Listening to animals

“Some people talk to animals.  Not many listen though. That’s the problem.”
– A A Milne, Winnie the Pooh

“If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Until the lion has its own storyteller, tales of the lion hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Zimbabwean proverb

John Hollander once wrote that “we name animals, but if any of them name us – dolphins or gorrilas, perhaps – the system has yet to be represented”.  Well, wild elephants do have a word for human being, and it indicates danger.  However, his comment echoes a long thought, general assumption, that humans are the only animals which have a language, or at least that our language is vastly superior.

Language, more so than base communication, has been used as a marker of humanness but the nature of animal communication is so different to ours that we haven’t been able to understand or translate them and hence are unable to understand the complexity.  What we have long failed to accept or consider is that communication and language is going to be geared to life experiences –  for example, if you live in the sea, you need to communicate in a way that can be heard in water.

Whenever humans have tried to teach animals to speak, it has been trying to make them speak as we do.  Human language is seen as the gold standard and this approach has inevitably failed because we have different physiological systems and are not designed to make the same vocalisations. We also fail to think about non audible communications.  If we want to talk to animals, we should listen to the communication that they are sharing.  Animals are talking all around us, we just don’t hear them.

“The research, though still at an early stage, does show that animals communicate, that they do so in a more complex way than we previously believed and that certain characteristics in different species correspond to human language.”
– Eva Meijer

Prairie dog communication has been studied and translated in a way that many other animal languages haven’t been.  Their language is made up from verbs, nouns and adverbs and they can use their words in new combinations to reflect new threats.  It is highly sophisticated and is complemented by body language.  And of course, it’s not just us and prairie dogs who have complex languages.  Whales, octopuses, bees and many birds have a grammar system.

“Animal languages sometimes also have complex structures, can be symbolic and abstract, and can refer to situations in the past or the future, or beyond the reach of animals in some other way.”
– Eva Meijer

Chimps use numerous gestures and vocalisations to communicate – by 2015, 66 vocalisations and 88 gestures had been mapped to compile a dictionary.  For example, nibbling on a leaf is an invitation to flirt!

Elephants are thought to have an extensive language which can express information about emotions, intentions and physical characteristics.  A zoo born elephant called Batyr sadly never met another elephant and possibly driven by loneliness, he learnt to say over 20 sentences which included swearing and ‘Batyr is good’.  He could change the sound of his name depending on his mood and as well as mimicking humans, he could also mimic the sounds of dogs and mice.

But of course, communication is not just made through vocalisations.  Animals communicate through body language, behaviour, scent and chemicals.  Hyenas communicate by making use of scent signals from their anal glands.  Its well known that dogs communicate in the same way and for some animals, urine and excrement are a way of sharing information.  For example, wombat poo (which is cubed) provides details about the individual including sex and whether a female is in heat.

“Colour in fish is believed to be a complex language that humans still know little about… The mantis shrimp communicates using colours and has twelve colour channels, while humans have only three.”
– Meijer

Honeybees communicate through dance and chemical signals.  Whilst it’s fairly common knowledge that their dance passes on information about which direction the pollen is, it can also give details about distance, how much nectar there is and dance to decide where the best location is for a new nest.  The latter involves telling the rest of the hive how good a new spot is – the better the location, the longer the dance. 

Sharks make the water move in certain ways to communicate with other sharks, as well as using sound, scent and electrical signals. 

When it comes to bats, we know they make use of echolocation to navigate and that these high pitched squeaks are too high for us to hear.  In addition to those, they make other vocalisations that we cannot hear without the help of technology.  Now that equipment has improved, it has been discovered that their language is complicated.  It’s actually thought that bats are the mammals with the most complex vocal communicators, after humans.

It’s not just bats that have vocalisations out of our hearing range.  Mice, moths, grasshoppers and other insects all have their own communication which until recently, we were oblivious to.

“The more we learn about animal communication, the more complex it appears to be… Instead of defining whether non-human animal forms of communication fit into the frame of what humans define as ‘language’, we should instead pay attention to what they are saying and begin investigating what language is and could be from there.”
– Meijer

Further reading

“I’m sorry, I can’t… I’m hibernating…”

This post was inspired by a conversation with someone, you know who you are – thank you!

I’ve written before about how plants and animals survive the conditions that winter brings, with one well known strategy being hibernation.

A brief period of suspended animation – generally less than a day – is called torpor and researchers are finding that often, what we think of as hibernation, is not the winter long deep sleep that we thought of it as.  Instead, hibernation appears to often be made up of a string of periods of torpor, interspersed with periods of non-torpor which seem to be used to sleep.  Brain waves have been monitored to find this out and suggests that the periods of torpor are actually periods of sleep deprivation.

