products never have any preservatives, and can generally last from 6 months to a year. Even though our products are more expensive than others, customers are still willing to buy them. The reason is our quality. We have the same standards for our pet treats as are found in food for humans . We also sell pet food for meals, so we can make sure the pets have a balanced intake of nutrients.

fish

Dried fish for cats and dogs, which, as our photographer can confirm, is edible for humans too.

Can you introduce the most popular products?

Our food is made mostly for either cats or dogs, and a large part of our products are suitable for both of them. One of our famous products is Apple Chicken. It uses chicken breast, which we puree into the shape we want.

Does the fancier food sell better?

Not at all really. Apple Chicken is simple but popular, and because dogs love to eat it, we sell quite a lot.

apple_chicken

Store specialty Apple Chicken.

What are some of your most special products?

This “Little Black Cat”, has tiny pieces of seaweed shaped like a cat in the middle. It’s very difficult to make because of the small size and the precision required.

cat_cookies

The impressive level of detail on "Little Black Cat"

You already make perfect food for pets, even humans can eat some of it too. What do you believe is the different between human and pets?

I think we are the same, not much different. Pets are important for people nowadays, just like one’s family members. This Dragon Boat Festival we are also preparing special rice dumplings for dogs, it will sell on the Direct Sales TV channel and in shops.

Ferrero_Rocher

Ferrero Rocher for pets, inside the wrapping is a meat ball.

Recently we have been in an economic recession, are customers less willing to buy your products?

No, they treat pets like their family or children, so of course they are always willing to spend money on them.

sushi

One of the store's most impressive creations, "Salmon Sushi", is made with dried chicken breast over rice. Dogs like it more than cats!

Do you have any pets?

Yes, three cats and a mixed breed dog at my father’s house.

Did you buy them from a shop?

No, I adopt them from the Neihu Animal Shelter.

So you personally support adopting rather than buying?

Yes. I don’t know if you have been to the shelter in Neihu, but there are more than ten thousand animals crowded into three warehouse-like buildings. After two weeks, if no one adopts them, they are put down.

What made you decide to open this special store as your first business?

My dog died years ago because of bad pet food giving him liver cancer. So I want to make some good and healthy food for pets, I researched and developed it myself.

paw_cookies

Dog paw cookies.

All these products are created by you?

Another qualified worker and I do it together. I majored in electronics, but this is my passion, so I chose to make it my job. I’m happy to do all of this.

 



 

Sequence-01_3

A different store owner shows us one of the most popular items of clothing sold mostly during the colder months, an animal fur coat for cats and dogs to wear. This elaborate piece of clothing is imported from Japan and costs over NT1000. In addition to this sort of fairly extravagant item, the store also sells more ordinary clothes and accessories for pets, in addition to treats and snacks. The owner believes one of the reasons people buy pets is because they are easier and cheaper to maintain than children, because "you won't have to worry about whether their schoolwork is good or bad and they won't start dating".

 


 

Sequence-01

Our third interviewee also has a store which sells pets and clothing for them, although his store's focus is more on accessories such as shoes. He believes that a lot of people who buy pets nowadays tend to treat them as people, buy clothes for them and pamper them. He believes the reason for this is that "animals are more predictable in many ways, they give back as much love as you give them, and they won't leave you when they grow up". He believes one of the common reasons people buy animals nowadays is "because their sons and daughters have grown up and left home and they don't want their house to feel empty".

 

Interviews by Gin Hsieh and Daniel Pagan Murphy,

Photography by Witold Chudy.

 

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Animals in the Eye of a Scientist

An interview with a young French scientist

My name is Laetitia Kernaleguen, I just spent 14 months on the Crozet Island as a civil volunteer for the French Polar Institute. My mission was to study the demographic evolution of the penguins colonies there, with a special attention to the possible impact of global warming on their diet and their reproduction.

03

How would you describe your relation to animals?

