Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Banning Books; Banning Emotions

Marc Bekoff recently wrote on his blog that his 2000 book The Smile of a Dolphin: Remarkable Accounts of Animal Emotions is now banned in a number of schools and libraries in Texas.

Bekoff speculates on his blog that it may have been banned because it contains sex and violence (although of the animal sort), two of the issues that Texas school board officials tend to find problematic in books that their students read, although clearly, as Bekoff points out, one issue is that it gives an evolutionary argument for animal emotions. (Other issues that they don't want students reading about include religion, race, and politics, which explains why To Kill a Mockingbird is among those restricted to many Texas students.)

For me, the book is problematic in a state like Texas because of its claim-apparently still controversial to many-that animals do in fact have emotions.   Until recently (or apparently, even today), if a scientist like Bekoff attempted to describe the behavior of an animal with terms like "sadness," "jealousy," "grief" or "joy," they would quickly be accused of that most dreaded (and unscientific) of terms: anthropomorphism.

It is true that no human can ever truly get inside the mind or heart of an animal-without dissecting it-and animals have a difficult time answering our questions if we ask them how they feel, which forces us to interpret their behaviors. But the belief that animals have no emotions, or that emotions are "human" capacities that we can only inscribe to animals, has certainly-and this is no coincidence-benefited those who exploit animals. As Jeffrey Masson wrote in his 1995 book When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, granting animals the ability to think, to reason and-perhaps most importantly of all-to feel, opens up a Pandora's box of issues regarding how we, as a society, should treat animals:

The professional and financial interests in continuing animal experimentation help to explain at least some resistance to the notion that animals have a complex emotional life and are capable of experiencing not only pain but the higher emotions such as love, compassion, altruism, disappointment and nostalgia. To acknowledge such a possibility implies certain moral obligations. If chimpanzees can experience loneliness and mental anguish, it is obviously wrong to use them for experiments in which they are isolated and anticipate daily pain. At the very least, this poises a matter for serious debate-a debate that has scarcely begun (page xx).

In Susan Davis and my 2003 book, Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature, we outlined many of the ways in which the rabbits with whom we shared (and still share) our homes expressed their emotions:

Most house rabbit people have seen their rabbits "binky" or dance as an expression of joy, as well as execute a not-very-graceful "flop," in which they fall to their sides in a gesture of deep contentment. When Margo first introduced her rabbit Helga to Chester, he would leap, hop and skip when she was first placed (angrily) into the living room every day. Never mind that she was repelled by him; he was so thrilled to have a potential new playmate that he could not contain his joy. For weeks, Chester would lie as close to Helga as he could, staring amorously at her; once she finally agreed to let him touch her, he began to spend as much time as possible scrunched up against her.

Puddles and Muddles, Margo's angora rabbits, also binky, but for a different reason. Every morning, Margo opens their gate so they can come out to exercise, but one of the first things they do is go to the living room to eat Chester's food and mess up his things. Upon catching them in the act, Margo chases them back out of the living room and watches as they race, skipping and jumping across the house, back into their room. These rabbits seem overjoyed at the fact they once again got away with something funny. Their actions, in fact, look much like a full-body laugh.

Many rabbits will lick their paws or wash their faces when they are complimented, as if they are very pleased or slightly embarrassed. House Rabbit Society founder Marinell Harriman's first rabbit, Herman, also once saved a mouse. When Herman found a cat torturing the mouse, she thumped her foot in protest. When that failed to deter the cat, she attacked her, allowing the mouse to escape (Harriman 1991). Other rabbits show an amazing amount of compassion towards members of their own species, such as the examples we have cited of healthy rabbits acting as support (both physical and emotional) for their disabled friends.

Many rabbits, demonstrate an amazing spirit when confronting adversity. We have already written about rabbits like Hopper, Pippin and Mrs. Bean-all injured by people and left without the ability to walk. Both Pippin and Mrs. Bean learned to use a custom-built cart to get around, and their personalities blossomed. Mrs. Bean savored her new freedom, using the cart to create a new, independent life for herself, while Pippin used his to get attention and to interact with people.