During torpor, the animal’s metabolism slows down, their body temperature falls significantly, their breathing rate plummets and so does their heart rate.  In bats, for example, the latter can fall from 400 beats per minute down to 11!

But what about humans?  Can we hibernate?  I know I’d love to…

Before we get into the physiological side of things, let’s consider why humans don’t hibernate.  Firstly, our ancestors evolved in tropical climates and so didn’t need to adapt to deal with cold winters and a seasonal dearth of food.  Secondly, when we did migrate to colder climates, we developed alternative methods of survival – buildings, fire, clothes, hunting and farming.

Moving on to the biological side of things… A key reason why we can’t hibernate all winter is that our hearts don’t work if they get too cold; they will stop if body temperature falls below 28 degrees Celsius.  Clearly this is unhelpful when reduction in body temperature is an important characteristic of hibernation – some animals can survive with a body temperature of just 1 degree…

Whilst some people cite our size as a reason we can’t hibernate:

“The fact that large mammals such as bears and even primates, such as the fat-tailed dwarf lemur of Madagascar, can hibernate means that theoretically humans aren’t too big or energy-hungry to enter torpor. Nor does our evolutionary origin prevent us from doing so, as hibernating animals have been found widely across all types of mammal.”
Vladyslav Vyazovskiy

However, most hibernating creatures are small – weighing on average 70g – and the exceptions to this, such as bears, don’t tend to hibernate as deeply and their body temperature doesn’t fall as significantly.

In the run up to hibernation, animals must eat a significant amount and in humans this would result in thickening of the artery walls and would lead to heart disease.  Further, spending more than a week in bed means that human muscles begin to atrophy and blood clots start to form, putting us at risk of other kinds of awful things such as strokes.

And of course there is the issue of waste.  In animals that hibernate, urination and defecation are essentially halted, sometimes through re-absorption which allows for maximum use of nutrients.  Humans cannot do this…

Finally, I want to offer just one more reason why we are not physiologically adapted to hibernate.  Those animals that do hibernate, remove white blood cells from their blood for the hibernating period, storing them in lymph nodes.  This leaves them incredibly vulnerable to immune attacks but it does means that when the body begins to warm up, they will not experience general inflammation.  Humans cannot do this and so the warming up period would put us at risk of kidney damage amongst other things.

So, things aren’t looking good for human hibernation… Having said that, research is being carried out into torpor states, primarily for use in medical situations as well as in space travel.

But what about claims that people have hibernated… Firstly, based on the evidence above, it seems unlikely that they have truly, scientifically hibernated.  Secondly, we may not actually want to hibernate, given that it actually causes sleep deprivation and many more serious issues.

“There are no known cases of natural human hibernation, according to [Kelly] Drew. But she has heard anecdotes about hibernation-like experiences in her research, including the practice of “lotska,” in which Russian peasants a century ago would supposedly endure the harsh winter by awaking only once per day for 6 months to consume a small amount of bread and ale.”
Ben Panko

A key reference to the Russian peasants hibernating comes from the British Medical Journal in 1900:

“At the first fall of snow the whole family gathers round the stove, lies down, ceases to wrestle with the problems of human existence, and quietly goes to sleep. Once a day every one wakes up to eat a piece of hard bread, of which an amount sufficient to last six months has providently been baked in the previous autumn. When the bread has been washed down with a draught of water, everyone goes to sleep again. The members of the family take it in turn to watch and keep the fire alight. After six months of this reposeful existence the family wakes up, shakes itself, goes out to see if the grass is growing, and by-and-by sets to work at summer tasks.”

This was said to be a response to conditions which were tantamount to chronic famine and, not having the resources to survive the year, they would use a hibernation like approach in order to eek those resources out.

An episode of QI referenced a group of French peasants who would engage in a hibernation type sleep over winter but all my research into the topic brings me back to the same author.  I’m not disputing the factualness of this, but I did want to mention it as this is how urban myths get spread across the internet – one person says something and it gets repeated and repeated without any corroborating evidence.

“Economists and bureaucrats who ventured out into the countryside after the Revolution were horrified to find that the workforce disappeared between fall and spring. The fields were deserted from Flanders to Provence. Villages and even small towns were silent, with barely a column of smoke to reveal a human presence. As soon as the weather turned cold, people all over France shut themselves away and practised the forgotten art of doing nothing at all for months on end.”
– Graham Robb, The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War

As much as the idea of hibernation sounds appealing, I’m now thinking I just need to schedule in some duvet days to get through the dark nights and the cold days…

Links:

(in)accessibility and nature

I will be talking primarily about access from a mobility perspective in this post because that is my main experience.  There are so many ways in which health and disability can affect engagement with nature and I do hope to touch on that in another post.  In the meantime, if you want to share your own experiences, please do so in the comments.