Before going to Le Crozet, I was in French Polynesia where I studied the fish population and previously I had been doing researches in a farm on milking cows. The relation to the animal depends on the context: for example, in a farm where the objective is to make the cows produce as much milk as possible, the well-being of the animal is seen as a strain. As in research on animals, it depends on people but usually scientists want to stay neutral towards their study objects. For scientists who work with laboratory rats on which they conduct experiments, they have sometimes to sacrifice them so the relation is complex. Of course, it is also completely different if the animal is your pet, it is easier to identify oneself with it.

As for myself, I endeavor to avoid any form of anthropomorphism, that is to say to attribute human feelings to animals. For example, when seeing a penguin half-eaten by a seal, one would tend to think that the animal is in pain but that’s a projection. In fact, I was not even sure how much the penguins could feel. For our experiments, we sometimes had to take small samples of muscles or flesh from them and it was really not obvious whether they were feeling pain or not.

I should say that working as a scientist has probably changed my perception of animals, I think I have developed a professional point of view and tend to look at every animal in a scientific fashion...

 

So to you the penguins always remained a scientific object? What do you think of the people who humanize their pets?

I may sound a bit contradictory. Penguins are very cute animals and I cannot deny that there can be some growing affection for the penguins, especially in the rookery (ndlr: the place where the penguins gather to procreate). When you spend so much time with them, you are able to identify them and to distinguish different personalities. I did have some favorite ones and I did sometimes hug a chick or two, but I would try to avoid it as much as possible as it causes stress to the animals. Hugs stress the chicks.

As for people who treat their pets as humans, I wouldn’t do that, I would never dress my dog or my cat if I had one! But I don’t mind if others do that.

 

Do you think that man is bound to disrupt the animal equilibrium? Are the human society and the animal society two incompatible worlds?

The extinction of animal species is a natural process but man accelerates it. On the Crozet island, the human presence has disrupted the original equilibrium. Men have for example introduced the rat who has become a terrible new predator for birds of which some species have disappeared. There are no trees on the island, so birds have to lay on the ground and thus the eggs are eaten by the rodents.That said, man is not only the destroyer of nature; man has a strong impact on nature but every other animal has too, so it is mostly a question of to what degree. I think that man has fully occupied its place in the animal kingdom.

Besides, the observation of animals helps to put human evolution into perspective. In some respects, animals are more evolved than men: for example, penguins are capable of diving up to a depth of 400 meters; these birds also possess a special molecule which allows them to conserve food in their stomach during several weeks without digesting it, this is a remarkable adaptation to their environment!

Manchots_Kernalguen_0006

 

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All photos courtesy of L. Kernaleguen

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Film Review: Fast Cheap and Out of Control and Grizzly Man


 
Last year we found a cat on our doorstep with a broken paw that was whining and meowing like crazy. After a dramatic episode whereby the cat was caught and boxed with the help of a now permanently scarred Taiwanese friend, we brought the cat to the vet to get its leg fixed and its tubes tied and my flatmate decided to adopt it. We initially thought the cat was whining because of its broken foot, but we have since learned that whining is a way of life for it. It whines for a door to be opened, then when it is open it turns away in disgust. I don’t have much interaction with the cat, I just hear it whining from day to night, but I don’t understand how it works or what motivates it. I read its behaviour in human terms at times, in turns it can be stubborn, spiteful, manipulative, pig-headed, ungrateful and fussy. Despite attributing these human motives to it/she, I’ve never felt the urge to refer to it with the gendered pronoun ‘she’, despite the litany of names given to it by my flatmate, Felicity and Princess are the only two I can still remember, in my view this is because the cat is a street cat and still retains personality traits that distinguish it from a normal pet, and this was not the case with other people’s pets to which I was able to develop more of an attachment. When I saw these two films, the double standards I had used with ‘pet cats’ as opposed to ‘street cats’ came more clearly into focus.

