Category Archives: badgers

The wild and the free

‘I used to think I was wild.’

One of the narrators in Helen Humphreys’ Wild Dogs felt wild when motorcycling through empty streets early in the morning. Alone, independent and free.

Mrs Lomez used to think she was wild when she stayed up late and purposefully deprived herself of sleep, did not change out of her clothes and did not shower, ate only coffee. Trying to find a natural state without the things that surround you in abundance. Ah, student days. We grow up and realise not that we have grown into domestication but that these little quirks and gestures were never signs of wildness.

When we talk about wildness, we invoke independence, rebellion, passion. For humans maybe and for some animals too: often we talk about wild wolves, wild foxes, wild boars and all sorts of other wild ‘life’. Badgers are not a species we’d associate with wildness, though perhaps with the more politically correct ‘free living’.

Politically correct it may be but it also gives false ideas about how much these animals are allowed to keep to themselves. Take British badgers, for example, going about their lives and then one day, with the passing of new legislation, humans are shooting guns at them. As a good badger friend of Mrs Lomez once said, ‘life in the wild is tough enough without some wanker with a gun trying to hunt you down’. Wild animals also have homes, families, responsibilities, patterns of behaviour; they do not live in isolation.

The reason for the shooting, supposedly, is that these free-living creatures pose a threat to domesticated cattle in the form of bovine tuberculosis. Mrs Lomez won’t go into why this is a load of crock here – all that information is available for those who care to look for it, dairy farmers and government ministers included – but it shows how the domesticated is perceived to be more valuable than the wild. These cows are someone’s property, they are the symbol of someone’s livelihood. And human livelihoods always win out over other animals’. And because badgers are not especially forthcoming in their affection toward humans, being nocturnal and shy, they are expendable.

You wouldn’t think it would be such a big deal, sticking up for badgers in the face of a massacre by stealth. This is not loaded with class connotations as fox hunting is. But the badger cull has been obscured into nationalistic solidarity with dairy farmers against a benign and unsuspecting little furry animal. Never mind that the cause of bovine TB could very well be found in intensive farming practices, nor that the British public has already unwittingly been eating cows infected by TB and still declared safe by the Food Standards Agency. It is difficult to see what British dairy farming or the UK government could stand to gain from killing badgers.

So it was that on June 1 thousands of people dressed in black and white marched on London town, from Millbank to St James’s Park, in support of badgers’ right to life, a free life. Just days earlier a report into the decline of British wildlife, State of Nature, had been published, showing a concerning drop in populations of wild animals and plants. The preplanned route of the march was diverted by police trying to appease the English Defence League, which had organised an impromptu rally. Mrs Lomez wonders who the police thought posed the bigger threat: a right-wing, anti-migrant group, or a bunch of animal advocates. The badger march was peaceful, would you believe: so many thousands of animal activists showing non-violent solidarity with a species that cannot vocalise its own defence. One domesticated species standing up for the wild.

Like Kinsey’s spectrum of sexuality, perhaps all animals, human and otherwise, exist on a continuum of wildness at one end and domestication at the other, and we move along this scale in both directions throughout our lives. Wild spirits are meant to be prized. The free-living are meant to be protected. The narrator in Wild Dogs lives with a dog who decides to join a wild pack. A dog that chooses a life in the wild over domestication. These wild spirits get a reputation for being uncontrollable and dangerous. And they are hunted down.

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Horse meat disco / What is at steak

At first it was just a few burgers in the ‘value’ ranges of some supermarkets, with levels of up to 30 per cent at most, quietly withdrawn from sale with only passing mention in the press. A few weeks later, frozen lasagnes were found to contain 100 per cent horse meat and then it was all over the news. Horse meat was found in spaghetti bolognese, mince meat, in school and hospital foods, at IKEA and not only in frozen food. Bolognese sauce and chili con carne also contained horse. Everywhere, ready-made meals supposedly from cows in fact contained a bit, or a lot, of horses.

On the radio, FSA spokespeople were audibly flustered at suggestions the authority had been asleep on the watch. Supermarkets were keeping schtum, neither denying nor confirming they had known all along. A couple of UK slaughterhouses were raided and said they had nothing to hide. Suspicions were focused on Romania until they produced documentation proving they had correctly labelled their horse meat. Nobody fesses up and nobody can say who is responsible. Sales of frozen beef go down, while local butchers pick up business. Sales of vegetables remain the same. In other news, police in the US are on a manhunt for a disaffected former colleague and the UK government’s workfare scheme is declared illegal. North Korea explodes a nuclear bomb underground.

