Sunday, May 28, 2006

Hot Water

Matt Mullenix and Steve Bodio emailed me the other day about this. What did I think? they asked. Would I blog about it? Ah, I thought. Yes, I know precisely the kind of blog post this question demands: a short, pithy, philosophically acute position statement. But I can't do those. So instead I'm going to ramble on for ages about all kinds of unconnected stuff, and then tail off into something like "must go, the phone's ringing" or similar, at around the time you and I both realise there's no coherent argument in the post whatsoever. Ha ha.

I've seen the building site for these Oxford labs, though. Vast boardings faced with reinforced steel and topped with barbed wire. I can be so dumb! "Blimey, that's a serious building site" I thought, half-admiringly, and only when someone at Zoology advised me not to wear my rather awesome goatskin coat anywhere outside the buildings did it all fall into place. Ah, I thought. That's the new animal labs. Of course.

But I've never plumbed my intuitions on animal experimentation. My first-pass emotional response is rather lazy, morally and intellectually; it's pretty much "I'm fine with the death thing; I'm not good with the suffering thing". But what do I think about the animal rights furore? The Oxford labs demonstrations?

Well, it makes me anxious. But it makes me a lot less anxious than the things Steve has been writing about recently here and here in a US context: the remorseless zoning of human habitats to exclude companion animals. The impoverishment of the world by stealth. Sterilize and track programs. Oh lord. If you assume, as I do, that animal legislation generally involves the transference of wider social and political issues onto animals, then one should worry about just what this concern to sterilize, restrict, zone, and punish indicates. Of course there are welfare issues to consider with keeping urban animals. But these laws evidence, to me, some need to make animals disappear from human habitats entirely. Which genuinely terrifies me.
A councilman came up to me and said “We lost on the dogs. Next we’re going after the hawk. If we don’t get it we’ll get your pigeons”. They then made them both illegal in Bozeman by name of species, and also cougars and otters, because a photographer who had one of each also beat them. Then, they made it possible for one adjoining neighbor to block your ownership of any pet. The worst councilwoman suggested having children volunteer to spy on pet owners, and for the maximum of four allowed pets to include individual GOLDFISH. It is now illegal to bring your dog downtown in Bozeman, or walk your dog off-lead (outside of your own property) anywhere in Gallatin county.
We are lucky in the UK. We are quite laissez-faire about this kind of thing. I live in the middle of Cambridge. If I wanted to keep a goat in the garden, or a heap of chickens, or pigeons, or (as I do and have) hawks, I could do so with no requirements for licenses and so on, except where the animal is rare enough to have special monitoring provisions (goshawks, peregrines, merlins and so on, are all ringed and have their own registration number and registration documents, rather like a car). This approach does have its problems—I am sure you can think of some—but still I am a passionate proponent of human–animal interactions in the home. I am naive enough to believe that people's lives are enriched by contact with animals, that some animal species are happy in domestic environments—and I take the former as such a transparent fact that I even get grumpy about academics who feel they need to provide statistical proof of this, though I really shouldn't. I would campaign for every single school to have a professional animal keeper and naturalist on the payroll, with aquariums in every classroom, a vegetable plot, a pond, and chickens in the yard. This isn't some middle-class ruralist dream. I think it's urgent. I shall rant about this more another time.

Anyway, one of the underlying concerns of both the US pet laws and the UK Animal rights furore is that of restricting animals to particular spaces. Namely, the arguments, no matter what other moral or ethical goods are ported in, seem to revolve around the question of which animals are allowed to be in which spaces, and who has the authority to access these spaces. These may be institutional/experimental spaces, or domestic spaces, or agricultural ones, or that catch-all term, 'the wild'. Are the animals visible, or hidden, in these spaces? How deeply ingrained in the discourse of animal rights activism is that of the hidden camera, the infiltrator, the moral observer.

A couple of years ago, I had a long chat about the Canadian seal cull with a Canadian diplomat at High Table. (This was before Paul McCartney was involved but after Brigitte Bardot) We discussed the possibility of my researching the controversy—but I think that was the 1963 port speaking, and nothing came of my expansive plans, even though I really wanted to go up there and see belugas, which are one of the trilogy of my (ahem) sort of totem animals, along with Lammergeiers and Albatrosses.

The Canadian seal cull is fantastically grisly, yes. And I think the grisly is the important bit. My friend Xtin, a philosopher with the kind of scorching, slate-cleaving mental finesse that scares the hell out of me, once said that the problem she has with the animal rights/suffering debate is squeam. You can't argue from Squeam, she says. It's not a good philosophical principle.

Because I've read many, many internet reports on animal rights pages about the seal cull. They are written by animal advocates in Zodiacs chasing fishermen chasing seals through an environment that is itself in dissolution. Like two guys fighting over a woman on the Titanic, it's a bit pointless. Wider picture, guys, PLEASE.

Anyway, the rhetoric of the anti-cullers is interesting. It is visual. It goes on, and on, and on, about blood on the ice. Blood on the ice, blood on the ice. Red on pure white. Endless discussion of the disgusting visceral nature of blood on ice. The rhetorical term is ekphrasis — a virtual witnessing. You are expected to experience the moral outrage because you, too, are standing there seeing blood on the ice.

Now, to me, this just buys in to one of the most pernicious problems in animal-human interactions in the industrialised west: the problem of hidden gore. Not Al Gore. Animal gore. Slaughterhouses kill six billion broiler chickens a year in the US; 9 million unwanted pets are killed in shelters; a hog-sticker in an industrialised US factory may cut as many as 1,100 pig throats an hour. My friend Jonathan has recently written on this, and on how the scale of modern killing of animals is incomprehensible; and not only by virtue of the sheer numbers involved, but by its invisibility. Animal death is invisible—it takes place in slaughterhouses, factories, city kill shelters, laboratories, and so on. He writes:
When representations of animal death do erupt into the public domain (as when they appear, say, in a film or other media) they are often accompanied by a shocked outcry—ironically, in the name of animal welfare. All that this protest serves to do is to reinforce the taboos to ensure the normal invisibility of animal killing and to keep the implications of such killing even further from public consciousness.
What makes the seal-culling obscene for so many, I think, is just this: that blood runs on the pristine ice, in the wild, in the open air. It is unacceptable that the deaths of individual animals are not safely locked away behind slaughterhouse walls, in acceptable spaces. That is what offends.

A small point, yes. But I shall think more about this. And now the phone is ringing...

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