Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Rescued deer given a new chance at life

This week I read a story about four Sitka deer who ended up in the frigid waters of Stephens Passage in Alaska last October. They were swimming through the waters, trying to find land, and were quickly becoming incapacitated by the cold and the effort of swimming against the waves.

They approached a charter fishing boat captained by Tom Satre, and began circling the boat, obviously looking for help. Satre and his family helped pull each of the deer onto the boat, where they collapsed, shivering, in exhaustion. Satre piloted the boat towards the peer, and once docked, the first deer jumped out of the boat and ran into the forest. Two more came next, but the fourth was so weak he could not walk, so Satre began to haul him a wheelbarrow, but it had a flat and would not go very far. Satre and his family then waited for the deer to regain his energy, helping him to stand up until he could move on his own, and then he too walked into the forest.

The story is both heartbreaking and inspiring--without this human family, and their efforts, the deer family would not have survived. One of his family said that the rescue was "one of those "defining moments in life," and Satre said that "it made an emotional mark on each of us."

I read through the story to find out more, and was surprised to read that Satre went further and said, "I'm a hunter and have taken a lot of flack, but (taking them) just didn't seem very sportsman like."

After reading that line, I was taken aback. The story took, in my mind, a quick turn from heartwarming to horrifying, as I began to imagine a hunter taking the opportunity to shoot to death four struggling deer begging for human help. Unsportsmanlike would be, in my mind, an understatement. True, he not only did not take the opportunity to kill them, and in fact, spent the afternoon bringing them to safety. But the fact that other hunters gave him "flack" for not killing the deer ruined my otherwise good mood.

Now I wonder, a year later, how Satre has been effected by this life-changing (and life-giving) moment. I wonder, mostly, whether he still hunts, but a search online has not answered my question. My hope is that this experience has nudged him into leaving hunting behind; it's difficult to imagine that one can go from spending hours with wild animals who put their trust into a human, only to begin killing them again.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Humanizing Sex Workers

From my guest blog at Sociological Images:

Katrin B. sent in a link to a series of ads created by an organization called Stepping Stone Nova Scotia. Their mission is to advocate on behalf of, and offer resources and services to, prostitutes in the Maritime Provinces of Canada.

The ads depict quotes by friends or family members of prostitutes (“I’m proud of my tramp, raising two kids on her own”) which are intended to humanize sex workers; the bottom of each ad reads “Sex workers are brothers/daughters/mothers too.” They’re also intended to shock the reader into really thinking about prostitutes. The juxtaposition of words like “tramp” and “hooker” with the white middle-class faces of the speakers makes the viewer question our culture’s ease with using those terms, and forces us to see the person behind the prostitute.

Stepping Stone’s executive director, Rene Ross, points out that every time a prostitute is killed—sex workers have a mortality rate 40 times higher than the Canadian national average—media accounts emphasize that the victim was a prostitute, but not that she (or he) was also a mother, daughter, friend or, for example, animal lover. By thinking of sex workers only in terms of their stigmatized occupation, we don’t have to care about them as people.

In New Mexico, where I live, the remains of eleven women (and the unborn fetus of one) were found buried on a mesa outside of Albuquerque in 2009. The women had disappeared between 2003 and 2005, and most, according to police, were involved with drugs and/or prostitution. Why did it take the police so long to find the bodies of these women, and why do their murders still remain unsolved? Some observers have suggested that because the women were—or were alleged to be—prostitutes, there was less pressure to find them after they went missing, or to solve their murders once their bodies were found. As long as the victims were sex workers, then the non-sex worker public can feel safe in the knowledge that they are not at risk. We know that prostitution is dangerous, so it’s expected that some of them will die grisly deaths, and be buried like trash on a mesa outside of town.

I love the motivation behind the ads, and they do make me smile. I hope they have the effect that Stepping Stone intends—making people think of prostitutes as people, not trash. But they’re also funny, and I wonder if they won’t also have an unintended effect, of making prostitutes seem like a joke.

This week I watched the Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen. During the roast, most of the jokes dealt with his well-known history with drug use and prostitution, and “prostitute,” “hooker” and “whore” were used as punch lines in the majority of the jokes, and each “whore” reference incited additional laughter. Sure, many of the women that Sheen paid to have sex were doubtless “high class” call girls, paid well, and not living on the street. But we also know that at least some of these women, as well as the non-prostitute females in his life, were subject to violence and threats of violence. He is alleged to have beaten, shot, shoved, and thrown to the floor a number of women over the years, but because many of these women were prostitutes (or porn stars, which is the next best thing), the women were “asking for it.”