Even before using the cart, Pippin seemed happy to join Margo's household after what he had been through, executing a flop on his first day without the use of his rear legs. Hopper never did learn to use the cart well, but like the others, he adapted to his altered condition with grace and dignity, and charmed everyone who met him with his peaceful, gentle, and loving personality.

Some rabbits who have suffered abuse, injury or illness have responded to human kindness and care with what can only be described as gratitude. Many of our own rabbits have lost their aggressive or terrified tendencies after being nursed through serious illnesses or injuries and given kind, consistent treatment. Mr. Bop, for instance, was so ill and so depressed when Susan first brought him home that he barely hopped-he would follow her around the house by taking a few steps and then lying down and staring up at her. After about a month of good food, plenty of water, medication, and many kind words and pats, his depression lifted, only to reveal an alarmingly spastic skittishness. Bop would dive under the bed or behind a chair whenever someone walked into the room; loud noises sent him nearly to the ceiling. It was only after six months that his fearfulness-no doubt a product of his having been attacked by some kind of predator while a stray on the streets of San Francisco-eased. Today, he can pop binkys and spin wheelies with the best of them. He can doze through through the roar of a vacuum cleaner, the shriek of a smoke detector and the wails of a baby. He once even sprawled out on his belly, with his hind legs stretched out behind him, smack dab in the middle of a party of shrieking four-year-old girls dressed like princesses. That's confidence (pp. 343-346).
Why does it matter that rabbits-or any of the hundreds or thousands of other species of animals-possess, and demonstrate, such emotions? Or maybe the more important question, in light of the banning of The Smile of a Dolphin is why is it deemed so dangerous that our students find out this information?


If we knew about their ability to feel love, joy, sorrow and pain, we could not bear to treat them the way that we do now. So it's simply better to live in ignorance, and to force our school children to do so as well.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

If God Made Dogs, Why Would People Harm Them?

I’m not a religious person, but I recently discovered this video, titled “God Made a Dog,” that’s been circulating on the Internet recently.
It’s a heartwarming video that outlines all the ways that dogs provide comfort, love, and companionship to people, without asking anything in return.  Whether or not you believe that God, or any other spiritual being “made” dogs, or that dogs evolved via natural selection (with or without some divine intervention), clearly dogs’ presence in our lives is an unbelievable gift.  I know I am grateful every day for the five dogs who share my home.

But is everyone who lives with a dog grateful? Obviously they aren’t.
If you read the recent Animals & Society Institute newsletter, or the Harvest Home Facebook page , you read about Handsome Pete, the Chihuahua I brought home from California last week who was found on the side of a rural road by a volunteer with Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary. His face had been smashed in, on at least two occasions, leaving him with a jaw disconnected from the rest of his face, a snout without any bones left in it, and a ruptured eye. The veterinarian who saw him recommended euthanasia because his injuries were so severe. But the volunteers at Harvest Home, after talking to my husband and me, decided to give him a chance at life, and we agreed to give the little guy a home if he survived. A month later, after what the veterinarian herself called a “miraculous” recovery, the dog who we are now calling Handsome Pete is now at his new home in New Mexico, living with his four new Chihuahua companions, and a house full of rabbits, three cats, and a bird who screams at him when he walks by.

How did Pete get to the place in rural Stockton where he was found? Did he get out of his house and hit by a car, and then wander the levee roads for a week or two, injured and in pain, with no one looking for him? Or even worse, did he get beaten, once or maybe twice, and then get abandoned? Or did he get thrown out of a car?

In either of these cases, he appears to be just one of millions of dogs in this country who was unlucky enough to not be appreciated. Maybe he peed on something, or barked at something, or chewed on something, or just didn’t do something right. At my house, he has peed on a couple of things, but he’s quickly learning where to pee and poop, even though he obviously doesn’t like to use the dog door, because his nose is still sensitive. I don’t know if he ever chewed something he wasn’t supposed to, but he will never do that again, because he can’t ever bite down on anything again, since his jaw will never work again. He also hasn’t barked since he’s gotten here.

