Category Archives: animal ethics

The milkmaid’s tale (this one’s for the mothers)

If Offred is a handmaid, is Serena Joy a milkmaid?

In a world where ‘resistance is fertile’, the horror of The Handmaid’s Tale is that the bodies of women – fertile women – are treated as no more than vessels for semen, bodies without minds, flesh without souls. The televisual adaptation is visceral because it feels like the coup of this society happened in a day and a place much like ours.

*spoiler alert*

One episode has the Mexican ambassador come to learn how Gilead achieves its birth rate. She is sceptical about how the handmaids feel about their position but is won over in a scene where the children of Gilead pour into an official dinner, at which the handmaids are seated to have their fertility celebrated. It is the cruellest thing to let a mother see the child she is not allowed to mother. The handmaids search the faces of the children to find who is theirs. In a later scene the wife takes Offred on a drive where she gets a glimpse of her child through the car window. She is not allowed to get out; her daughter does not know she is there or even that she is alive. When the wife gets back into the car, Offred unleashes a torrent of hate-filled expletives at her and it absolutely captures our horror, her pain and her anger.

How can they do this? How can they treat our bodies like machines and thwart our emotional attachments? Janine nurses the baby who is born out of ritual rape before the baby is snatched back by the wife, who cannot lactate. The wife is the milkmaid with the handkerchief bonnet sitting on a wooden stool, pulling on the cow’s tits to take the milk that was meant for her stolen baby. Her calm-inducing turquoise garments conceal her threatening interior and cruel intent.

The dairy industry has perfected this systematic violent exploitation of the female reproductive capacity. Cows are artificially imseminated. Their calves are taken away days, if not moments, after birth. For days and weeks after the mother will keen and search for her abducted calf. Some weeks later she is impregnated again. All this time her udders grow heavy with immense production of milk, abetted by hormones and genetic manipulation to increase her ‘yield’ and antibiotics to treat the festering nipples that inevitably result from perpetual lactation. The dairy industry develops new devices to sever the maternal bond, such as spiked nose rings to put on calves who have the urge to suckle, and tells us it is for the calves’ own good because cows are bad mothers. lynn mowson detailed this brutality in a paper at the 2017 Australasian Animal Studies Association conference in Adelaide and her artwork boobscape conveys its terror. The body that nurtures has been reproduced into an inhospitable landscape – the monstrous mother – via intensive, industrialised violence.

lynn mowson, boobscape, 2017, latex, tissue and string

The cycle repeats four or five times until the cow no longer produces enough milk to be profitable for the farmer. She is slaughtered, her body aged well beyond the six years or so of her incarcerated and enslaved life. The farmer who impregnates her has intimate knowledge of her body, her biological cycles, a knowledge obtained without her permission and without her cooperation. In Gilead every member of the household knows when the handmaid is most ‘fertile’ and if she has missed her period. Nothing in this world is yours, not even knowledge of your own body.

Melissa Boyde’s paper at the AASA conference powerfully illustrated that where some might interpret cows to be cooperating in their subjugation, they have actually been violently coerced. Before the dinner scene for the ambassador in Gilead, the commander’s wife inspects the line of handmaids and instructs the aunties to remove the ones that have visible disfigurements. Janine has had an eye taken out, others are missing hands and limbs. Any part of their bodies may be mutilated except the vagina, for this is their reproductivity and the key to Gilead’s perpetuation as a society. It is, too, with cows in the dairy industry, where udder singeing and other maimings are all permissible, routinised even, in order to keep the milk flowing. Reproductivity reproduces the society from whence it came.

There is another tale that describes this story from the viewpoint of the subjugated: ‘A Mother’s Tale’ by James Agee. A mother cow tells a group of male calves about The One Who Came Back, who escaped the slaughterhouse and returns to warn his herd of what he has learned about the ‘purpose of Man’ – to slaughter cows. To ensure a continual supply of cows to be killed, Man controls the reproduction of the species. The instructions of The One Who Came Back are to not cooperate. While the fate of those who are taken out on the range is to meet The Man With The Hammer,

All who stay home are kept there to breed others to go onto the range, and so betray themselves and their kind and their children forever. We are brought into this life only to be victims; and there is no other way for us unless we save ourselves.

The final instruction of The One Who Came Back is to, Kill the yearlings, kill the calves. So long as Man holds dominion over us, Bear no young.

The One Who Came Back views the ‘breeders’ – the mothers – as ones who betray their species, though he does not speak (or perhaps has no knowledge) of the perpetual milk cycle that mothers endure nor their forced impregnation, or rape (while retelling the story, the mother cow is ‘overcome by a most curious shyness, for it occurred to her that in the course of time, this young thing might be bred to her’), nor the pain of being separated from children.