Let’s hope that Stepping Stone’s campaign does some good, making us think about sex workers as people, rather than punch lines and faceless victims.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Violence or Art

Today, the Huffington Post reports on a controversy brewing at Paris Fashion Week, where two dresses made out of over three thousand cow and yak nipples are going to be shown by British fashion designer Rachel Freire. Animal rights activists are outraged that Freire is using body parts from slaughtered animals as art. Freire defends her use of the nipples by saying that they are “from European cows slaughtered for meat in veterinarian-approved and checked slaughter houses.” She also says that she would “happily donate my own body to be used as art by a responsible individual,” to which a commenter on Huffpo wrote, “So can I take you up on your offer then? Would you prefer to be killed with a captive bolt pistol or slaughtered kosher or halal style?"

Using the dead body parts of slaughtered animals for art is nothing new. British artist Damien Hirst’s first major piece was called A Thousand Years (1990) and consisted of a cow’s head rotting inside of a glass case, complete with flies and maggots. Other artists have used, and sometimes killed, animals in order to provoke reactions from the public. In 2003, Chilean artist Marco Evarisitti created a piece, for example, that involved live goldfish swimming in blenders full of water. Patrons were given the opportunity to press the buttons on any of the blenders, killing the goldfish within, which the artist said was an invitation for the public to “do battle with their conscience.” More controversial was Swedish photographer Nathalia Edenmont, whose work involved actually killing rabbits, mice, chickens and cats, and then photographing their chopped up bodies alongside flowers, fruit and other objects. Like Evarisitti, Edenmont has said that her work was intended to challenge the public, and claimed that those who opposed it were hypocrites for not opposing the killing of animals for makeup or for food.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the San Francisco Arts Commission gave New York City artist Tom Otterness a $750,000 grant to create public art for San Francisco’s subway system. After the city put out a press release about the grant, local animal activists recognized the artist’s name; in 1977, Otterness adopted a dog from a humane society, shot him, and filmed his death for a film he called “Shot Dog Film.” Activists led by In Defense of Animals were outraged; IDA employee Anita Carswell said “You do not let an animal shooter put up 59 sculptures in your subway system. It’s going to be offensive to everybody that rides the subway, a reminder: ‘People who shoot dogs for stupid reasons get rewarded.’”

He may not get his reward after all. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has asked that the project be put on hold; as of this writing, it is unclear whether the project will be completed, or whether Otterness will be the artist to complete it. At least in San Francisco, the city of St. Francis, most people do not see such cruelty as art.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


You may have heard by now that Michael Vick, the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, just won a one hundred million dollar, six year contract, just two years after being released from the Leavenworth penitentiary after being caught running a dog fighting business.

Sports analysts are already saying that Vick's deal is not really for a hundred million dollars; he's only truly guaranteed $35 million over the next three years, and can lose all the rest depending on his performance, lack of injury, and the like. Still. $35 million is an awful lot of money for a convicted dog killer.

For many in the sports world, Vick's story is a storyof redemption. Not only did Vick lose his football career, his lucrative product endorsements, and his freedom, but in 2008 he filed for bankruptcy, thanks to the loss of his income and poor financial management of his assets while he was free. Yet less than two years later, Vick not only got a chance to play professional football again, being named Comeback Player of the Year in 2010, but he is now the third highest paid player in the NFL, and the first to ever sign two one hundred million dollar deals in his career. He's also gotten back his endorsements; even Nike, notoriously shy of signing controversial athletes, has given Vick a new contract.

At a press conference announcing his new contract, Vick appeared humble, and talked about the "sacrifices" he had to make to reach this point in his life, and all that he gave up--he does still owe millions to his creditors as part of his bankruptcy settlement. Sports commentators seem united in their sense that Vick is now a changed man, and that he has moved forward from his "mistakes." That may well be, and in the press conference, he seemed sincere.

But I'm still not convinced. Running a dog fighting ring that involved multiple states, gambling and racketeering, lying to police and prosecutors, and hundreds of dogs being trained, fought, and, in many cases, brutally killed (some by Vick himself) is not a "mistake." It's a sign of extreme cruelty and, some would say, pathology.

America is the land of second chances. We famously forgive our fallen celebrities for their financial, sexual, and even criminal transgressions. And if we won't allow for those who have sinned to redeem themselves, what does it say about us?