As I have discussed, there is a privilege with which many people view and experience nature.  There is an unspoken assumption that nature means somewhere “out there”, away from humans, somewhere that could be described as wilderness.  By creating that distance, we not only put ourselves outside of nature but we make it impossible for some people to engage with nature.

Immediately my mind goes to those of us who can’t walk, or who don’t navigate the world in the same way as the majority.  Some of us require carefully cultivated paths which regulate our experience, inevitably some might say.  But is that not because an able bodied world has determined that we don’t need the same access as others?  That by adding a short circular route near an information centre the tick box exercise is complete.  That we don’t need anything more.  That being disabled is a uniform experience and thus we want a uniform way of being in the world, and by extension in nature.

Hidden and undiscovered or rarely used places – that tend to be less maintained and hence are less accessible – are often considered to be more natural than tarmacked or wooden decking paths.  This means I cannot truly experience nature in the eyes of those people but I know that this isn’t true.  I experience nature deeply in my own way, perhaps more so because of my disability and limitations. Of course, there are other reasons people may not be able to get off the beaten track including where they live, finances, transport, lack of information and so on.  Race, gender and class all have roles to play as well and of course these barriers need to be broken down too.

Another common narrative about getting into nature is that of getting away from technology.  If I am leaving my house, I have to either be pushed by a carer or go in my electric wheelchair, with the latter being much more comfortable and more independent.  Technology is not antithetical to nature.  Like everything in this world it’s about how we use it.  Technology can help us to identify bird calls or trees, put names to the flowers we’re seeing and, in that way, can help to more deeply engage us with the nature we are experiencing.  Taking photos with cameras and phones can help us see more closely and help us to slow down.

A third thread of the discussion around getting into nature is that of how easy and simple it is to go out in nature and how foolish we are if we don’t.  Again, an example from my own life.  Say I have found somewhere suitable to go and be in nature, somewhere accessible, with parking so we can take my wheelchair and not worry about the battery dying.  Say all of those things are sorted and then it rains.  Just a little rain, no big deal; the words of many people who think nature is easy.  We whip out my wheelchair waterproof, wrangle it over me and the chair and in doing so I’ve got wet.  Assuming no more water leaks in, which it always does, I will still get chilled and probably ill as a result.  The same is true in winter, even on dry days – being in a wheelchair, not moving, means you feel so much colder than those around you and for many people with physical health issues, this has greater consequences.

This is to say nothing of all the mental work that goes into finding somewhere suitable to go in the first place.  There is a dearth of information about accessible nature out there.  It is improving but you can still get better information about where to go for a romantic stroll on the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust website than you can for wheelchair suitable walks.  If you filter by the latter, you will get zero results, even though I know at least a few of their sites are wheelchair accessible…

But, despite all of this, there are some very easy ways to make the nature ‘out there’ more inclusive.  Adding edges to the paths means visually impaired people who are using white canes can identify the borders of them more easily.  Replacing locked gates with radar locks.  Making kissing gates a little bigger.  Even just providing all of this information online and through other methods helps immensely.  Styles with spaces for guide dogs to walk under.  Adding wooden board walks.  Adding a ramp into a bird hide.  Adding benches every so many metres and having a map to show where they are.  Adding a gap into a cliff fence at wheelchair height.  These are not difficult changes, they just require things to be done differently.  Instead of repeating what has always been done, an open mind can come up with easy ways to make the nature ‘out there’ more accessible to everyone.

New networks for nature: time for nature

The past few days I’ve been at the 11th annual New Networks for Nature event and it has been amazing! It was in York for the first time and that meant I was able to go without too much stress and physical health impact. The venue was mostly accessible – the internal ramp was apparently broken so I had to go outside to get between levels to use an external ramp. That was ok although I did get rained on heavily but at least there was an option. Outside of the main venue, there were I think three venues for other aspects and two out of three of those were accessible. In order to manage my energy and pain levels, I wasn’t planning on joining those events but it’s nice to know I could have done a couple.

Anyway, venue accessibility aside, the speakers were wonderful, engaging and so diverse! There was so much information and it was really well communicated – rare is the event where all speakers are engaging! I’m going to mention some, possibly many, of my personal highlights but the entire agenda was fantastic and you can find that online – if you are interested in nature then I’d recommend having a look as many of the speakers have books available.

We kicked off Thursday night with a wine tasting, hosted by Ryedale Vinyards who had some lovely white wine. This was followed by an introduction and welcome from Amy-Jane Beer and Ben Hoare. Then there was a mix of music and readings and then I took an early leave so I could face the early start on Friday!

