The Importance Of Mercy

I’m doing some reading as I try to frame a book project that will attempt to change the way we see (and therefore treat) animals, and there is an interesting, religious-based argument, that is not about animal rights so much as a plea for the exercise of mercy (which would makes us better humans, and better honor whatever God one believes in). In that context, I came across this prayer from Saint Basil in 375 AD:

Oh, God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom Thou gavest the earth in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee in song, has been a groan of travail.

It appears to me that 16 centuries (and free markets powered by industrialization) has brought arguably more cruelty and less shame. But even though I am an atheist I like very much the concept of “fellowship with all living things.” In fact I would extend that idea of fellowship beyond living things to living ecosystems, and the living planet and all its environments. From fellowship would flow respect, moral consideration and compassion. Then the voice of humanity would indeed be a beautiful song instead of a terrible groan.

 

A Beautiful Essay On Veganism

Writer David Macfarlane makes a gentle, thoughtful, and deeply persuasive case that veganism is a powerful and undeniable moral imperative.

Once these kinds of ethical arguments began to swirl around in what I like to think of as a reasonably fair-minded brain, and once I took the perilous state of the Earth into account, it became evident to me that eating a hot dog is as much a political act as not eating one. It’s a choice, and what I’m beginning to learn is that it’s a pretty clear one. You can be over there with the interesting looking young people who are enjoying a dinner of lentils, avocado and roasted yams. Or you can be with the multi-billion-dollar industry that pretty consistently put its own interests ahead of health, the environment, social and economic justice — and way, way ahead of the interests of animals.

Macfarlane hopes, riffing on John Stuart Mill (“Every great movement must experience three stages: ridicule, discussion, adoption”), that (at least some segment of) human culture has moved from ridiculing veganism to grappling honestly with it and discussing the arguments. I’m with him on that, and hope that for the animals’ sake, and for the planet’s sake, that the discussion doesn’t last too long before we jump into the adoption phase.

Read the whole thing here.

A Drone Program That’s Easy To Love

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1926278254/drone-on-the-farm-an-aerial-expose

Journalist Will Potter wants to use drones to monitor factory farms, especially in states that have adopted ag-gag laws:

The agriculture industry is waging an international campaign to create a media blackout. In response to a series of investigations by animal-welfare groups that has resulted in criminal prosecutions and consumer outrage, the industry is promoting new “ag-gag” laws that make it illegal to photograph factory farms and slaughterhouses. About half a dozen US states currently have these laws, and now this censorship model is being adopted internationally.

So how should journalists respond to investigative methods and sources being criminalised? Just as the best response to governments banning books is to encourage reading them, the best response to banning photographs is to encourage more photography. It’s time for journalists to send in the drones.

The factory farm lobby is already fighting the idea and trying to extend ag-gag prohibitions to the airspace over big farms, a push given some urgency after a Texas drone hobbyist inadvertently recorded a tide of blood flowing from a slaughterhouse into a nearby river (the slaughterhouse was shut down).

Naturally, that only makes Potter all the more determined to open up a top-down view of the world of factory farms. And he is winning lots of support. His Kickstarter campaign seeking $35,000 to fund a drone fleet hit its funding goal in just five days, and donations eventually topped $75,000.

I have never been a fan of drones, whether they are used as an anti-terrorist weapon, as an annoying and privacy-invading thrill for hobbyists, as a tool of law enforcement, or to further invade the lives of wild animals. But it has to be said that there are some uses that are quite inspired (anti-poaching, for example), and this is definitely one of them.

Coming soon to a factory farm near you: anti-drone missile batteries?

Quote Of The Day

“I think a question that we’re not asking ourselves is: ‘Isn’t humanity committing suicide with this indiscriminate and tyrannical use of nature?’”

–Pope Francis (from his list of tips to becoming a happier person).

Marius The Giraffe Is Every Zoo Animal

“Uh-oh. It’s starting to get crowded in here again.” (Source: Wikimedia; Daderot)

The world has been understandably shocked by the Copenhagen Zoo’s casual execution of its surplus giraffe, Marius (feeding his corpse to the lions showed an odd combination of pragmatism and obliviousness to the zeitgeist). So naturally, the Copenhagen Zoo and its Director have become the target of intense animal welfare criticism.

