Author Topic: Extract of Quarterly Essay by Anna Krein  (Read 1933 times)

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Extract of Quarterly Essay by Anna Krein
« Reply #1 on: June 01, 2013, 07:17:00 PM »
Last year, in Fairfax’s Good Weekend, the novelist Charlotte Wood wrote of her discomfort with people who gushed over animals and a society that humanises them beyond recognition. “Our culture is drenched in anthropomorphic slush,” Wood wrote:

But I find most of it troubling because it seems  so disrespectful. Denying the creature’s essential nature – its very animality – is surely an act not of admiration, but subjugation. To downplay the differences between species is to promote the assumption that “humans will only accept what is like themselves,”  as American scholar Shelly R. Scott puts it. The more we sentimentalise animals on the one hand, Wood suggested, the more we brutalise them on the other.

Everywhere you look in our society, there are animals. Well, not actual animals, but caricatures of animals selling us mobile-phone plans, toilet paper, cars, interest rates. As projections, animals proliferate in the flat-screened zoos of cinema, television, YouTube and screen savers, trapped in Pixar worlds, serving as light relief at the end of the day. In shops, you can buy animals cast in clay, plastic, porcelain, and you may hold your new purchase close, cradle it on the way home and place it  carefully on the bookshelf, a tiny guardian to watch over your world.  Hell, animals are even in our dreams – we wake up talking of lions,  snakes and wolves, wondering what they could possibly mean.

2011 was a big year for animals. Asian manufacturers flooded the Western fashion market with leopard-print garments; hipster bands named themselves after birds, deer and horses; and in America the Wrangler Jeans’ “We Are Animals” campaign featured moody photos of muddied models, wearing denim jeans, strewn like seaweed across boulders, creeks and roads.

Locally, Kevin Rudd underwent intensive heart surgery. “Time for a bit of a grease and oil change myself; I’ll be having aortic valve replacement surgery,” said Rudd to reporters. “The docs have said, ‘Kev, it’s time for a new one.’ And so, being the obedient soul that I am, I’ve decided to take their advice.” Rudd emerged with a cow valve inserted inside his chest.

At the MCG, the Australian Football League trialled the use of two wedge-tailed eagles to deter seagulls from hobnobbing on the brightly lit oval during a semi-final game.

In a ceremony on the lawn at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, “Sarbi,” an explosive-detection dog working with the defence force in Afghanistan, was awarded a Purple Cross bravery medal. “For the courage she has shown while serving her country during her time in Afghanistan,” said the president of the RSPCA, Lynne Bradshaw, solemnly hanging the medal around the black labrador cross’s neck.

Around the world, footage of laboratory chimpanzees setting  foot out-side on grass for the first time became an internet sensation.  For over thirty years, the chimps had been kept in laboratories and  injected with diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. The images of the  primates clustering around the open doorway of their new sanctuary,  hugging (yes, hugging) and then running, whooping, across the lawn could  unnerve even the hardest of pro–animal testing hearts.

Then, one evening in Melbourne’s western suburbs, a pit bull mastiff cross ran  up the driveway of a St Albans house, chasing the occupants inside and  following them into the lounge room, where it mauled four- year-old Ayen Chol to death. “These types of dogs have lost their right to exist in  Victoria,” said the state’s agriculture and food security minister,  Peter Walsh, after the tragedy.

And, finally, the cows. In May, in its program “Bloody Business,” ABC’s Four Corners aired footage of Australian cows being grossly mistreated in eleven Indonesian abattoirs. The wave of revulsion that followed – the inundation of the news media, the overloading of the RSPCA and Animals Australia websites within hours of the report, the thousands of protesters taking to the streets, MPs calling for a conscience vote or threatening to revolt against the party line, and airwaves blocked with people calling for a ban on the trade – forced a ban on the live export of cattle to Indonesia. The veteran political writer Michelle Grattan described parliamentary debate after the screening as the most passionate she had seen in years.