Friday and Saturday were jam-packed days, with scattered coffee breaks and lunch which allowed me to have a bit of down time and to compress all the wonderful things I’d heard. It also meant I got to visit the Fox Lane Books stall and part with a chunk of cash…

As an aside, I’ve met Fox Lane Books at a number of events this year and they always have a fantastic array of relevant books, including those of the people speaking at the event.

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I can’t mention all of the speakers as this would become an epic post but if any of you happen to read this, you were fantastic!

Robert E Fuller kicked off Friday by talking about his wildlife photography, painting and the inspiring camera system he has set up in his garden. We were honoured to see some footage as well and his entire set up is inspirational and perhaps if I win the lottery I’ll seek his advice and create my own version!

As the theme was time, we had a session about nature in deep time which looked at the idea of what is natural in Britain from a deep time perspective and how the time frame we focus on affects our idea of native and alien species. For example, the ubiquitous brown hare, probably arrived in the 2nd century BC. This session also looked at ice age art and past woodlands.

There was a session about activism which saw a woman only stage – apparently the overall conference had 50% of female speakers which is great! And yes, I’m starting to reuse my superlatives but it was such a good conference…. We heard from Ruth Peacey, a filmmaker, Sally Goldsmith, a poet and campaigner involved in the Sheffield trees campaigning, a Hatti Owens who is a ClientEarth lawyer. They gave three very different approaches to fighting for change and I think that is really vital. We see a lot of media coverage of traditional protests and marches but they aren’t accessible to everyone. I know I feel that I am not being a ‘good activist’ because I can’t engage in those activities but it was a great reminder that activism has different strands and that you need all these threads to come together to create a strong rope that can enact change.

The Jewel of York, or the tansy beetle, gave us a bit of history of this incredibly rare creature and charted it’s rise from obscurity to a conservation icon which can now be found as a mural on the side of a building in York. This was followed by three very different children’s writers discussing using nature in children’s books. Then after a coffee break, we got the joy of a comedy session!

Simon Watt, founder of The Ugly Animal Appreciation Society, Helen Pilcher and Hugh Warwick made us laugh before we headed off to a gin tasting with Sloe Motion. It was a wonderful way to end the first day.

Saturday was equally as interesting and included a session about “the tiny majority”; flies, bees and crickets in particular. In part it was about the role these smaller, often overlooked animals have in our world, but it was also about celebrating them for themselves. Erica McAlister, a true fly enthusiast, spread her joy and interest for these little critters. We often see flies as a generic species and in doing so, pay no attention to their individual wonders. Without a certain species of fly, we would have no chocolate. Ditto for black pepper and many other things we take for granted. They clean up the planet, they recycle waste, they pollinate, they eat the things which eat our crops, and they inspire technology.

A session turned our eyes to the uplands, space where gods once dwelled and humans dreamed of, rarely visiting. Today of course we visit much more of the land but the land still holds it’s secrets. Prof John Altringham shared with us some research which reveals the vast numbers of bats which live under the surface of the uplands, in the caves. They have also been able to work out what makes a cave attractive to bats! This session also included Dr Isla Hodgson talking about conservation conflict between different groups in respect to the grouse shooting debate and the factors which underlie such conflicts.

The New Directions for Nature Writing was another diverse session with Katharine Norbury, Anita Sethi, Zakiya McKenzie and Richard Smyth. Despite discussing intersectionality, gender, race and class, the word disability was missing. And this, for me, reflects the barriers that disabled people often face when engaging nature more broadly. Inevitably nature writing reflects those people who are able to “go into” what we typically think of as “nature”. This is not to do a disservice to the speakers, they were great and made a lot of relevant comments.

However, I felt it absolutely necessary to make a comment. My hand shot up faster than it probably should given my shoulder has a propensity to dislocate! I made a point of saying the word disability and went on to say that one of the most powerful experience I’ve had with nature was when I could barely get out of bed for six months. And how even though it was a powerful experience, the image of nature portrayed in Nature Writing and writing about nature more broadly, made it feel harder to own it.

It is because of this that I am writing more and more about nature and disability and I have a pile of notes about this which I plan to spin into a series of blog posts in the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime, remember that you don’t have to “go out into nature” to connect with nature:

I’d like to leave you with an image from a couple of years ago:

I am laying in bed, incredibly ill.  Every time I move I am violently sick.  But my bedroom window is open and through the net curtains I can hear a blackbird singing.  When I last made it into my kitchen, I saw a female blackbird repeatedly gathering nesting materials and flying up to a vent in a wall.  I do not know, but I like to think, that this is the male who was with her.

A wood pigeon coos the repetitive ‘coo coooo coo cu cu’ and I am reminded of the two, with their soft grey jackets and peach breasts, that perch on my fence, day after day.  Occasionally interacting, often just coexisting quietly like an old couple in companionable silence sitting on a bench in the sun.