But for me, I am going to wait and see. I suspect that Vick won't--or at least won't soon, because right now he can't afford it--restart his extravagent lifestyle, and will try to keep a clean image. I certainly doubt that he will ever engage in dog fighting again. He would be insane to do so. But I wonder how a person who once tortured animals for pleasure and profit can ever truly change, especially if he continues to refer to that behavior as "mistakes."

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Disability, Animals and Camping

I’ve been thinking a bit about disability lately. I have a student in my class who’s in a wheelchair, and we’ve talked in class about issues surrounding disability, including how definitions of “normality” are often socially constructed. But what of disability in non-human animals? How do other animals see or understand disability, normality, or bodily integrity?

I currently live with three disabled animals. Molly came to me three years ago with one leg missing—from what, I don’t know. She’s never been very mobile, but as she’s gotten older, she’s gone completely immobile. She just lays down wherever I put her, and scoots a little bit towards the food, but that’s it. Then there’s Audrey, who arrived here in the Spring from California with a broken back. She was surrendered to an animal shelter as a baby; I am guessing that someone in her human family dropped her, severing her fragile spine. Luckily she was rescued by the volunteers at Zooh Corner Rabbit Rescue and lovingly cared for by a veterinarian there before she was transported to New Mexico to my house. And just this last week, one of my youngest rabbits, Junior, began experiencing a lack of muscle coordination. It has now gotten so bad that he can only stand for brief amounts of time before he falls over, like a fainting goat.

When other people see that I, or friends of mine, care for disabled animals, they often feel sorry for them. Oh what a sad bunny! But what they don’t see is, at least in rabbits like Audrey, is a fierce determination and a desire to do all the same things that she sees everyone around her doing. She has a cart that she rides around the house in, although she has now chewed through her harness twice. I have to find her a new one that she can’t destroy, and in the meantime, she scoots around whenever she can on the floor.

This weekend we took out our little trailer and went for an overnight camping trip. As usual, we took our four Chihuahuas and our parrot, who began joining us last year when she got sick, and we realized at that time how much she loved traveling; now we bring her with us whenever we go. This time we also brought Audrey, Molly and Junior. While both Molly and Junior were sort of confused by the whole experience, they were good sports, and ate and drank in their new environment like always. Audrey, on the other hand, loved the trip. She spent the first couple of hours in the extra large litterbox/bed which we brought for the three bunnies, but once she realized she could climb out of it (those front legs of hers are strong!), she spent the rest of the trip on the floor of the trailer, exploring.

Another camper came by and saw Audrey through the door to the trailer, and couldn’t believe we’d brought a rabbit camping with us. She didn’t realize that she was disabled, which is good, because it saved me from having to tell the whole story about her and from having to reassure this stranger that she was okay. But on the other hand, maybe having more people see “differently abled” bunnies like Audrey out camping with the family, enjoying the sunshine and fresh air, would help to dispel the idea that disabled animals don’t enjoy life, or worse, don’t even deserve to live.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Language is Real--to Humans and Animals

This week, there have been a flurry of media stories surrounding an editorial by theologian and scholar Andrew Linzey in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Animal Ethics. It is rare that the media covers journals in human-animal studies or animal ethics, so this week’s coverage was notable indeed.

What was the focus of the editorial? Linzey argued that the language that humans use when discussing non-human animals matters, and shapes how we treat them. The media's response? That crazy academics like Linzey are worried that animals will be “insulted” if we call them pets, critters, or beasts. Sadly, these stories entirely miss the point.

Language is more than just the means by which we communicate. Language both reflects, and also shapes, how we see the world. So it shouldn’t surprise us that words about animals shape our understanding of animals. Terms like “pet” and “livestock” reflect a particular understanding of animals, and then shape our treatment of them. Once an animal has been classified as a pet, it would, in our culture, be difficult to turn that animal into meat, and we are horrified to hear of dogs in China being raised for human consumption. Similarly, we don’t think twice about killing animals that have already been classified as livestock or pests. New Zealand, for example, just held their annual Easter Day Hunt in which over 23,000 rabbits were hunted and killed, for fun and for charity. Other than animal activists in New Zealand and rabbit lovers elsewhere, most people do not care. That’s because these rabbits were already classified as pests.

Language is never neutral—it shapes behavior. In her analysis of the history and mythology of the turkey, Karen Davis makes the claim that when we’re determined to do violence to an animal, we must first turn the victim into a despicable “thing” that deserves such treatment.
In addition, idioms like “skin a dead cat” contribute to a permissive social attitude towards the abuse of animals. Negative animal idioms normalize or trivialize violence towards animals. When sayings like “flog a dead horse” are used and become a normal part of our vocabulary, we can no longer “see” the implications of human violence against animals. These expressions mask the real violence within them and demonstrate human power over animals.

