In this post I’m going to highlight a few topics around animals and death which will be explored in more detail in later posts.
‘Animals become extinct. They are also killed, gassed, electrocuted, exterminated, hunted, butchered, vivisected, shot, trapped, snared, run over, lethally injected, culled, sacrificed, slaughtered, executed, euthanized, destroyed, put down, put to sleep, and even, perhaps, murdered’
– Animal Studies Group
One of our most common interaction with animals, is through death. We kill them to eat, to wear, for leisure and yet we also distance ourselves from animal death. We call dead pigs pork, dead cows become beef, we take our pets to vets to have them put down in a clinical setting. This isn’t all that surprising given how much we distance ourselves from human death – we get the body ushered off as soon as possible to be tended to by professionals and so on.
When talking about animal deaths, it’s important to note that, like in life, animals are not equal in death. There are some which die without comment and others which we mourn and grieve for like kin. We accept some animal deaths through wilful ignorance and justify others by putting human needs above animals. Diana Donald noted that ‘perhaps the absolute basic distinction is between those kinds of killing that are wilfully invisible, removed from the consciousness of the perpetrators and excluded from the sight of anyone else, and those that are in some way commemorated or represented?’
We have selective empathy and that can be turned on or turned off depending on how we categorise animals; Are they useful to us? Are they wild or tamed? Are they physically similar to us? One simple example of this animals that are killed on the roads. The reaction to roadkill versus the reaction to pets being hit by cars. Another example to think about is the difference between swatting a fly and kicking a dog.
The majority of the animals we kill for meat are invisible. They live and die out of sight, behind closed doors. These are animals which only exist so they can die, for us. And yet in contrast with these invisible, distant animals, we are living incredibly intimately with a different group of animals, namely our pets. We share our houses and even our beds with our furry friends and this intimacy is reflected in how we feel when our beloved pets die.
The idea of who is grievable is cultural specific. In the UK today, most people see pets as uniquely grievable within the animal kingdom whereas in Japan, ritual mourning for animals has been going on for thousands of years and was necessary to appease the spirits of the animals they hunted. This respect for animals and the rituals around the kill is found in other hunting communities and often is part of thanking the animal for giving their life.
As is clear, killing animals doesn’t happen in a bubble, it happens in a society with particular attitudes and perceptions of the animals. Quite often this is a society or culture in which man has dominion over nature and killing animals reinforces this hierarchy. Hunting, and then killing, can bring with it status and thus the act of killing is imbued with meaning.
“It is possible to argue that the killing of animals deconstructs, redefines, or reshapes the social order between humans and animals… in the case of human-animal relations, the human need and ability to kill animals and the general acceptance or tolerance of the violence of killing is fundamental to the creation of the social order between these sets of creatures; such killing constructs, defines, and shapes this order.”
– Garry Marvin
So, that’s a bit of a taste of what I’m hoping to look at in the next few posts and hopefully it gives you some ideas and concepts to mull over. I will specifically be looking at who is grievable and how we mourn for (some) animals as well as any other rabbit holes I fall down!
(Also, an apology if this isn’t as coherent as normal, or has mistakes, I’m not on top form so it’s not been as carefully edited as normal.)