Investigators get lost in the supply chain: animals transported all over Europe are slaughtered in one country then pass through agents in another country, who send them on to food factories in other countries, which export their products all over. All UK supermarkets are ordered to test their cow products for horses and 17 of the more than 5000 products tested come back positive. The numbers are perhaps not quite as alarming as feared. Some consumers don’t care, some are disgusted. Waitrose says its frozen meatballs contain pig DNA. A food authenticity expert says lamb products should also be tested. An ex-FSA expert says all this was bound to happen after an EU ruling that pink slime – mechanically reformed flesh taken off the bone with a high-pressure hose – cannot be used as material for human food. There was suddenly no cheap source of meat. And then along came the horses.

Vegetarians perhaps are less surprised at each passing day’s revelations. Non-vegetarians feel horror, disgust, shock. The horror – that what you are eating is not what you think it is. Imagine finding out that Quorn actually contains 97% horses, processed beyond all recognition. What next? Linda McCartney pies? Even meat-eaters can’t believe they are vegetarian. Honest food labelling is important for all.

There is some bleak humour to be found in the timing of the scandal breaking as David Cameron tries to distance the UK from the EU with intimations of an in/out referendum. At first the problem seemed to stem from the continent; they eat horses in France, after all. But then the scandal hits home. Look, Dave, you have been European all along.  ‘Now it’s British beef’ cries the MailThe Daily Telegraph is aghast that ‘Horse meat [is] found in UK firms’. But horses have long been slaughtered in the UK to be turned into food products, though mostly to be fed to our pets, who would also be grateful for some accurate food labelling. After all, where do all the horses go, including the discarded failures of the quest to create champion thoroughbreds? They shoot horses, don’t they? There is confusion over what role these UK businesses play. Assurances from supermarkets that they will only source meat from British animals will not necessarily prevent future contamination. The answer put forward is improved food traceability and shorter supply chains.

No real cause for alarm yet from the health department, despite warnings over the horse painkiller bute ending up in the human food chain and the apparent uselessness of the horse ‘passport’ system. The response is strikingly different to when news of BSE in British cows broke. For a long time it didn’t break at all, though agriculturalists knew what was happening. When finally it did, the potentially fatal consequences were downplayed. It took almost a decade to get British beef off the shelves. But at the first indication of horse meat, supermarket refrigerators are cleared overnight. Still no major health implications announced.

At stake is Britain’s mythology of itself (the same goes for all other non-horse eating societies). Harriet Ritvo puts the time lag in the BSE period down to myth: of great British beef, a nation built on the backs of cows, animal breeds prized throughout Europe. Its importance in Britain’s economy could not be downplayed. At the time nationalist non-vegetarians in Britain were pressuring each other into eating potentially infectious cow meat, while on the other side of the world in Australia the Red Cross has struck off any potential blood donors who had no more than stepped on British soil between 1986 and 1996. vCJD, the human variant of BSE, can take years to incubate once transmitted and 2012 was the first year without a reported death from vCJD in Britain,  more than 15 years after the UK government first said anything official, and many more years since farmers started mumbling about what was happening to their cows, having fed them the brain tissue of their dead brethren.

Britons do not eat horses. This is as much a part of their mythology as that they do eat cows. The UK would not be the only nation to affiliate one of its chief exports with its imagined national identity: Australians eat lamb because sheep are a part of that country’s mythology: white settlement was built on the backs of sheep transported on ships from England. The least an Australian can do to honour that history is to kill and eat an ancestor of these ovine migrants.

Perhaps eating British horses is less of a health risk than eating British cows, now being scourged by bovine TB. That this situation has arisen from intensive farming practices will not stand in the way of a good old-fashioned badger massacre. The problem is always in another type of animal – the wild ones, the foreign ones – and the solution is, inevitably, to kill all the animals and be more careful about which ones you eat. Is improved food traceability the only change that is needed?

Further reading:

‘Mad cow mysteries’, Harriet Ritvo, The American Scholar 67 (2): 113-122, 1998.

‘Veganism is the answer to the inevitable question’, Jasmijn de Boo, The Huffington Post Blog23 February 2013.

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To Exeter and back: ponies, badgers and critical animal studies

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.