 

The two films I’m going to talk about in this review give an insight into the different ways that people interact with animals. The first is a documentary called Grizzly Man (2005), a film which deals with a man who lives long periods of his life in Alaskan bear country living amongst grizzlies. He contravenes the National Park regulations by approaching the bears and interacting with them - he records a lot of these encounters on film. He does not take the neutral role of an observer of nature - like many nature documentaries, but rather he invests himself into the bears’ way of life, and feels that he is a member of their community. The director makes clear in his narration and in interviews conducted throughout the course of the film, however, that he idealizes the bear world, to cope with his failures in the human world: he’s a failed actor (he had almost gotten the role of Woody Harrelson in the sitcom Cheers) with drug problems. This becomes more and more clear as we discover his self-mythologizing in his own recordings, he lies about being alone at times, urging his girlfriend to remain out of sight of the camera, he also lies about his nationality and about certain other elements of his past and who he is. He applies a similar mythology to the world of the bears too, he imposes idealistic human values on them, and as the director points out, he sees only the positive aspects of their life and is unable to recognize certain aspects of their animal nature, exemplified in his extreme emotions and his disturbance when he comes across the body of a baby bear which has been skinned to the bone by another male bear. He is unable to comprehend why this has happened - in staunch contrast to the usual dispassionate narration of nature documentaries, he expresses his distress that something like this could happen in the animal world, although the director states that this is common behaviour within the bear world. His attempt to enter the bears’ world ends ultimately in failure - when he is attacked late in the season by an older, hungry bear from inland. The film is punctuated with local people who criticize Timothy’s way of interacting with the bears and the director sums up the failure of Timothy Treadwell to get to grips with the reality of bears at the finale of the film - with a photo of a bear and his commentary that the director sees nothing but bored savage indifference in the face of the animal where the protagonist had seen so many human traits. The film essentially asserts itself in the matter of difference between animals and humans - and maintains that distance should be kept. The footage that Treadwell shot with his camera is breathtaking and the film is well worth watching for this alone, but the real subject matter of the film as the title suggests is naivete of the protagonist in unwittingly humanizing the behaviour of bears and attempting to integrate himself into his idealized imaginary of their world, only to meet death in his encounter with this animal 'other'.

fast

The second film that I wanted to discuss was Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1997) which I heard of from a video of a Cary Wolfe lecture online. The movie approached the issue from four distinct angles, some more fully realized than others.

The first was about a garden in which the gardener has made animal shapes out of the hedges - this part I felt could have done with more development, as I didn’t really see how it related to the other parts in the film, or indeed its general thesis, the implication was that the gardener had attributed animal characteristics to the plant life - and thought of them like pets, but this failed to really come through in the film and it wasn't as convincing as the other parts of the film.

The second subject of the film was a lion tamer who had worked for the circus, he talks about his experience with lions and the close calls he has had due to the unpredictability of the lions' behaviour. It is notable in this part that although he develops affection for the lions, his attitude towards them is in marked difference to Timothy Treadwell's attitude to the bears in the first film: the lion tamer acknowledges the differences between animal and human and is less prone to humanizing them, he demonstrates the same intimidation techniques to assert his territory as Treadwell does in the first film, but he doesn't invest his emotions into these interactions and remains unsurprised when these semi-domesticated wild animals attempt to kill him, for he sees it in their nature.

The third part was about the discovery of a species of mammal that lives like a termite (one of only two eusocial mammals) - the naked mole rat. This part questioned the dichotomy that we often draw between certain animals - wherein we humanize or portray as familiar the way in which mammals live to some extent, yet we think of the way insects live as something completely foreign and alien (an interesting reference here is the insect-like aliens in many sci-fi films like Alien). This undermines the traditional ways in which we categorize different animal species and the divisions between them (including our own).

The final part is about artificial intelligence, in which MIT scientist Rupert Brookes designs robots that function similarly to insects, suggesting that animal life is not perhaps as unique or irreducibly complex as we would like to imagine. This part also calls into question the idea of human exceptionalism as the mechanical and reactive nature of the way animals and humans function is brought to light through the replication of some of those processes with machines.