The perpetuation of Gileadean society depends on women’s commandeered reproduction. Children are born into a world where they must also reproduce or be cast off (to ‘the colonies’). In dairy and in Gilead, death may seem like the only way to resist. Janine is ordered to be stoned for attempting to kill herself. Yet the other handmaids tasked with carrying out the punishment put down their stones. Did the cows who heard the warning of The One Who Came Back do as he instructed – Kill the yearlings, kill the calves? No, they could not. In a world that insists on severing emotional bonds, resistance is love.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Strump it!

in the neighbourhoodWhen I go out walking with our dog we go past a sign out the front of a block of units saying ‘Pick up your dog shit you selfish pigs’. Someone has gone to some effort to make this sign permanent: it is stuck in the ground with two metal poles and the words are composed of those block letter stickers, which are stuck onto a plastic board that is held to the poles with black plastic bracelets. It’s an affront to read the sign every time we walk past but quite amusing when our dog does a poo right in front of it. The ‘shit’ is not so offensive as the ‘pigs’ and I wonder at why they’ve chosen the word ‘selfish’ to preface it, aside from the fact that ‘selfish pigs’ are two words that are often put together. This persistent linking of a negative human trait to a particular non-human animal makes me wonder: 1) are pigs really selfish? 2) why do we invoke pigs when we are really describing humans? 3) has anyone even seen a pig in the suburbs? 4) why is it so offensive to be called a pig?

At some point during the US election campaign Hillary Clinton described Trump as a pig. This was after the recording came out of him talking about how he can’t stop himself around beautiful women. We all had to reach deep into the recesses of our vocabularies to come up with an insult that could capture just how repugnant it was. ‘Pig’ was the word we all reached for, even Hillary, who otherwise was able to refrain from direct insults most of the time, though no doubt the temptation was ever present. ‘Pig’ seemed to capture the full misogyny of the man (remember when men used to be called ‘chauvinist pigs’?). It also seemed to convey how deeply unattractive Trump is – which is not to say that pigs are not attractive – and how dare such an ugly man think he can ‘just start kissing’ women he finds beautiful? (He also said something about when you’re famous and rich women find you irresistible – bleurgh.)

A few posters on the Women’s March took up the theme: Humans vs. Trump; Trump is an offense to human dignity; Dog whistle politics don’t speak to me; and the reminder that Women are people, as if Trump has relegated us to the status of non-people or, perhaps, non-humans. The intention behind the posters I think was to say it is not only women that oppose Trump’s sexism and racism, but the effect is to say that Trump is not human, that there is some kind of animality that envelops him which is repellent to the rest of humanity and which we dissociate ourselves from. But we are all animals (the human and the non-human). Here we are using the metaphor of the animal to say that humans are a special kind of animal, a superior type of animal, and if you don’t live up to the rest of humanity’s expectation you are dropped down into the cesspit that is animality.

But Trump is human, all too human. He is one of us and, as much as we try with our imaginative slurs to disown him from the human species, we cannot get away from the fact that everything he does and says are things that humans do and say. Do we really think male pigs go around saying, ‘I’m going to move on that sow like a bitch’? Trump himself uses animal metaphors to describe his disgusting behaviour, as if the part of himself that does and says those racist and sexist things isn’t actually him but an alter-animal self that he cannot keep at bay.

Last year during the days of activism highlighting violence against women, an Australian anti-DV campaigner was quoted as saying something to the effect of ‘men are not always animals’. The focus of her campaigning is that violent men need help to change their behaviour, that it is not something inherent in their characters, or that it is ‘natural’, to be violent. This is an incredibly important point. Yet, when we use animal terms to describe the worst of men’s behaviour, we are buying into the same misogynist ideology we are trying to call out. By calling men ‘animals’, we disown violence as something that humans are capable of and we say that only animals are capable of violence. This is because animals are supposedly driven by instinct and have no ‘culture’ or respect for their fellow animal beings. Whatever they do is ‘natural’. When we say a man is animal, we are saying that he has lost his ‘human’ culture and etiquette; he has devolved into his natural state. But this gives a rationale for the behaviour: I cannot help my nature. Tackling violence against women is all about changing violent behaviour. How can we hope to change behaviour when we call men animals and perpetuate the idea that violence is somehow natural?

Tagged , , , , , ,

Armchair conservationists

On the first day we saw dolphins.
About ten of them breaching behind the swell,
some way out from the surfers,
swimming across the bay at Port Elizabeth.

The hotel dog barked when we got to the gate,
then sat with us while we waited for the room
and scratched her tummy. The big dog of silence,
hulking moves, who ate grass and looked so sick
palpitating her whole body to make herself vomit.
She silently padded up to our verandah.
I was reading Oliver Sacks, up to the part where he says
he feels like ‘a single leather animal’
riding tandem on his motorcycle.

On the second day we saw a lone wilderbeest
left behind by, or staying behind, her group.
Alarmed by the sound of the engine and the five of us
in the vehicle, she pushed herself up
off the ground and limped a few paces away.
When the engine was turned off and she saw
we were still, she settled herself down again.
‘She won’t make the night’; ‘food for the lions,’
we concurred, all believers in a pecking order.
‘We do not intervene,’ our guide said, ‘because
there are too many of them.’

We saw impalas, zebras, two hippopotamuses and giraffes,
two lions, young brothers, lying about,
their bellies round. ‘They have fed,’ we were told.
One had a collar round its neck, ‘to track him
because he is injured – see his eye.
That will hinder his hunting.’

