In Exeter for the Critical Perspectives on Animal Studies conference on 10 March, a day of talks, workshops, films and stalls at Exeter University organised by a few good postgrads. The idea was to bring together the insights of activists and academics to further animal advocacy. Richard Ryder gave the keynote presentation, on campaigning. I came away from this thinking that the only way to influence government is to give at least six-figure party donations, to all parties, not just the one(s) in power, which many of us aren’t quite able to afford at present, or possibly ever. If this doesn’t work, be charming, persistent and knowledgeable and maybe you’ll get somewhere.
Kim Stallwood spoke of the need for the movement to be more political. Lee McConnell gave a rundown of legislative precedents around animal welfare, noting that torts law has been so far underexplored – McLibel aside – as an avenue for advocacy. An interesting point: would advocates do better to argue for their rights as a group of humans who are ill-affected by animal exploitation, arguing against the group of people that legally ‘own’ animals and, as such, are the ones who dictate welfare policy? Stallwood’s point that we act on behalf of animals because they cannot represent themselves in the human realm raises the issue of consent, which is particularly moot as regards rights for humans but in the case of animals, advocates have to presume they are acting in the animal’s best interests. Perhaps advocates acting for their own best interests can wring the most out of the language of rights.
The workshop on badger campaigning made it clear that killing badgers was not going to be in anyone’s interests, except perhaps a few dairy farmers who may be trying to shift attention from their intensive farming practices. The badger massacre highlights how animal farming is not only bad news for the domesticated species involved but also for the free-living animals in the surrounding area, a point that Lee Hall illustrates eloquently in her book On their own terms. The initial four-year trial of free-range badger shooting is to test whether this method of killing is effective, humane and ensures public safety. As one participant noted, how anyone is going to ensure the shoot is ‘humane’ is anyone’s guess, given that checking carcasses is not a reliable method and is easily manipulated. The inhumanely shot badgers that have dragged themselves into hiding are hardly going to reappear in front of the shooters when carcasses are counted as evidence of their lazy aim. The effectiveness of the kill has already been answered, as so few infectious badgers can actually pass their strain of TB into cows and previous kills have had a negligible 16% success rate in decreasing the incidence of bovine TB. As for public safety, the more badger advocates there are roaming private property at night, the higher the risk. This scenario would likely pan out with trespassing orders; another example of animal ownership being passed to people that intend to harm them. An online petition against the badger kill can be signed here.
After the conference we drove to Exmouth, which lies unsurprisingly at the mouth of the river Exe, where we found an Italian place called Avanti. They had a couple of vegan or veganisable options, including bruschetta which is not on the menu but which they are happy to do if you ask. The main spaghetti aglio e olio was simple but fine, and I was really just happy to find something already vegan on the menu without having to request amendments, aside from holding the parmesan. Dr Sin was very taken by the menu but her first choices for both starter and main – involving mussels and prawns – were not available. The bitter taste of this disappointment seemed to infuse the digestion of her second choice. Our dining companion was a pesky vegetarian who eats fish and the fish was reportedly very good. Everyone was happy at breakfast the next morning back in Exeter at The Plant Cafe, which serves the kind of food implied by its name. Both the vegetarian and meat-eater enjoyed their eggs while the mushrooms slightly pipped the homemade beans as vegan contender.
Being so close to Dartmoor National Park, we took a detour on the way home to climb a tor and get up close to some Dartmoor ponies. Here is another group of free-living animals whose numbers are being controlled by humans, including some who go under the guise of animal advocates, for human benefit. John Gray in his book Straw Dogs talks about how most species adapt to their environment, with the size of a group changing as needed to ensure its survival. Applying this to the Dartmoor ponies, who are accused of overbreeding, I would think that if their environment could not support them, their numbers would dwindle naturally. But because a group of humans has decided there are too many, the ponies are being microchipped and injected with a contraceptive. Too many for Dartmoor National Park or too many to maintain market value? Foals that are not sold, perhaps to be trained up to be a riding pony, are slaughtered. Yes, even free-living animals are owned by some human who decides what life they will have, which is hardly what it is to be free.