The film is slightly slow moving at times and lots of footage from the circus, cartoons and films is incorporated. It is an aesthetically pleasing film to watch, in this sense, but at times this took away from its coherency and there was no attempt to tie the different aspects of the film together into one thread of narrative.

The two films worked to similar effect but by different routes. The sympathetic yet incisive voiceover of the director, Werner Herzog, in the first film, Grizzly Man, reveals for the viewer the flawed way in which Treadwell mythologized both the bears and himself - leading us to the conclusion that much as the impersonality and constructed landscape of the modern world might incite us to 'return to nature' or somehow turn back the clock to an era when man was supposedly in tune with the animal world, this in itself is an revisionist view of history, and what Treadwell fails to realize in the film, even in death, is the animal world is completely alien to that of the human world and human values, where killing children is looked on as a necessity, where hunger and survival are the only things that matter; although we might humanize animals to a certain degree, we must never lose sight of their fundamental difference, or we risk judging them by human values which they can never live up to. The lion tamer in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control reinforces this idea with the lion tamer's affection for the lions tempered by his knowledge that they would kill him in an instant. The other parts of the film challenge the other divisions and categories we make between plants, animals, humans and machines - suggesting that we tend to over-romanticize human nature as something that has been freed from the mechanical drives of animality or, indeed, machinery, without questioning a lot of the mechanical drives that still pertain to us and that this is based on the way the human animal conceives of the world and reacts to it.

Both films are well worth watching.

 

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Dubious "Art" of Bullfighting

A bull slowy bleeds while spectators look on passively. Photo by Mait Jüriado


As a student in Beijing, back in 2007, I used to travel quite often by taxi. Taxi drivers in Beijing are incredibly friendly people and always encourage you to chat with them, which is great when you are trying to learn Chinese. Of course, one of the first questions is always “What country are you from?”. After I answered Spain, the common response I got was either the driver lifting both hands off the wheel and using his index fingers to imitate the horns of a bull, which as I’m sure you can imagine is quite stressful when you are travelling at a fairly high speed; or some variation of the phrase: “Spain? Bullfighting is great!”

Unfortunately, at that time, after only having learned Chinese for a year, my Chinese was not good enough to answer with “I am morally opposed to bullfighting”, so I had to settle for the rather less impressive “I don’t like bullfights”. After that, the driver usually stared at me in confusion and asked “Why?”. Once, again, my Chinese was severely lacking and rendered me unable to communicate my elaborate point, but I usually managed to articulate “Because kill bull”.

The usual response to that was and still is, utter shock. Not only from taxi drivers but also from a lot of my Taiwanese or Chinese friends. A lot of them are not aware that the animal is killed. People who were enthusiastic about bullfighting at the beginning of the conversation become more and more disillusioned or upset as I go into the details of exactly what bullfighting entails.

I often wonder how there can be such misinformation about what bullfighting is. The killing is essential to the activity, and yet, both in Asia and in Europe, a lot of people seem to believe that bullfighting is running in front of a bull. This is actually a very specific festival called San Fermin, which is unique to the city of Pamplona (incidentally, this festival still culminates in a bullfight in which the bulls are killed). Whilst it’s probably not true that the Spanish government deliberately promotes this misunderstanding, it is certainly quite convenient that many people are not aware of the bloody nature of the act.

I realise that there are lots of different types of events that are called bullfighting, and lots of different spectacles that involve bulls. However, I am focusing specifically on the version practiced in Spain and in certain parts of Southern France, the only variety that includes the intentional killing of a bull for entertainment. Bullfighting has been one of the identifying features of Spain for quite some time, and is up there with paella and flamenco as one of the experiences tourists crave when visiting Spain. Its association with Spain was probably accentuated thanks to attempts from the Spanish fascist government to rally the people in support of an intrinsically “Spanish” activity, and indeed the propaganda from the fascist era includes many nationalist slogans exalting the act.