In Defense of Animals began a campaign in 1999 to encourage people to call themselves guardians of companion animals, rather than owners. IDA has long argued that “owner” is linked with the treatment of animals. In particular, using the term means that companion animals are considered to be simply commodities or property, not individual beings, and IDA argues that this classification underlies their exploitation. The organization and other advocates argue that it is not so long ago that women, children and others were seen, in legal terms, as merely property.

This is the point that Linzey and the editors of the Journal of Animal Ethics were arguing: Language is real, and language does something. The fact that so many of the media reports surrounding the issue not only didn’t get that issue, but trivialized it, indicates how far we have to go as a society to take animals seriously, and to take seriously their treatment.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Patrick the "Garbage Dog"

This week I’ve been following the story of Patrick, the one-year old pit bull who was tied to an apartment balcony railing in New Jersey, left for a week, and, when his owner returned, thrown 19 stories down a garbage chute, barely alive. Not only was Patrick (named by his rescuers because he was found just before St. Patrick’s Day) starved the week when he was left alone, but he had evidently been starved for weeks before that time, because when found he weighed only 20 pounds and was literally skin and bones. A maintenance worker discovered him days later in a plastic bag buried in the dumpster and called the authorities. The veterinarians who have been caring for him at Garden State Veterinary Specialists said that he was within hours of death when he was found, and animal control officers said that his was the one of the worst cases of animal cruelty they’d ever seen.

The case of Patrick, the dog thrown out as garbage, has captured the hearts of thousands of people around the country who have been following the story. Each day I search for the latest news on him, and search for new pictures and videos showing his slow recovery. Each day I cry anew over the haunting images of this emaciated dog, with his large expressive eyes peering out of his bony head.

Today I learned that Kisha Curtis, the 27-year old woman who owned him, pleaded not guilty to four counts of animal abuse, saying that someone else threw Patrick down the garbage chute (although apparently she is not contesting the fact that she starved him almost to death). I also learned that local animal advocates are trying to pass a law that they’re calling Patrick’s Law mandating stronger legislation for animal abuse.

While I continue to be cheered by news of Patrick’s recovery (He’s standing up! He’s pooping! He’s wagging his tail! He’s snuggling his blue stuffed dog!), I worry that soon the Patrick backlash will begin. I worry that people will start with the inevitable questions: why are people spending so much time and money worrying about this one dog when there are starving children in the world? Why aren’t people calling the district attorney to demand punishment when crimes against people are being committed? And, because Curtis is African American, I fear the racial comments. There will be, I am sure, racist comments by animal advocates about Curtis, and there will be, I expect, comments from African Americans asking why so many (white) people care more about animals than about people, and especially, black people.

I wonder if there’s a way in which Patrick can be cared for and his abuser prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, without this almost inevitable backlash? Can we ever consider a case of horrific animal cruelty without comparing it to human suffering, and demanding that all compassion that we feel for a suffering animal be redirected towards humans? And will we ever reach a time where people can recognize that all cruelty, and all suffering, whether experienced by a human or non-human, is categorically wrong, and should be condemned at all costs?

You can find out more about Patrick, and follow his recovery, at the website of the Associated Humane Societies and Popcorn Park Zoo.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Animals in the News

Animals are in the news every week, and indeed, not a day goes by when a Google News search for the term “animal” does not bring up multiple hits: dog fighting rings busted, another hoarder found with dozens or hundreds of animals, a handful of animal abuse or neglect cases making their slow way through the court system, and happier stories of animal heroes, events benefiting animals, and people who have dedicated their lives to saving animals.

But non-human animals can also be found hidden in the margins of the rest of the news. Even when they’re not included in the news stories, they often have a stake in the news, are impacted by the news, or play a hidden role in the news.

For example, many news items appear daily regarding the continuing problems in the US economy, and how states and cities are struggling to balance their budgets in the face of declining tax revenue and a loss of federal support. We hear about the tough choices that governors, mayors and legislators are having to make, and the potential impact of those choices on people. Wages and benefits are being cut, as are social services, making it hard for many citizens already struggling to keep their heads above the poverty level.

But animals are also impacted by these budgetary cuts. As animal control agencies find their budgets slashed, they must make difficult choices too. Some agencies are electing to cut important services, such as picking up stray animals, or providing low-cost spay/neuter services, which will cause more animal suffering. And at the same time that these agencies are facing a loss of needed income, they have a greater burden on their hands, as more people abandon their animals because they can no longer afford to care for them. Each new foreclosure and layoff potentially can mean another animal ends up at the shelter.