I am not a fan of zoos, and have the utopian wish that we would simply work on conserving both the natural habitats and the animals in them, instead of incarcerating animals for “research and education” and making a profit while we are at it. But Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute had a very interesting take, which she has given me permission to share:

Zoos have been doing this all around the world, including at AZA-accredited facilities, for decades. Breeding programs, particularly for non-endangered species, often result in “surplus” animals, because zoo visitors like seeing baby animals in the springtime, so the zoos oblige. When animals are not culled, they are sold to road-side zoos, sent to “canned hunt” facilities, or, in the best case scenario (also the least commonly occurring) sent to sanctuaries. AZA facilities are the least likely to sell to road-side zoos or canned hunts, but they have been caught doing so at times. Non-AZA facilities unload their surplus animals this way routinely.

Killing surplus animals (especially with a bolt gun to the head) is the most humane option, actually, and in all fairness the most commonly used. What made Marius so shocking to you all is that it was done in broad daylight, before an audience, as a “learning experience.” Well, I think it was more of a learning experience for the zoo than the public watching! Big mistake to air this common practice quite so brutally. Usually these euthanasias are done behind the scenes. The bodies are usually sent to landfills or rendering plants (or, in some infamous cases, buried in the backyard) – they are NOT usually fed to the carnivores in the same zoo.

So while the Copenhagen Zoo may have been the least sensitive practitioner of this “management” method, please do not direct your ire at the zoo or its director. They were in fact the honest ones. ALL zoos – ALL ZOOS – do this to one extent or other. Think about it – how else can they manage a “collection” in a finite amount of space when they have babies every year? We see the problem even with orcas, who are among the least prolific of captive species. San Diego now has 10 orcas. Four orcas were sent to Loro Parque (and calves used to be sent to Ohio). Think about all those antelopes and giraffes and water buffalo and exotic rodents and birds and on and on and on. Where do you think all those animals go?

SeaWorld is a circus and easy to dislike, but every single well-designed, modern zoo out there is hiding a darker underbelly. If you think the cost is worth the benefit to kids who get to see tigers and lions and bears up close, that’s one thing, but don’t be blind to the cost.

What gets me is the hypocrisy of zoos. I actually think people should be GRATEFUL to the Copenhagen Zoo for outing this practice so bluntly. Zoos claim they are as much about individual animal welfare as about conservation, but often they are about neither.

Animal protection groups focused on zoo animal welfare, which are well aware of these practices,  have been promoting “cradle to grave” care for decades. If a zoo cannot commit to cradle to grave care for every animal born at its facility, then it should not allow breeding. Whether that’s through chemical means, gelding, or separation of the sexes, they should not allow babies to be born to which they cannot commit a lifetime of care. The reaction of people online and on this list leads me to believe that most people, even those working against captive orcas at SeaWorld, think that what happened to Marius is a horrible, brutal one-off or that only the Copenhagen Zoo is guilty of it. That is so far from the truth as to be laughable.

Usually euthanasia is done as it is in shelters, with chemicals. The meat is not usable then and, as I said, is sent to landfills or rendering plants. Marius was shot (arguably more humane, actually, if more shocking) because they wanted to feed him to the lions as part of the “educational” part of the event and they didn’t want to spoil the meat. As I also said on FB, Marius didn’t give a shit how he died – it’s the people who are horrified at the betrayal of trust inherent in feeding him a piece of bread and then shooting him when he bent down, but putting him down with a shot of phenobarbital would have been just as horrible – it just would have been quieter.

The irony is that other zoos no doubt registered the avalanche of attention and criticism that buried the Copenhagen Zoo and will only go to even greater lengths to keep zoo euthanasia hidden from the zoo-loving public.

Portland Aquarium Death Logs

“Welcome to the Portland Aquarium, kids. What I won’t tell you about them is that lots of them will be dead within months.”

This is more evidence for my axiom that the more you learn about the reality of aquariums and marine parks the worse they seem.