The issue of bullfighting and its status as art or brutality has been debated endlessly by both advocates and detractors. One of the common arguments that supporters of bullfighting repeat ad nauseam is that the bull is given a dignified, honourable and noble death, in addition to a chance to prove its worth and fight for its life. It must be noted that for a human being there may be a distinction between an honourable death and one that isn’t; for example, the samurai practice of Seppuku (ritualized suicide) being preferable to dishonour or slow death. However, for a bull, there is no such thing as an “honourable” death, since honour is a purely human fabrication.  Moreover, we could once again argue that there is, in any case, no honour or dignity in being slowly tortured by a group of armed thugs dressed up as clowns while a group of spectators leers and brays for blood. If it was a human being killed this way, would it still be called a “honourable” way to die?

However, out of these three erroneous claims, the most outlandish is the implication that bullfighting benevolently grants a bull a chance to “prove its worth”. A bull does not have a sense of worth, seeing as this is a human construction which stems from the way we are viewed by others and the way we see ourselves. Even if a bull had this sense of worth, surely it would not be derived from being humiliated and scared, since if anything one might say that would diminish its sel-esteem. Neither would it derive its value from trying to kill other living beings, the bull being the peaceful animal that it is. The whole concept is quite bizarre since the bull never requested a chance to “prove its worth”, and even when forced to do so is very reluctant to engage its opponent. The notion that the bull is fighting for its life is laughable at best since the cases when the bull is spared are ridiculously far and between, and in any case the bull usually dies from its wounds shortly after. It seems that it is rather a case of the bullfighter proving its worth by conquering the beast.

Some of the arguments advocates use attempt to remove human attributes from the bulls, presumably to establish a distance between themselves and the animals by turning a blind eye to any human traits they might possess. The most common way these people do this is with the sentence “el toro no sufre” (the bull doesn’t suffer). Whilst it is true that we do not yet know the extent to which animals suffer pain in the same way that humans do, it is certainly hard to argue that the cries of anguish the bull emits and the distressed look on its face are due to the joy of the experience.

The other common argument where bulls are dehumanized, is saying that bullfighting is a form of art or culture, therefore lowering the death of an animal to an art form, which obviously could never be said of killing a human. According to the Merrian-Webster dictionary, art is “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects” and culture is “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behaviour that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations”. There is no creative imagination used in the killing of a bull in the ring, the same actions are performed with next to no variations every time there is a fight, and the end result is hardly aesthetic. As for the belief and knowledge being taught to future generations, one would think that after thousands of years of human history, we would have something better to teach succeeding generations than a ritualized form of public torture, with no goal other than death. I suppose that it could be argued that this is indeed the best we have to offer, in which case it is a sad state of affairs that we are in. To quote the Spanish band Ska-p, in their song about bullfighting: “To call structured  and deliberate sadism, violence, and death culture, is an insult to intelligence itself”

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Protest against the Spanish government taking schoolchildren to bullrings. The sign reads "Torture". Photo by AnimaNaturalis

There are many other arguments that proponents of bullfighting bring to the table. It is claimed that these bulls are to die anyway, seeing as there only purpose is battle and there are too many for them to be of use as breeding bulls. It is also questioned whether culling these animals would be preferable to killing them in the bullring, which is a very complicated point. If it has to come to premature death, if there is no other use that those bulls can be put to (although I personally find this hard to believe) in my opinion it seems better to end the life quickly and quietly rather than subject the animal to prolonged suffering. Bullfighting enthusiasts also maintain that the value of the activity stems from it being a long-standing tradition, which it is, there is no point in denying it. However, this immobilist approach is dangerous, since values and societies change. What is traditional and acceptable in one era is not necessarily so in another. No one wants to see a world where globalisation is so prevalent that local traditions are assimilated into a global culture, but still, it is a case of measuring the pros of the tradition against the cons. For me, the cons of bullfighting clearly outweigh the pros.

