The Life Aquatic with Steve Zizou

This is one of my favourite films of all time. It is by my favourite director, Wes Anderson, it stars my favourite actor, Bill Murray and the protagonist is my favourite animal, a shark. But aside from these surface elements, the heart of the film is beating hard with concepts of revenge and forgiveness – two elements of the human-shark interface that require attention.

At the opening of the film, Steve Zizou, an ageing oceanographer styled along the lines of an American version of Jacques Cousteau, is sitting on stage in the question and answer portion following the screening of his latest film, Adventure No.12 “The Jaguar Shark” (Part 1). The film is a documentary which captures the death of his best friend Estoban by a jaquar shark. A person in the audience asks Steve if it was a deliberate choice never to show the jaguar shark.

Ned asks, “What’s next for Team Zizou?”
Steve replies, “Well, that was only part one. It’s a cliffhanger. Now I’m gonna go hunt down that shark or whatever it is, and hopefully kill it.”
To the compare sharing the stage with him, “I don’t know how yet. Maybe dynamite.”
The compare states with incredulity, “You don’t know what it is?
Steve states, “No, I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life.”
Compare: You say it is a jaguar shark. That’s the title of your film.
Steve: “It was coming right at us. I just said the first two words that came into my head.”
Woman in audience asks: “That’s an endangered species at most. What would be the scientific purpose of killing it?”
Steve: thinks and shrugs and then says “Revenge.”

This exchange encapsulates so many discussions about sharks. Humans have been exacting revenge on sharks for millennia. Sailors often taunted and tortured sharks and Collin Barnett’s WA government’s Shark Mitigation Strategy is nothing short of revenge for shark bite incidents. The list is endless of how humans take shark bite incidences so personally and are affronted by them on a very deep level.

Human mastery and the diminishment of animal agency has been the prevailing course of action when sharks and humans meet. This film starts out in familiar territory; an aging oceanographer suffering a mid-life crisis sets out to seek revenge on a shark. As the film progresses, later in the ship the Belafonte, a nice homage to Jacques Cousteau’s ship the Calypso, Steve declares “Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go on an overnight drunk, and in ten days I’m gonna set out to find the shark that ate my friend and destroy it. Anyone that would care to join me is more than welcome.”

The character of Steve is depressed; despairing of the loss of his friend, his youth, career, success, his wife…and the outlet for his rage is the shark. The film is steeped in the hilarious machismo of 1970s adventure films and the character of Steve has been marinating in it his whole life. He realises it is all a sham. His slow unravelling is hilarious and moving at the same time as only Bill Murray can deliver, but the most revealing moment is when he finally relents, surrenders and accepts his lack of mastery over everything – especially nature and the shark.

They spot something on the radar and decide to go down in the submersible to investigate if it is the jaguar shark.

At the end of the film in the submersible on their rendezvous with the jaguar shark:

Steve: “I hooked a rhinestone Bluefin on a rope to give him something to eat.”

Upon seeing the huge jaguar shark approach their tiny submersible and then glide over it at the last moment watching its enormous underside pass over them through the glass window to the stirring sounds of Sigur Ros.
Klaus asks, “Is that him?”
Hennessey answers with sombre reverence, “That’s him Klaus.”
The shark doubles back and takes the rhinestone Bluefin, rocking their submersible.
Steve starts up the submersible again as Jane asks, “Are we…are we safe in here?” and Steve answers, “I doubt it.”
Klaus asks, “You still want to blow him up?”
Steve sighs “No. We’re out of dynamite anyway.”
As Eleanor watches it in the distance she says with a smile “It is beautiful Steve.”
He acknowledges as it swims by, “Yeah, it’s pretty good isn’t it?” and after a pause, “I wonder if it remembers me?” fighting back tears in his eyes. The shark swims out of the scene into the inky black.

This scene is moving on so many levels but mostly because it is acknowledging the shark as a sentient being with memory. Steve gives it allowance and affordance and frees it from guilt or responsibility and frees himself from a need for revenge. They are able to come together and part again on neutral terms. This encapsulates so many ideas including becoming together as Harroway puts it, animal agency, surrender to nature and much larger important ideas of peace. It’s a lovely notion to ponder as we approach Christmas.

A Return to the Feast

A Return to the Feast
Thoughts on
Plumwood’s Animals and Ecology: Towards a Better Integration

We as humans have left the feast early and have rudely forgotten to thank the host. We have been taking from, keeping and ignoring the bio-shperic others we live with.

As fleshy bodies who have walked the earth in our current form for 50,000 years, we have evolved and adapted as every other creature has. We have inhabited spaces with other living animals we have taken of them and they have taken from us. As the newcomers, we have had space made for us by all that has preceded us. Lions and tigers and bears conceded territory for us to build our huts and villages and cities. Wolves and coyotes receded back from us enabling our agricultural expansion into their domain. They have all made space for us. The favour is not being returned.