But I do know that in watching the “God Made a Dog” video, Petey meets virtually every criteria that the video maker outlines—he comforts me when I’m sad, he stays up all night to watch TV with me, cuddles with me, and does everything that he possibly can (except maybe sniff out bombs and lead the blind). So why would someone possibly hurt him? And why would people—millions of people every single year, God loving and God fearing people, people who most likely DO believe that God made dogs—hurt and abandon millions of dogs?

It just doesn’t make sense.


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Animals, Art and Death

I recently got back from the three-day Living with Animals Conference at Eastern Kentucky University, co-hosted by Bob Mitchell and Julia Schlosser. It was a fabulous conference, featuring a variety of talks covering all facets of the human-horse relationship (Kentucky is, after all, the horse capital of the United States), teaching human-animal studies, and a variety of other topics of interested to a human-animal studies scholar such as myself.

There were a number of talks I was especially taken by. Besides horses, art was heavily featured at the conference, perhaps because Julia Schlosser is an artist and art historian. She gave her talk, for example, on the use of roadkill in the work of artists Steve Baker and Craig Stecyk. Dead animals showed up in another artist’s presentation, that of Mary Shannon Johnstone, a North Carolina photographer who photographs shelter animals. One of her projects, called Discarded Property,  photographs companion animals before, during, and after their euthanasia, and her current project, Landfill Dogs, involves taking dogs who have been at her local shelter for more than two weeks, and who will soon face euthanasia, to the landfill where their bodies will be buried, and photographing them where they play joyfully on what may be their last excursion outside in their lives. The great news is that thanks to her talent and courage, most of the dogs Johnstone has photographed have since found homes, and have not ended up back at the landfill.  Another artist, Keri Cronin, spoke about the course she created in the Visual Arts Department at Brock University which combines animal studies and art in an interesting way.

While some of the artists showed dead or dying animals in their work, other scholars also talked about or showed dead animals as well. Emory University graduate student Christina Colvin, for example, presented a paper on taxidermied pets and the pet preservation industry. While most of us would never consider freeze-drying our dead companion animals so that they will remain with us forever, for some people, this act apparently brings them some sense of satisfaction. University of Mississippi English professor Karen Raber, on the other hand, showed delicately rendered drawings of dissected horses from the Renaissance, while American Studies historian Brett Mizelle discussed the ways in which butchers and slaughterhouse owners used images and text to elevate their professions at the turn of the century. And Monica Mattfeld, from the English Department at the University of Kent, discussed the memorialization of a dead performing circus horse whereby his hide was turned into a thunder drum.

While the conference certainly had plenty of wonderful talks that didn’t have to do with animal death, it was this topic that affected me the most, and I’m now ruminating on my next book project. If you love animals, and live with animals, animal death is a topic from which you will never be able to escape. And more broadly speaking, if you advocate for animals in any way, death is ever present, perhaps not in your own household or life, but for billions of animals every year. It’s what drives many animal advocates to do what they do, after all. For example, anthropologist Tamar Victoria Scoggin-McKee spoke movingly about her documentation of the people who work to save ex-racing horses from slaughter, and how the threat of death shapes the human-horse relationship.

As a rabbit rescuer, I think about death often—both the death of my own rabbits, since their lives are inevitably, and unfairly, so short. But I, and my fellow rescuers, also think about death, because we often feel as if we are the only ones who stand between rabbits, both in our own communities and even more broadly speaking, around the world, and death. It’s a difficult—and unrealistic—burden to take on, and it’s no doubt one of the reasons so many of us suffer from compassion fatigue, and use food, alcohol and other substances to cope with our messy emotions.

Living with Animals was a fantastic opportunity to hear interesting talks, to network with people doing great work, and for me personally, a good way to put some of my own thoughts and emotions about living with animals into a wider context.