Sometimes I wish I lived in the blissful state of mind regarding bullfighting that a lot of foreign observers do, in which it is just a bright spectacle of shining colours and “matador” (which just means killer in Spanish) bravado and where the bull isn’t hurt. As humans, we often pride ourselves on being civilised, and indeed the fight may be symbolic of civilisation conquering the wild. It seems to me though, that when it comes to a bullfight, the bull behaves in a much more civilised manner than the bullfighter. This is why I feel no sorrow when a bullfighter (rarely) dies or is badly injured in the ring, for it is a victory of civilisation over mindless cruelty, and surely, a victory so rare and hard to achieve is worthy of admiration.

 

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Sir Chu: A Vegetarian's Guide to the Galaxy

Photo by Rob Stone.

I asked my colleague, Mr. Chu what his specialty dish was and he replied Big Macs.

He wasn't joking. Having worked at McDonalds before, he hastened to tell me that not everyone could make one. My bubbles of laughter were soon anchored with pink slime and fell to the floor between us, like sticky rat paper, preventing us from getting any closer.

Mr. Chu’s answer is on the severe end of the spectrum, but it highlights a salient difference between what I call passive and active users of food1. Something happened once I became a vegetarian, 23 years ago. I began paying attention to what I was consuming. To non-vegetarians, the issue is strictly an inconvenient accoutrement to a meal; an annoying restriction orbiting the dinner plate, like an errant ant, or maybe one of the lesser-known moons of Jupiter.2

Vegetarians aren't vegetarians 3 times a day. It's like being a Christian once a week, or a playground bully who is otherwise congenial and gregarious – just don’t let him near a merry-go-round. The fact of the matter is that eating – knowing what you are eating, consumes many of your thoughts all throughout the day, the week, the month, your life. It's a lifestyle, not an icon on a menu.

I'm not claiming to be a health guru, or even attractive naked, but you do start to notice differences in your body's feedback systems once you start eating better. Animal welfare, environmental issues, budget, more energy3 , and health. Convenience store fare starts to taste plastic and you recognize when someone's spiked your food with MSG.

What about taste. I had the pleasure of living with a nationally renowned vegan chef in Austin Texas, so I never missed a single flavor4 . He had a magical knack for turning bits and blobs of kitchen shrapnel into riotous feasts, reminiscent of meaty days gone by, leaving mouths agape, buds throbbing in gustatory orgasm. You might not have la Grande Bouffe at your disposal but you don’t have to miss out on flavor5.

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Photo by Nora Kuby.

It's not hypocrisy to be an ovo-lacto-vegetarian trying to phase out gluten or perhaps eat more salmon for the omega-3 fatty acids. It's not enough to deliberate over the food you are about to eat, but you must consider what that food ate6. It’s better to eat a hamburger made of free range beef than a fufu sushi from fish farmed salmon.

Enter the era of Cocacolonization and America’s biggest cultural export, fast food. Despite the Fast Food Nation's desire to liberate food from the shackles of the food chain, nutrition it appears, is embedded within the confines of a biomass continuum7. Finding the healthy choice must inherently involve some next level shit8.

People come up to me and brag about not eating meat x times that particular week9. Like it's some kind of crusade to convert the world into more vegetarians. In the long run, it would benefit me and the Earth. But in the short run, I just don't fucking care. It's not a football game, pitching carnivores against herbivores. It's like telling me that you've scrubbed your kitchen floor. Spotless10.

The tragic irony is that it is a football game, but it's Mankind United against Mankind's City footprint. The stakes are long-term ecological disaster, health, social costs, happiness, moods, creative output, and overall goodness in general. If your balls are the ball, Monsanto is a cleated foot, punting your future through the goal posts of greed. Whistles blow. Cards are thrown. And in the end the field will rise up and eat us. But we'll be holding our babies over our heads, screaming helplessly at the Goodyear blimp TV camera to save us. One of our doomed children will carry the perfect expression of fear on its cherub face and find itself splayed across a TV set far away in a commercial selling baby hormone tonic in powdered pill form11.

