Category Archives: animal rights

This one’s for the mothers: #IWD2018

Pigs are still in the headlines – male chauvinist pigs, sexist pigs, disgusting pigs and so on. Wherefore art thou chivalrous pig, trustworthy pig, decent pig, female pig? ‘Pig’ is the animal we choose to anthropometaphorise violent men, specifically in their acts of sexual aggression and most often those acts against women. Never mind that most of the real pigs in the real world are sows forced into perpetual pregnancy and confinement in ‘gestation crates’. This deflection from female animal subjugation does not further the cause of (human) women’s rights.

When I first learned that female pigs were kept confined in tiny stalls with concrete floors and metal bars the reason was ‘so they don’t smother their babies’. I was a child, maybe a young teenager. It was another person my age who told me this. I accepted it though it didn’t quite add up: how could mother pigs not know how to look after their children? How had they managed to survive without human intervention? Where did my friend learn that this was the reason pigs had to be kept in cages? It was only as an adult that I realised that if you give a sow enough space, there is no risk to her young. The same goes for tail docking: we’re told it’s to stop pigs from eating each other’s tails. It’s implied that pigs are cannibals; not that they are trying to relieve the chronic physical and mental pain of being kept in confinement.

We are fed similar half-truths with other animals that are intensively farmed. Cows need to be milked so much because it is painful for them to carry so much milk in their enormous udders. True, but how did their udders get to such a size that they produce more milk than they need? Every half-truth hides a more horrific truth. Have you ever been told that the oestrogen in soy products causes cancer, so you should stick to cow’s milk? Most soy in the world is fed to intensively farmed cows, and they in turn are fed to humans. And what is more likely to contain more oestrogen: a female, oestrogen-producing cow pumped full of growth hormones and kept in a state of perpetual pregnancy or a plant?

Getting back to the so-called pigs in the headlines, a news article about the W——– fallout quotes screenwriter Peter Mehlman, ‘I may be anthropomorphising here, but I really think the animals have no choice but to be civilized.’

Anthropomorphising is when you assign human traits to non-human animals, all the while forgetting that humans are actually animals, too. The word’s usage these days is a product of the human exceptionalism construct, that humans are better than all the other animals because of their unique species characteristics. Mehlman attributes predatory human male behaviour to the non-human in an inversion of how the charge of anthropomorphising is often thrown about. (Usually we’re told not to anthropomorphise when we describe the emotions of animals, often by some pseudoscientist who tells you that animals don’t have feelings. ‘We have to be careful not to anthropomorphise because, then … shit!’) In fact, calling men sexist pigs and women nasty dogs and stupid cows is also anthropomorphising in a way. We attribute the human characteristic that we are insulting to the animal and in the process that animal becomes the ‘personification’ of the negative trait, to the point where you only have to say the name of the animal to insult without preceding it with an adjective. Hence, if I call you a pig I mean you are sexist, if I call you a dog you’re nasty and if you’re a cow then you’re stupid (cows can also be nasty it turns out). But I wouldn’t go around calling people things like that or demeaning our animal friends (though there is much less uproar about this kind of anthropomorphising).

But bringing in the notion of ‘civilised’ behaviour only reaffirms the trope that humans are civilised and non-humans are not. Mehlman calls this anthropomorphising because, heh, animals cannot be civilised. Being civilised is apparently something only humans can do (and once upon a time only humans that were male and European). Animals are the natural other to the human who has culture and having ‘culture’ is somehow a safeguard from being violent. By having no choice but to be civilised, predatory males have to assume the trappings of being human. And one of those traps is to believe that violence happens because of instinctual, primal, animal urges – not that violence is actually a choice.

Calling violent men by animal names might feel good at the time, but it’s a shortcut right back to where we started. If we want men to own up and be accountable for their actions, we cannot disown their behaviour as not being in the realm of human. We also do an injustice to the female animals in our intensive farming systems by making unseen and unheard the gendered violence that is inflicted on them. This is not anthropomorphising. It is a choice.

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The milkmaid’s tale

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.

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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.

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