I cannot leave my bed, I can barely sit up to look out the window, but I am nature and I am with nature.

The lifelike dead

When looking at pet obituaries and pet cemeteries, we see the practices of mourning human death transferred to animals, especially pets.  This can be seen as extending personhood to what may in other circumstances be deemed a possession.  Taking this the other way, we also see death practices which solidify the idea of pet as possession, for example taxidermy.  It would not even be considered appropriate in the western world (is there anywhere it would be? Hit me up, I’m intrigued!) to taxidermy a human loved one.

Taxidermy of pets likely originates from the Victorians when taxidermy more broadly was popular.  Stuffed animals were found in homes, hunting lodges and museums and to some extent were considered educational.  Taxidermy of pets turns a once living creature that was loved into an object, and often the people wanting to memorialise their pet would be the same people who’d argue that the pet had some degree of personhood.

“It is hard to imagine that the bereaved owners who arrange for their pets to be preserved in this way act from anything other than grief for and love of the animal they have lost; it can be equally hard to contemplate the finished product without discomfort.”
– How We Mourn Our Dead Pets

Taxidermy has historically been used for museum specimens – as a representative of an entire species – or as a way of marking human prowess when it comes to hunting.  In neither case is the life of the individual celebrated by the act of taxidermy and in both cases, a statement is made about man’s dominion over nature.  In hunting this is clear but in museum specimens, it is about the scientific knowledge that we gain and thus by gaining this we label ourselves above other species.

However, modern taxidermy is bucking the trend a bit and is more about the individual animal, or at least can be, especially when we’re looking at pet taxidermy.  Some taxidermists won’t take pets because they are challenging – customers are hoping for a simulacrum of their loved once and putting the appearance of life into a lifeless body is a big ask.

“Instead of representing humans dominating animals, performances of modern taxidermy show humans with animals, engaged in the taxidermic process as a way to work through and even critique several of the paradigms through which humans typically engage with animals.  Rather than forget or efface the lives of animals, then, modern taxidermy can facilitate the work of memory by emphasising an animal’s death and the particularity of the animal who died.”
Mourning Animals: Rituals and Practices Surrounding Animal Death, edited by Margo de Mello

Modern technology can take taxidermy and raise it, with the process of freeze drying which alleges to give a lifelike experience in a way that taxidermy cannot.  In the process of freeze drying, organs and eyes are removed, the corpse is posed and then freeze dried… And then you get to own your beloved forever!  And own it is, this is not a relationship any more, you cannot argue that it is anything further than ownership.  Your pet becomes your possession.  It is without doubt now an object.  I do wonder what happens when you run out of space for the freeze dried fido, or you pass on and your children decide to get rid of it…

There is another option if you aren’t ready to let go of your beloved pet and that is cloning.  It’s incredibly expensive, exploits grieve and won’t even ensure your “new” pet has the same personality as the one that’s died, or even the same markings.  It is also a cruel practice as the clone has to be incubated within a living animal and it reinforces the idea of pets as property.  When your tv breaks, you buy a new one.  When your dog dies, you get a clone.

“Bioethicist Jessica Pierce articulates the problem with seeing dogs as mere objects in her New York Times op-ed and notes that dog cloning “reinforces the status of dogs as things to buy and collect, and as sentimental tokens…  Dogs are valued for our feelings toward them, rather than for who they are as individuals.”
Jessica Baron

Whilst I understand the temptation to hold onto your pet for that bit longer, some of these options do make me wonder if they are a way to avoid facing the death.

Links

Pet cemeteries

In 1886 a vet in New York State offered to bury his client’s dog and that would be the start of the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery.  Hartsdale continues to operate today and is the resting ground of thousands of buried animals (including a lion) and shattered ashes.  It is often seen as a better way of honouring your pet than what would essentially be getting rid of them as if they were waste.  Burial in a cemetery also gives space for death ritual and mourning in a more formal way than burial in the back garden.  It also means you can revisit your beloved pet if you move house.

Over time the nature of the burials have become more elaborate.  Headstones can be more moving and less constrained that those for humans, there is less tradition guiding them and this frees up space for expression, it also opens up space to ask things like do you gift your pet your surname and if you do or don’t do that what does that say about the role of the pet in your family unit

Over the Atlantic, in London, we find the Hyde Park Pet Cemetery from the 19th century.  In the same era a pet cemetery was established in Paris.  During this time, the status of domestic animals grew and in turn so did the desire to commemorate them in death.