1. The definition of what constitutes food should not be taken for granted. It’s interesting that the protests over GMO foods in Europe had no counterpart in America. Suddenly, over half the items on the shelf were GMO but nobody seemed to notice.
2. Jupiter has 66 known moons. But I’m also thinking specifically of the NASA mission to bomb the (Earth’s) moon in 2009.
3. As opposed to assuming the pass-out position after thanksgiving dinner, you feel re-fueled after a vegetarian meal. Imagine that. Eating and gaining energy.
4. Keith Wahrer, Co-founder and Creative Director of Rhythm Superfoods and Daily Juice. Grab a bag of Kale chips when you can. Seriously.
5. The Big Feast, (1973) where a group of men hire some prostitutes and go to a villa in the countryside. There they try to eat themselves to death. We’re doing the same thing now, but the McModern equivalent doesn’t have sex or turkeys fed chocolate, nuts, and cognac to perfect the flavor. Quite the opposite. We now screw ourselves by feeding/cannibalizing our cattle pieces of other cattle, ergo mad cow disease.
6. Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin, 2006.
7. The reference is crass and has even become cliché, but Schlosser’s book is worth the read.
8. Die Antwoord's brilliance is only augmented with the failure of some to recognize it as farce. A reversal of Žižek's First Tragedy, Then Farce, where the object of ridicule is not only immune from criticism, but assimilates all attempts to contextualize it outside the realm of fetishistic pop worship. The worst slave owners were those who were kind to their slaves.
9. Let’s assume (x) = some whole integer, like Algebra. More specifically Algebra II, which introduces the idea of the imaginary numbers* which is more suitable to our discussion about someone misinterpreting the value of vegetarianism as an act borne of a health consciousness versus an ideological battle.
*(an odd distinction given that all numbers are, a priori, imaginary)
10. A factoid, surely, better reserved for the vacuous folds of a status update on Facebook.
11. The news of Korean imports of aborted fetal baby powder capsules are staggering, with 17,000 capsules having been intercepted in the last year alone. Which begs the question, how many have actually made it through? Analogous to the War on Drugs in America, we might see T-shirts proclaiming: D.A.R.E. To Keep Kids Out Of Drugs.

Tuesday, 05 June 2012

Gin Hsieh: A Response to eRenlai June Focus


Photo Courtesy of Chris Beswick

Whenever you’re celebrating Mother’s Day with the lady in question and she entreats you to just ‘have a little bit of milk or an egg’, all I can manage to spit out is ‘I wish I could, but I can’t’. An awkward silence hangs in the air, and I feel like I’m being really disrespectful to her. I know I can’t do anything that could result in an animal getting hurt, but I never thought that doing what I thought was right would be something so stressful for my family, friends and even for myself. I’m sorry, but it’s no use, I’m just going to have yet more perseverance in my principles.

I love animals, I was driven to be a vegetarian out of sympathy for them. Gradually I came to understand that the concept of animal rights is a moral issue.

When I was in fourth year of university I ended up taking a service learning course with the NTU Animal Rights Development Society. I remember the first week they had us watch the film Earthlings -- a documentary I would watch over and over again as if atoning for my sins. It had a massive impact on someone like me who had taken eating meat as something that was a matter of course. I was being scolded without mercy, but there was nothing I could say in my defence, because I had done this bad thing and done it in excess. While I was watching, my brow was locked, my nose hurt from sniffling, and I felt incredibly guilty, and ignorance was no excuse. When the animals cried out as their throats were slit, the goriness of the scene was too much for some people and they had to excuse themselves. I lowered my eyes in an attempt to avoid the scene folding out in front of me, but I knew this was the hurt that I was causing, so I forced myself to look back up.