Via The Oregonian:

More than 200 marine animals died this spring at the Portland Aquarium from starvation, infection, high temperatures, animal-on-animal attacks and unknown causes, according to a death-log obtained by The Oregonian. Among the casualties were bamboo sharks, sea horses, garden eels, sea stars, crabs and dozens of fish.

Barbara Baugnon, a spokeswoman with the Oregon Humane Society, which helps enforce state animal-cruelty laws, said her agency is investigating the nine-month-old aquarium. She declined to provide specifics.

During the period covered by the death log, Feb. 18 to May 16, aquarium owners acknowledge that the facility has gone without regular veterinary services. The aquarium’s former veterinarian said that even when he was under contract the facility failed to properly quarantine new arrivals and routinely delayed emergency treatment to save money.

“I feel those animals were subject to undue pain and suffering to save money,” said Mike Corcoran, an exotic animals veterinarian who left in February over what he said were concerns about animal welfare. Corcoran said he repeatedly recommended quarantine procedures that were never put in place.

It always takes a whistleblower, it seems, to find out what is truly going on, and it would change a lot if aquariums and marine parks were subject to the sort of “glass walls” regulations and required disclosures which have been recommended as the best way to reform the meatpacking industry.

The Portland Aquarium’s response (“Hey, everybody’s doing it. Nothing to see here.”) is classic:

Vince Covino, who opened the Portland Aquarium with his brother Ammon in December, declined to be interviewed but responded to questions submitted by email. He said the aquarium’s death rate, which he declined to specify, is consistent with what he’s observed at other aquariums. “And in many cases, we believe we have done better,” he wrote. “We spare no expense in ensuring our animals have the best health care possible.”

He’s probably right, which is worrisome and should tell you a lot about the industry.

The Vegan Revolution?

Maybe it’s just me, but it is coming.

Here’s just one small pre-frontal gust.

Live And Let Live:

Live and Let Live is a documentary about our relationship with animals, the history of veganism and the ethical, environmental and health backgrounds that encourage people to live vegan.

Nonhuman Rights Explained

Steve Wise, the founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project, explains in the Dyson Lecture the legal context and strategy for establishing civil law rights for nonhuman animals:

I am an “animal slave lawyer.” I have been practicing “animal slave law” for thirty-five years. I do not want to practice “animal slave law” anymore; I want to practice “animal rights law.” When I teach, I do not teach “animal slave law,” I teach “animal rights jurisprudence.” This jurisprudence does not yet exist; it is a jurisprudence that is struggling to come into existence.

If you are just starting to catch up on this potentially game-changing movement, Wise details exactly what he is doing to try and make animal rights come into existence:

Can Humans Know What Animals Experience?

A few decades ago the idea of animal consciousness was radical. Today, the idea that animals have emotions, feelings, awareness is an idea that is changing our understanding of the relationship between humans and non-human animals. But Jeff Warren goes on to argue that we can go even further, that we can find points of connection to non-human animal experience:

“A feeling for the organism” is how the famous geneticist Barbara McClintock described her own intuitions about life. Empathy as a capacity needn’t end at the human genus. It seems to be more a question of how much energy and intelligence and openness you bring to the inquiry. Obviously, the further away you get from the human, the more room for fantasy – this is a genuine risk – but this doesn’t mean there isn’t also a real sensitivity that can be cultivated.

And indeed, when you pan out to the big picture of human knowledge, what you see are multiple lines of inquiry converging on this exact point. From the scientific world, we have the study of animal cognition and communication, as well as more cutting-edge domains like the study of animal sense worlds (or “umwelts”) and embodied cognition. From the philosophical world, investigators are beginning to elaborate a whole series of intriguing approaches, from “affordances” to the phenomenology of “interbeing,” to name just two ideas. All of these lay the groundwork for a kind of radical perspective-taking; they are different ways of illuminating sensibilities we once dismissed as opaque.

And he celebrates the many ways in which art and literature are finding ways to make the connection:

We can and should learn to trust this more free-form style of awareness – it is the means by which we’re able to dramatize any interior, as every novelist and filmmaker and artist knows (even Nagel admits as such in one of his paper’s footnotes: “imagination is remarkably flexible”). Art opens new channels of intimacy and helps us formulate fresh questions and avenues of exploration. Animals are the next frontier, the next concentric circle out.