When Hyde Park Pet Cemetery opened it was illegal to bury animal remains in public spaces, meaning that most animal bodies, including pets, were left out with the rubbish or burnt.  This was starting to butt up against the idea of pets having more value than other animals.  Hyde Park was not run for profit and was almost solely for dogs, closing in 1902 as it was full.  Since then other animal cemeteries have popped up including one in Ilford which has memorials for individual animals deemed to have been heroes during the Second World War and the remains of thousands killed by their human ‘companions’ at the start of the war.

Of course, whilst pet cemeteries may be a relatively new idea, burial of animals is not.  It is possibly the most traditional way to deal with animal death, with the oldest known pet burial being 14,000 years old.  Evidence shows that cats and dogs have long been buried and it seems to be that this has been intentional and carried out because of a connection with the humans who buried them.  In the classical world, dogs were found buried with gravestones that carried touching messages, much as in the pet cemeteries of today.  More recently, urbanisation made burial harder as demand for land increased and many people didn’t have their own space they could use.

“Spatial limitations, as well as societal aspirations and emotional needs, were the key factors in the emergence of the contemporary pet cemetery… After the Second World War, however, pet cemeteries sprang up around the United States and Western Europe.”
– Michal Piotr Pregowski

Animal cemeteries are “a place of visible death” (Hilda Kean) which offers a role in the grief process akin to that of pet obituaries and today they can be found across the world.  There are about 700 across the US, about 75 in the UK and in 2009, the Australian Yellow Pages listed 138 pet cemeteries and crematoriums.  You can even visit the graves of celebrity animals at Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park.

Links

Pet obituaries

Pet obituaries are a new phenomenon and are not free from contention.  They highlight the shifting status of pets and push against the idea of personhood and objects.

“A pet obituary raises multiple issues about the “appropriate” objects of mourning, of the “right” to mourn publicly, and of the ways that public mourning legitimates social relationships.”
– Jane Desmond

Obituaries were once reserved for rich, powerful, white men and whilst this has changed somewhat, pet obits seem to be, for some people, crossing the line.  Pet obits have been met with derision and mockery and this revealed that for some people, the mourning of pets is undignified.  Perhaps this is because it defies the hierarchy of value which is often at play in human-animal thinking.

“As one commenter noted in regard to the death notice of 10 year old German shepherd, Annie in the Las Cruces Sun-News, “What is this world coming to? I am as much a dog or pet lover as the next person, but I’m appalled to see a dog in the obituaries with people. I’m disgusted that you would think this is OK. Maybe your loved ones are on the same level as animals, but mine are not.””
mysendoff.com

Additionally, those mocking them, often see pet obits as overly emotional – the realm of crazy cat ladies – and thus there is a gendered aspect at play as well.

“Pet obituaries articulate an extended notion of kinship obligations and recognition by publicly recognizing this bond with non human animals… pet obits, which publicly commemorate a life and make that life part of the historical record, provide one of the test cases of this shifting positioning of the ‘pet’ in relation to human companions.  As with humans, pet obits assign value to a life, define its highlights, extol socially validated accomplishments, and serve as models of living.”
– Jane Desmond

By extending family to include pets, we are challenging the very idea of what a family is, something that has been changing for many decades and now includes single parent families and same sex couples.  For those against these newer models of family, adding pets into the mix might be one more aspect to push against.

Other arguments against pet obits include the idea that their inclusion would insult the human dead who appeared alongside them. Another is that obits have a certain form – they are a space to note the death of a person and to highlight their accomplishments.  With pets, we cannot really do the latter.  We cannot say that a pet graduated from a certain university or was really proud of their contribution to the world.  At best, we have pets who have carried out a heroic act or have worked through their life as a service dog etc.  Inherent in this idea is that animals, even pets, have less value than humans do.

“Beyond the challenge of translating the obit form from human to animal life is the issue of social value – of social worth – and this is an even more fundamental dividing line.”
– Jane Desmond

Humans are considered to be of social worth simply by being human, a lottery of birth, and this is generally only extended to animals who have done something heroic, and is only really extended to pets as opposed to wild or food animals.

In addition to formal obituaries in newspapers, there are less official spaces online which serve a similar function.  They are websites where a bereaved owner can post about their lost pet, knowing that in this semi-public semi-private space, their grief will be heard by like minded people.  Having your grief listened to gives it a legitimacy which isn’t always there in the ‘real’ world.  They tend to be places where humans are seen as survivors of loss, not just an owner, and as such are places of sympathy and understanding.  In contrast to this, the formal obits are public and there is a sense of exposure and vulnerability with that – people who view pets very differently can comment and criticise.