After a lot of self-recriminations, what I really wanted to find out was, with a complete lack of self-awareness, this arrogant human chauvinism could come about? There was a cognitive dissonance that allowed people to separate animals as food and animals as beings: we should look after little animals, but we should remember to eat animals for three meals of every day! Is this what we’re educated into believing? I know that meat tastes good, but I also know clearly that I can’t bear the burden of causing harm to animals. The day of the film I still stubbornly put my chicken nuggets in my mouth, but I couldn’t eat them.

I went on to take an elective taught by Andrew Young-Chang Fei entitled ‘Animal Rights’. This is when I really started to find out more information about the topic, in and outside of class.

‘The Best Speech You Will Ever Hear’ by Gary Yourofsky on Youtube was very moving, and left a big impression with me. Gary is an animal rights activist with a deep theoretical basis for his beliefs and a very commanding voice. He gave a few simple examples like, ‘offering a child a rabbit and an apple, the child wouldn’t possibly choose to eat the rabbit and play with the apple’ and ‘No other animal will drink milk after it has been weaned.’ I know about battery farming of hens, so I choose free-range eggs, but Gary is also against eating eggs. My friend wrote to him asking about this, only then did I find out that ‘in normal circumstances, a chicken only lay about 17 eggs a year.’ When chickens stop laying, they are sent to the abattoir. Milk cows meet the same fate, and their vaginas are regularly implanted with semen with long tubes to keep them pregnant so that milk will be produced. Milk cows live much shorter lives than the average 18-25 years, only living 3-7 years, and they make up 90% of the meat that goes into hamburgers.

 

After learning the facts, we decided to become vegans.

I once believed that if abattoirs were exposed for everyone to see, everyone would become a vegetarian. But whilst talking to a good friend of mine, I realised that actually, for her, giving up the desire for good food because of animal suffering was a lofty ideal. Therefore, being unable to meet this ideal simply meant you had the same moral standards as the majority of the population, and therefore it wasn’t a big deal. The majority dictate the standards, a conventional common sense protected from criticism. I am aware that merely passing on information is not enough, it is necessary to remind people that there are still those that care about animal suffering, and beg them not to turn a blind eye. When watching videos about fur clothing-which depict animals being skinned alive and their miserable cries of agony, still living after their skin has been reduced to a bloody mess-I can say that I have never experienced hatred that intense. But who do I direct this hatred towards? The workers that make the clothes? The salespeople who sell them? The governments who tacitly give their consent? A society with no empathy? At the end my anger always ends up being directed towards myself, and my incapability of changing things.

As everyone who supports animal rights knows, nobody will thank you for doing it, and often you feel dismayed and full of despair. I feel dismayed at the lack of respect mainstream society shows its fellow living animals, and I am full of despair at my own impotence. I am grateful for those around me that deeply respect me, and say: “This Monday, me and my mom ate vegetarian food”, or avoid eating meat as much as possible when they are around me. These actions make me believe that the world is still moving towards becoming a better place, and make me feel like I have the power to at least change some things. This is very important to me, your gentle strength supports me when I am tired. I have read many articles, data, and research reports, approaching the subject from the environmental protection perspective to that of animal rights. However many research papers there are is irrelevant though, those who do not want to believe still won’t believe them, in the same way as those who want to oppose animal rights will continue to do so. Author Zhu Tianxin came up with an interesting point of view: “Compassion can be acquired, cruelty can also be acquired”. If one is cruel to defenceless animals, it will be hard to prevent them in the future being cruel to weak, defenceless older people or children. If one is capable of being compassionate to animals, then they will probably act the same way towards their elders, this is what life teaches us. How to convince the majority of people to adopt this idea? The essence of animal rights is not really in scientific data, but rather in this sentence by Peter Singer: “Any arguments about human beings’ superiority to animals can’t change this fact: Animals suffer just as human beings do”. As fellow animals, we have the choice to not eat animals and to oppose the bloody nature of doing so, animals don’t have the basic right to live that allows them to protest against being slaughtered. I just want to help the animals by saying for them: “We don’t want to be cruelly massacred by people, we also feel pain.

 

Translated by Conor Stuart and Daniel Pagan Murphy

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