We are seeing many new examples of this. Novelist Barbara Gowdy is working on a film adaptation of her brilliant novelThe White Bone, which is written entirely from the perspective of a herd of African elephants. Benjamin Hale’s recent The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore tells the story of a young chimpanzee’s acquisition of language. These books are not in the same tradition as Animal Farm and Watership Down, where animals are clearly stand-ins for human characters. Rather, they are infusions of imagination and science, informed attempts to wrestle with very different sensibilities. We can find many recent nonfiction expressions of this too, for example in psychologist Alexandra Horowitz’s bestselling Inside a Dog, zoologist Tim Birkhead’s Bird Sense, journalist John Vaillant’s The Tigerand filmmaker Liz Marshall’s new documentary,The Ghosts in Our Machine.

Grasping the full extent and majesty of the interior lives of animal, as well as the degree to which we are connected, rather than set apart, from the non-human animal world is the critical step to completely revolutionizing the human relationship to non-human animals. Very interesting stuff.

Are Humans Special?

Nautilus, an interesting new online science magazine, uses an entire issue to dig in on this most profound question:

When we sat down to plan our first issue of Nautilus, we asked ourselves a simple question. What is the biggest statement that science has made about humans and our place in the universe in the past few hundred years? The answer suggested itself immediately: it seems we’ve been told that we just aren’t very important.

This was a bit of a surprise. We’re fans of science, you see. And some of our best friends are people. Where was this narrative of mediocrity coming from, and, more importantly, was it true? Our story seemed to kick off with Copernicus, who around 1514 understood that the heavens do not revolve around us. In fact, they more or less ignore us completely.

Over the next half millennium, things got worse. Genetics revealed that we are a script written in the same language as rats and slugs, and with mostly the same words. Social psychology shook our faith in our rationality. Zoology painted a picture of complex, human-like animals. And artificial intelligence nipped at the heels of some of our most cherished abilities.

But the story turned. We learned that cooperation, fashion, metaphor, and energy set us apart in surprising ways. While science has indeed undermined the most naïve versions of our self-importance, we began to understand that it has replaced them with others that are more complex and deeper.

Finally, the opposition between unique and not-unique imploded. For one thing, we found that the category of “human” is a moving target—especially for cyborgs—and that makes it hard to ask what makes humans unique. For another, the very biggest science there is—cosmology—is answering the question with a big fat question mark.

Screen Shot 2013-05-08 at 9.18.38 AM

The issue includes an interview with Frans De Waal, who talks about the blurry line between humans and apes:

Most people assume that humans are fundamentally different from the rest of the animal world. What do you think?

Many people believe that. But to biologists we are animals. It’s hard to believe we are fundamentally different because there is no part of the human brain that is not present in a monkey’s brain. Our brains are bigger and we certainly have a more powerful computer than any other animal, but the computer is not fundamentally different.

So there’s no fundamental divide between humans and chimpanzees?

No. If you were to ask what the big difference is, I would say it’s probably language. But like all capacities, once you break them down into pieces, you are going to find some of these parts in other species.

Why are so many people wedded to the idea that humans are special?

We’re raised with those ideas. It’s an old Christian idea that humans have souls and animals don’t. I sometimes think it’s because our religions arose in a desert environment in which there were no primates, so you have people who lived with camels, goats, snakes, and scorpions. Of course, you then conclude that we are totally different from the rest of the animal kingdom because we don’t have primates with whom to compare ourselves. When the first great apes arrived in Western Europe—to the zoos in London and Paris—people were absolutely flabbergasted. Queen Victoria even expressed her disgust at seeing these animals. Why would an ape be disgusting unless you feel a threat from it? You would never call a giraffe disgusting, but she was disgusted by chimpanzees and orangutans because people had no concept that there could be animals so similar to us in every possible way. We come from a religion that’s not used to that kind of comparison.

The deeper you look, the more you realize that we are all related on some level, and that the traditional hierarchy that places humans high atop the list of earthly species leads to terrible consequences for non-human animals.