Creating a formal or informal obit can be part of the grieving process and in that respect, there isn’t a clear difference between the death of humans and animals.  There is merit in taking time to remember and celebrate your loved one and I think those deriding the idea of pet obituaries do need to consider this.  Those who want to write a pet obit, may want to think about where this is published, especially if they aren’t open to the potential of negative reactions.  I think this is where informal obituary websites shine.  They are a space to be heard by like minded people, to feel understood and to feel like you can grieve.  In this respect, pet obituaries are similar to pet cemeteries in that they mark a line between those people who feel compelled to (semi) publicly mourn and those who don’t.  Pet cemeteries will be the topic of my next animal and death blog post.

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Animals and death

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.)

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A history of seeing animals, part two

Part one

Christianity had a huge impact on how some parts of the world saw animals.  The teaches claimed that God had given man the right to rule over animals, that they were made for us and each animal had a specific purpose.  The bestiaries of the middle ages encompass this way of thinking.  Animals were used to teach religious principles and morality through illustrated lessons.

In medieval times, we have people living alongside their animals, often farmers sharing their home with their stock.  This meant they knew each animal individually and valued them because of their contribution.  This type of relationship had been the case for thousands of years before but would soon be changed.

When the black plague hit Europe, animals were looked at with suspicion.  Scapegoats were needed to quell the panic and try and set the world back in order.  In particular, wild and potentially diseased animals were seen as dangerous and were often killed as a way of cleansing the community.  It was around this time that we saw animals being put on trial for crimes, in a serious way, just as humans were.

Renaissance thinking brought a more scientific way of looking at the world and with it, nature became something to be investigated, to be put under a microscope.  Again this was looking at animals as something that were here for us, as instruments, a world view that kept humans in the centre of the universe.

In the 1600s, Descartes presented animals as equipment, as mechanical objects that don’t feel pain and this was another way of rationalising poor treatment.

Moving forward, we find the Enlightenment playing host to conversations and debates about animals as philosophical and ethical subjects.  This was fuelled by urbanisation and commodification of animals, the increase of print media and the popularity of vivisection in science.  Around the same time, farmers began moving animals out of their home, putting distance between man and beast which would of course have an impact on how animals were viewed.  The urbanisation and industrialisation of England would take the urban rural divide and amp it up.  The gulf between human and animals would grow and animals would increasingly be seen as commodities and would thus be treated badly.

By the 18th century, controlled breeding was happening which would change the very species themselves, more so than domestication had, into the most efficient object for our use.  Animals were being turned into the food machines that Descartes saw them as.  Around this time, it was also being argued that domestication was good for animals – they were protected from predators, given a reliable and regular source of food and butchering them was an act of kindness that prevented suffering.

“Farm animals became statistics rather than individuals, which took into account their marketability, the level of meat production, and the density of customer populations.  By the end of the eighteenth century, farm animals were mathematized.”
– Brian Fagan

Up until this point in time, animals determined how humans lived, now humans were determining how animals lived, and even how they grew.  The depersonalisation of animals was increasing at a pace as rapid as industrialisation.

Darwin’s work on evolution, whilst it took a long time to take hold, also changed how we looked at animals.  For some people, it confirmed that (western) humans are the highest evolutionary point, for others it connected us to (some) animals.

During the 1700s and 1800s, pet keeping was becoming more common.  But class mattered.  At first pet keeping was for the upper classes whilst the animals of lower classes were looked down upon.  By the 19th century, pets were much more widespread and this brought with it another change in how we see animals.  It started to be accepted that animals, at least pets, had personalities and were individuals that should be treated well.  Juxtaposed against this increase in pet keeping was an increase in big game hunting which would symbolise dominating nature, conquering the wild and imperialism.

The reputation of Britain also changed over the last few hundred years.  In the 1700s we were perceived as being cruel to animals, as having an indifference towards the suffering of animals and generally thought to be harsh towards them.  By the end of the 1800s, treating animals well had become part of what it meant to be British.  For a while, during the wars, animal kindness took a bit of a backseat but would be revived in the 1960s and 70s.

Today we seem to care about animals as individuals, as status symbols – such as #animalselfie – and sometimes from a conservation perspective.  However, we also still very much see a divide between humans and other animals, with humans being the superior side of this.  This is having, and will continue to have, devastating impacts on the world we live in.  Unless we change how we see non-human animals and nature, sustainable change will not be made.

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A history of seeing animals, part one

“The kinship between humans and animals has never been static, having been at the mercy of changing social norms and fleeting trends… human economic, cultural, and demographic factors play a major role in how we perceive of, and treat, animals.  So do age, education, ethnicity, occupation, religion, and sex.”
– Brian Fagan

As we saw when we looked at bestiality, how we view animals and think of them is time and culturally specific.  As we are at time when it seems clear we need to rethink our relationship with nature, a quick glance back seemed useful.

Our ancestors developed an awareness and understanding of the animals around them, predators and prey.  At least seventy thousand years ago, human cognitive abilities improved and so did hunting skills and technology.  This would be a move that changed how humans interacted with their world.

