Animal Arbitrariness

The past couple of weeks has been interesting to me, in that a few seemingly unrelated stories highlight just how arbitrary our feelings about animals can be.

Puppy Love

I was quite taken with a short documentary I watched during a trainer ride earlier this week. It’s not so much the subject matter of prison inmates training dogs for adoption that I loved (which I did), but it reminded me of our beautiful girl Darby. While she’s been gone for a few years now, we adopted her at 14 weeks from a near identical program, now defunct, out of Matsqui prison in Abbotsford.

I don’t know too many people who don’t want to see homeless dogs trained and adopted by loving families. The added benefit of how this work impacts the inmates makes it even more touching. The power of giving love and gaining trust reminded me of The Champions, a very touching documentary about the rehabilitation of the fighting dogs in the wake of the Michael Vick case.

Further case in point? This week a video surfaced, showing a terrified German Shepherd being tossed into a fake raging river, while filming the movie A Dog’s Purpose, set to open in late January. Reaction has been swift and put the movie’s producers on their heels, as it rightly should. I’d love it if we got this indignant about more cases of animal abuse.

One Less Circus

I was heartened by the news several days ago, that after nearly 150 years of operation, Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus will close its doors in May. People on both sides of the fence will argue about whether animals in reputable circuses are mistreated, but since we can’t ask the animals how they feel, we can only observe what they endure and document it.

There is no shortage of references documenting circus animal cruelty:

The issues with captive performing animals aren’t only about the animals. Another trainer ride documentary I watched recently, Tyke, Elephant Outlaw documents the 1994 rampage of a circus elephant, after killing her handler, through the streets of Honolulu. It delves further into her history, possible reasons for her snapping and ultimately, her demise in a hail of bullets in front of horrified onlookers. Not unlike Blackfish, possibly the defining film about performing animals going sideways and killing their handlers, it helps lay bare the illusion that we are in control or that we should even be using animals this way in the first place.

Raging Bull

I read with sadness the stories last week about a BC bull rider who’d apparently taken his own life as a result of concussion-related depression. The stories typically talk about the well-liked athlete and the risks of post-concussion depression, with the animal referred to as a thing to be conquered, or not mentioned at all.

When any young man with most of his life ahead of him commits suicide, it’s tragic. However, of the three or four media pieces I read there was one glaring omission in my mind. Without a societally endorsed ritual such as rodeo in the first place, would this have happened? The concussion issue is considered a contributing factor to his death, without the slightest mention of why he got the concussions in the first place. The choice to abuse animals for a living wasn’t even mentioned.

Having read a lot of commentary by members of the rodeo industry over the years, I know they feel they love and care for their animals. However, if you watch a bucking bronc or bull during the ride, they’re being abused by any rational measure. At least that’s how I think of forcing an animal to feel pain and discomfort, whipping, smacking and poking them, all in an effort to get them to try and throw a rider off their back. The pains taken to confine the bull just prior to the ride demonstrate how distressed it is. All of this to entertain people and prove some absurd dominance we have over nature.

Don’t even start me on the even more barbaric practice of calf roping:

The calf is goaded, prodded and often has its tail twisted to ensure it will burst out of the chute at full speed (up to 27 miles per hour). The terrified calf is then chased by a mounted rider who must lasso the calf, jump of his horse, pick up the calf, slam it to the ground and tie three of its feet together.

The main issue in all of this is that, not only can’t we say they aren’t hurt, but we can’t obtain their permission to participate. Animals regularly die or are euthanized (PDF) while participating in rodeo events.

I guess what I’m coming around to is the question of values. Valuing animals enough that we don’t find viewing their abuse to be entertaining, and certainly not accepting their death as a result. In 2017, why is domination of animals lauded as bravery? No one needs to die by their own hand after taking too many serious blows to the head as a result of animal abuse.

Raging Bullshit

Bill Maher and David Duchovny are animal rights guys. Sort of. Well, not so much … While this isn’t from this past week, the clip below is from Maher’s Real Time a couple years ago, and I just happened on it recently when searching for something entirely unrelated. It encapsulates almost perfectly the contradictions many of us have about animals.

After the usual introductions and chatter about the new book he was promoting, a sort of family oriented book about animal rights, they both then go on to say how they’re both big animal rights guys. Duchovny gets around actually being an animals rights guy by only raising questions and not solutions, but Maher jumps right in as he is often wont to do and says animals should simply have more rights. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, so far.

Then, they get into the horrors of factory farming, that humans consider themselves as separate, that we’re custodians of the animals, the environmental costs of raising meat, and they even manage to invoke the name of Peter Singer, who penned the seminal Animal Liberation (still a great read decades later). So, bravo boys, talking points fully covered.

“So, you don’t eat any meat,” Maher naturally asks next. “Well, I’m a lazy vegetarian,” says Duchovny, to which Maher responds that they’re the “same kind” of vegetarians. Laughs ensue and the whole issue is couched in being vegetarian when it’s convenient, that they don’t want offend people who serve meat, etc, etc.

Hey guys … You can politely decline to eat meat and not offend anyone. It’s true.

If this was framed as a discussion about trying to move to a more humane diet while not fully being there yet (and any meat not consumed is helpful IMHO), then this would be fine. However, to state at the outset they’re “big animal rights guys,” rail about the ills of factory farming, then simply laugh off the fact that they don’t actually embrace these talking points? Well, it’s kind of like claiming to be science-based (including staunchly and often insultingly atheist) while also being anti-vaccine. In other words, Maher comes off as having strong convictions, until it’s inconvenient to stick to them.

My problem isn’t with whether they’re vegetarians or not, rather that they start off talking a great game and reveal themselves as hypocrites without batting an eye.

In Closing

Like many relationships, it’s complicated. We love animals, but we’ve been using and abusing them for our benefit for so long, what we often think of as a partnership ends up with a clear winner and loser. I don’t really differentiate much between a dog, elephant or bull. They’re all self-aware and they can all be terrified and feel pain. When it comes to hurting them for our benefit, I simply can’t see why how we assign value is so arbitrary.