The public response seemed a clear assertion that what had happened was wrong and intolerable. But the story of the live cattle trade is more complex than it seems. And so too is our nuanced and often contradictory relationship with animals. It seems most of us have a minor clause inside us on the treatment of animals – a “that’s not allowed” but “that’s okay.” We have our limits and our permissions. But the categories are becoming more and more blurred. After all, how can we allow one act and not another?

For example, the cattle slaughtered in Indonesia are, to all intents and purposes, objects. “Things” that suddenly became subjects in the glare of a video camera. And to what end? For killing standards to be raised to Western-approved levels so that cattle can safely become objects once more?

Let’s just say this recent controversy succeeds in raising the bar, that slaughtering in Indonesia and the other thirty-odd countries to which Australia exports live animals, either by ship or plane, becomes “world standard.” Death by stunning is implemented across the board. There is Meat and Livestock Australia’s “in the ute, not the  boot” campaign, launched in Egypt after Animals Australia (yes, the animal welfare group does seem to be the regulator here) brought back footage of men stuffing sheep into the boot of their car or tying them on the roof rack; the many temporary export bans; the thirty-odd years of intermittent political scrambling followed by political and public amnesia; the Memorandums of Understanding and minor adjustments to the trade – let’s say all this sinks in.

Animals around the world are not kicked or gouged, cows do not – as one Indonesian abattoir was found guilty of five years ago – have hoses shoved in their mouths and anuses before slaughter, filling them with water so the meat will be heavier and sell for more at the market. Instead they’re calmly led to the killing floor, stunned and killed on the first cut. Will that quell the growing unease among many Westerners, a nagging sense, as the Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald late last year, that “Something has gone badly wrong in relations between human beings and other animals”?

Even people who take their lead from Genesis, from its assurance that God has granted us dominion over the beasts in order to feed ourselves, suffer nagging doubts whether factory farming and a food industry operating on an industrial scale to turn living animals into what are euphemistically called “animal products” are quite what God had in mind.

“In the eyes of a butcher a horse is already dead,” wrote Georges Bataille.  When I read this, I was reminded of the opaque eyes of the men who  accosted the tram driver. Cold slippery eyes that didn’t see people, eyes that, for whatever reason, held no warmth and saw the world, the  rest of us, as being at their service. What happens when we turn this  look, this strangely blind and indifferent gaze, into an industry?
How can we maintain that animals are things but also beings?

By law in Australia, as in much of the world, animals are “things” and yet  they are things with welfare legislation – although some animals enjoy  more comfort than others. Livestock, for example, numbering around 500  million in Australia, do not enjoy the same level of protection as  companion animals – they are often exempt from rulings on access to  sufficient exercise and natural light.

In 1992, Switzerland amended its constitution to recognise  animals as “beings” rather than “things.” The amendment, however, was  short-lived after the entire constitution was rewritten to leave animals  in a kind of status limbo. And two years ago in Spain, higher primates  such as apes, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans were granted certain  “rights” by the Spanish parliament, the first national legislature to do  so.

“This is either a ridiculous society or a dislocated one,” the archbishop of Pamplona told Time magazine in 2008, reiterating the Catholic Church’s argument that the move to grant apes fundamental rights eroded the Biblical hierarchy which gives humans dominion over the earth. “Asking for human rights for monkeys is like asking for bull rights for men.”

Bull rights? Well, not yet, but last year Catalonia staged its  last bullfight. “The fact that some people are silly about animals  cannot stop the topic being a serious one,” wrote the philosopher Mary Midgely. Animals are like poetry – supple, simultaneously cryptic and  revealing. They are like a patch of sunshine in a garden, on your bed,  in a fading afternoon. And like poetry, there’s also a whole lot of crap  involved. For one, they’re not poetry. But we’re drawn to them, and in  many ways they’re drawn to us – and Us and Them is a meditation on that meeting point.
  Anna Krien's picture 

Anna Krien.

Anna Krien is a journalist and writer based in Melbourne. Her debut book, Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania's Forests, won Premier’s Literary Awards in both Victoria and Queensland in 2011. More by Anna Krien, Author's site
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