Hunters would treat prey as a living being, often seeing them as sacrificing themselves for humans, and thus we treated them with respect.  In order to successfully hunt, and hence survive, they had to know their prey.  They had to watch them and understand them, they had to know when not to approach and how to make their prey less fearful.  This creates an intimate relationship between predator and prey and we can see this in the cave art and in the stories that we told each other about the world.  Importantly, humans and animals were equal and there was no hard line between humans and other animals.  In this culture, individual wealth wasn’t a concept in the way it would become with domestication.

“Domestication changed the world, it’s landscapes, animals – and humanity.  About ten thousand years ago – the precise date will never be known – numerous deliberate acts, such as the corralling of young ungulates, turned animal-human relationships on end… Humans were now the masters, so the role of animals changed.  They became objects of individual ownership, tangible symbols of wealth, and powerful social instruments.”
– Brain Fagan

Domestication marks a shift in attention from dead animals to live ones, from communal resources to personal ones.  Its thought that dogs started to be domestication around 15,000 BCE and by about 10,000 BCE, other species followed.  In particular goats, sheep, pigs, cattle, donkeys, horses and camels.

“There were advantages on both sides in these history-changing partnerships.  What were now farm animals, bred in captivity, acquired better grazing and foraging carefully orchestrated by deliberate herding, and security from predators.  Humans acquired predictable meat supplies, milk, and a whole range of valuable by-products – everything from hides and fur to horn and sinew.”
– Brian Fagan

Dogs helped our ancestors to hunt, they offered guard functions, they may even have pulled loads and would become companions in their own right, as we are familiar with today.

Through domestication of sheep and goats, humans were able to settle in an area.  Livestock would provide meat, milk, skins and wool and would be a predictable and more reliable resource.  It also allowed humans to claim a piece of land as theirs, and this land would pass from generation to generation.  This was the time at which animals became more than just resources, they became a symbol and they linked generations.  The size of your herd was a sign of your wealth and thus your status.  Where previously animals were not owned, they were prey for hunters, now animals were property and with this came changes to human existence.  Rules around inheritance arose and this meant marriage ties became more important.

Around 6000 years ago, humans hitched a plough to an ox and established the first source of animal power for food production.  This meant it was possible to create surplus food which meant less time needed to be spent working and created leisure time and a social division of labour.

Then, around 4000 BCE, cities were established and grew which in turn meant a increased demand for goats and sheep.  This would lead to increased flock sizes which would have its own impact on how we saw and related to livestock.  In more rural areas, farmers and herders knew their animals by name, maintaining a close relationship but in more urban areas, the relationship between human and beast was changing.  The demand for meat and animal products increased and in response, so did the size of herds.  This led to depersonalisation, and seeing livestock as commodities rather than living creatures.

By 2500 BCE, pack animals were on the scene.  This involved the donkey, the horse and later the camel and would allow humans to travel over long distances, carry commodities for trade, supported armies and so on.  Areas became linked, empires grew and the world became more interconnected.

“Donkeys have worked alongside people for more than eight thousand years – but “alongside” actually means in the background, for they have always been inconspicuous players in history.  Plodding asses carried food and water, exotic luxuries, and essential commodities.”
– Brian Fagan

Despite the huge role they have played in our history, we still tend to see donkeys as stubborn beasts of burden.  As pack animals were often used as a caravan, they were treated as a group rather than individuals, and relationships are between individuals, thus it was easier to mistreat or overuse the donkeys.  This highlights a difference in how we have seen donkeys and horses – humans ride horses but tend to use donkeys to carry things, the former is a one to one relationship, the latter isn’t.  Thus there tended to be a bond between man and horse that wasn’t there when it came to donkeys.

Horses were likely domesticated somewhere around 4000 BCE and from there on, we established an, often, intimate relationship with them.  This was a relationship which was beyond function, the horse and rider were bonded, they were a team.  Horses, like cattle before them, became a status symbol.  They were an animal which brought prestige to the owner or rider.  They were noble creatures and as such were named and cherished.

“The Greeks made a clear distinction between the noble horse and the “servile” donkey, which corresponded in broad terms with that between people who were free and slaves.”
– Brian Fagan

Aristotle felt that nature had made animals as food and labour for humans and that they were subservient to us.  This fits with how we used animals and also made it ok for us to use them that way.  Animals were utilised for human benefit and human development.  Whilst some people will have had a personal relationship with some animals, on the whole, they were considered food and labour.  For the Romans, animals were beasts of utility as well as a source of entertainment.  Animals were pit against each other, against humans and were slaughtered as a form of amusement.

For more about how we view non-human animals, come back tomorrow!

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