In other news, the world has been watching the events unfold in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Iran with a mixture of wonder, concern and excitement. For many Westerners, the revolutions and unrest in these countries is a positive sign that the dictatorships that have long run many Middle Eastern countries may be coming to an end, hopefully to be replaced by democracies and human rights. Others are worried that with the end of these regimes, we may see more instability in this region, and possibly a rise in Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Western sentiment.

But these political changes have impacted non-human animals as well. In Egypt, for example, animals like camels, donkeys and horses are starving to death, as the tourist industry has dried up and the animals’ owners could no longer feed them. Many other Egyptians have abandoned their companion animals, leading to greater numbers of dogs and cats on the streets, fending for themselves in the chaos. Even Egypt’s famed cats, so much a symbol of both ancient and modern Egypt, are suffering.

In Christchurch New Zealand, which was recently hit by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake, hundreds of people have died and the city is reeling; a week later, rescue crews are still locating survivors and finding dead bodies amidst the rubble. But while it is not covered in the international news, we know that wherever humans suffer, animals tend to suffer as well. So what of the missing and dead animals? Or the animals who are separated from their human loved ones, who are not allowed to return to the devastation of their homes until authorities declare the areas safe? Luckily, New Zealand has a well-developed network of animal charities working to save animals and reunite animals and humans after the disaster.

In my state of New Mexico, we were recently slammed by a record-breaking cold front which devastated the state and resulted in the loss of gas—and heat—to thousands of New Mexicans during the coldest week in decades. Luckily, no people died during this crisis. The news has not reported on whether any animals suffered from the cold, but given how many animals in New Mexico live outdoors—from horses and goats and cows to dogs and cats and rabbits—it is most likely the case that at least some animals froze to death. That was certainly the case with 35 animals who died in the cold at a zoo in northern Mexico in early February.

But my point is that our lives are intertwined, human and non-human, and our fates, good and bad, are similarly interconnected. Sometimes you have to read between the lines in the daily news, but if the news impacts more than a few people, it probably impacts more than a few animals as well.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Another holiday, another throw away animal

Another holiday, another excuse for throw-away animals.

For rabbit lovers, it was bad enough that Easter is the time of the year when uninformed families purchase pet rabbits to give to their children. Because of Easter’s long association with rabbits (which itself derives from the rabbit’s connection to the moon and association with rebirth and regeneration), the rabbit is the go-to animal to not only symbolize the holiday, but to purchase, in live form, as a gift for it.

Baby bunnies, as well as chicks and ducklings, are purchased at pet stores and feed stores every year as gifts, and every year, many of those same rabbits find themselves abandoned at animal shelters, or worse, in the wild. Those that aren’t often don’t survive because the purchasers were not planning to commit to these animals for their lifetimes.

February 3 marks the beginning of the Year of the Rabbit, which occurs once every twelve years in the Chinese Lunar Calendar, and is celebrated throughout Asia and among Asian communities everywhere. Communities around the world will hold festive celebrations, ushering out the Tiger and in the Rabbit.

The bad news is that because rabbits are considered especially auspicious during its special year, many people want to get rabbits to keep in the house during the year. Unfortunately, this will result (as it did in the last Year of the Rabbit, 1999) in countless rabbits being abandoned after the year is over.

Why are animals such intractable symbols for holidays such as this? I suppose on one level, rabbits should consider themselves lucky that they’re not turkeys. Turkeys famously represent Thanksgiving to Americans, commemorating a harvest feast held by American colonists in 1621. This symbolic association results in some forty-five million turkeys being raised and slaughtered every November.

But even without that wholesale slaughter, rabbits still do not fare well at Easter, and nor, evidently, do they fare well during the Year of the Rabbit. House Rabbit Society Singapore points out that during the last Year of the Rabbit, in 1999, over twice as many rabbits were abandoned at that nation’s shelters than in 1998. This year looks to be no different.

In addition, many Chinese restaurants are now offering rabbit-meat dishes to commemorate the New Year, leading to yet more suffering. In the United States, rabbits are not covered under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, so killing them is not regulated at all, and they are not stunned prior to death.

Going back to the ancient belief that a severed rabbit’s foot is “lucky,” rabbits who are considered to bring luck to people end up suffering in a myriad of ways.

It would be wonderful if one day we could create holidays with animals at their center where the animal was truly celebrated, rather than intensively bred, abandoned, or slaughtered.