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.