At dinner, kudu was on the menu
(‘not from the reserve, of course’)
and other bovines that you can eat in South Africa
but not where we’re from.
Trophy cow skins were laid on the floors of our lodge
and the restaurant.

On the morning of the third day, we drove
up to the top of the valley into
clouds of mist. Our heavy ponchos saturated
with the moisture in the air.
Looking for elephants, anything –
all we’d seen was a lone impala, twice,
who did not appear injured, just preferred his solitude.
I looked at you with a massive smile on your face,
excited at what we were seeing, alert to any movement,
eyes out for spotting animals we’d never seen
without a cage around them.

‘There, there!’ A group of white animals in the valley.
‘Sheep,’ said our guide, reminding us
of the electrified gates we drove through
separating the farms from the reserve.
Running away from us, we saw impalas,
a jackal, bushpigs and warthogs, monkeys
and an elephant, through binoculars, who looked
like a tree one shade of grey lighter
than the ones it was eating, from the distance.

The engine in low gear and the jeep juddering over rocks,
it felt like we were in the film Ettrick, where the camera crew
drive through the Scottish countryside, concretising
their tracks as they go. The digital image is formed
of pixels that the human eye cannot see on the screen;
Perconte magnifies this so we perceive
the landscape’s dissemblance into pixellation.
Sheep graze through a field that is knitted into wool,
eating their way through the hair off their backs:
the animal consuming itself.

ettrick-sheep

From Jacques Perconte’s Ettrick

A thread comes loose, is pulled across the screen.
The overlay on the image is continuously changing, perceptibly,
from top to bottom, side to side,
a scatter of pixels at a time.
From the sheep grazing on the hills,
industrial looms in a textile mill
punch and weave texture on the screen.
The final act: a bulldozer tearing down trees.
Tree-lopping for timber? Or tree-clearing for animal grazing?

It was time to see enclosed lions and a leopard
at the reserve’s conservation centre.
They had been rescued from circuses and cages around the world,
brought here, to this bigger enclosure, their ability to live
independently having been stolen from them,
along with everything else, when they were enslaved.
In the afternoon we saw a group of elephants,
a group of rhinoceroses, a cheetah, all up close,
ticking off the appropriate box in the species checklist.

On the fourth day we stopped the jeep in the road.
All around us was the crackle of elephants,
pulling branches off trees. One mother walking
across the road changed her direction
and came towards us, eyeing us out of her
right eye, lifting her trunk up to smell us
as she passed. We also saw:
a group of buffalo, a group of zebra,
lots of impalas, ostriches, a hippopotamus,
and other animals that choose not to be near us.

As we drove out of the game reserve in our Datsun
we did not see the lions on the road that had been there
on the way back from our last safari drive.
We saw baboons on the Garden Route
(‘baboons are dangerous animals’).
At your aunty’s house we met many dogs and saw
guineafowl and ibises going about the suburbs.
On the beach, jellyfish
had been washed up on the shore,
a giant specimen looking like
a brain encased in jelly. We peered at it up close.

On the fifth day we saw owls, birds of prey,
peacocks with their feathers out, bright orange ibises,
cockatoos that had formerly been pets
and had plucked all their feathers out.
Monkeys, guinea pigs, chickens, pigeons, macaus
and a bat-eared fox (‘all the better to hear you with’).
Any indignance at seeing the honey badger
running round and round and round
in the stereotypical behaviour of caged animals
is quelled by the sign criticising armchair conservationists.
We thought of taking a photo to send
to our safari guide, who had not yet seen
a honey badger in the wild; but this
was no valediction.

On the sixth day we saw a dead rat
by the kerb of the road along the beach,
near a drain, its body mostly intact
but with blood on its face.

On the second-last day we saw a snake,
probably a mole, being pestered
by little birds in the botanic gardens.
It snaked over to the other side of the path
and we gaped at it a safe distance away.
On our way back along the coast
you were driving but managed to discern
out of the choppy waters the tail flop
of whales, many of them.
Without binoculars it was hard to see
but we stayed a long time, while the Israeli
tourists came and went (‘haval a ha zman’);
we almost left twice but then saw the whales
rise out of the water again.

At lunch we sat next to the table of a white man
who’d had his black maid walk his dog
to the restaurant for him. We asked the waiter
to get the dog some water, struggling in the heat
or struggling with an owner who was not listening.
Once back at the hotel we heard the howls,
pained cries of a dog hit by a car on the beach road.
She was curled into the curb but got herself up,
limping, and lunged at the approach of another dog.
A passerby and the driver of the car
lifted the dog in the car and drove away.
Our hotel concierge said she would have been
taken to a vet; ‘people love dogs here’.

Back home, I sprinkle cayenne pepper around the ant mounds.
They are excavating our limestone steps
to make their homes. Next, mint leaves, lemon juice,
then vinegar. Last resort: cinnamon tea
but all that does is stain the stone.
I put the harness and leash on our dog
and we go for a walk.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,