“I think therefore I am” (Descartes) has enabled a plethora of injustice upon the planet and everything we share it with. This one-sided view of human superiority has negated all that has come before our very short time here. Val Plumwood has proposed a very political strategy rooted in activism of reengaging with the world we live in through Progressive Naturalism. Her rejection of the hyper-separation of humans from nature and culture from nature are rejections I agree with and would argue for. However, I feel Progressive Naturalism can go even further to allow for integration and perhaps even a hyper-integration of the systems of nature, which of course includes us.

There is no culture without nature. Nature is indeed what shapes everything.
Plumwood (P.29) uses the metaphor of hunger and food as rooted in nature but the choice of spaghetti as rooted in culture. One will assume by this metaphor that an Italian person could make this logical cultural choice but spaghetti with tomato sauce has only been eaten in Italy for the past 400 years. Previously, pasta was in Asia and Tomatoes were in the Americas. Culture is fluid, it transforms and is transformative. Culture, like Nature is not static. It does not stay still and wait for us to admire it in a museum; it exists in spite of us and our best efforts to master it.
To continue believing that only human animals have thought, reason, language and culture is to continue living in hostile disregard. The overwhelming evidence to the contrary is mounting up and should be an encouraging sign for us to reengage with the planet and the systems of coevolution we have been enmeshed in for 50,000 years.
California sea otters are the only species of otters who use stones to crack molluscs on their bellies. South African Great White Sharks are the only species to fully breach when hunting seals. Orcas have distinct calls and hunting practices within their matriarchal pods that are not shared by others. Animals have culture and our continual rooting of these discussions within the limiting parameters of human language and reason is defeating the discussion. The discussion is one sided. Why have Koko and Kanzi been taught human sign language? Why are we not learning Western Lowland Gorilla and Bonobo? Perhaps it is time to extend an open hand instead of a closed fist. We should be ready to engage in proper two-way learning.

Plumwood’s hopeful stance (P. 11) that what is happening does not need to continue and is not inevitable is encouraging. Relations of domination are not inevitable. National Parks, Reserves and Marine Parks are just the obvious manifestations of this. Nature does not and should not necessarily mean an absence of human animals. Some of the places furthest from humans are the most affected – The Pacific Gyre is an example, and some of the places closest to humans are the most pristine and sustainable – Curitiba Park. The presence of humans does not and more importantly, should not have to negate sustainability and ethical coexistence. Once the impetus for what is basically a patriarchal mastery of an area, a system or a species is removed, an ethical coexistence can occur.
By removing reason, language and control and by engaging natural process (e.g. allowing rivers to flood instead of damning them), sustainability (giving back to system) and ethical engagement (just because I can doesn’t mean I should) can allow a way forward to Natural Progressiveness.

The hyper-separation Plumwood discusses is indeed a causal factor of colonisation and hence degradation. This massive ‘forgetting’ (P.17) is a closed circuit. It denies the hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary achievement, which we have been a part of for 50,000 years, and thus it allows ourselves to be further separated from it. Imagine if every time we swallowed we remembered and were in respectful gratitude to the shark whose evolutionary swallow mechanism enabled our own? What kind of world could that be? “Biospheric others can be other positive presences and ethical subjects to which we can owe a debt of gratitude, generosity and recognition as prior and enabling ancestors.”(P.16-17)

Imagine if we didn’t ask the question, Should I have done this? After we had done it and caused the problem? Imagine if we asked the question first and then acted accordingly? Plumwood’s decision-making critique (P.17) “For example, crucial biospheric and other services provided by nature and the limits they might impose on human projects are not considered in accounting or decision making. We pay attention to them only after disaster has occurred, and then only to “fix things up.” is an excellent critique of where we currently find ourselves. Jacques Cousteau, before his death, was advocating for no hazardous material to be transported on the oceans. He was asking the question first to which the answer was ‘no’. Exxon, BP and Shell have all shrugged their shoulders and said ‘yes, why not?’

By asking the questions first we are opening a door that has always been shut. The positioning of human superiority in the realm of these debates has not enabled a full understanding and acknowledgement of our engagement with and our integrated involvement with nature. We are having this discussion with ourselves behind glass and no one else and nothing else we share the planet with has been invited. Plumwood asserts quite accurately that nature’s agency is unrecognised (P.17). This denial of agency and the unrecognised and unseen labour of nature in keeping the system we live in healthy is catastrophic in its ability to completely disregard all that came before and all that currently keeps us alive. The 450,000,000-year history of the sharks’ presence in our oceans is what has formed what the ocean is and what lives in it today. Sharks’ labour in keeping the ocean clean of sick and injured marine life is not openly acknowledged and thus makes it easy to continue to ignore. Indifference can be the ultimate act of hostility.

Plumwood’s 3 types of strategies are an interesting framework to use when looking at the world with us humans in it. It is a way of pulling back the curtain and looking at the wizard(s) in action. Human and non-humans have shaped and continue to shape the planet and by continuing in a narrative of hyper-separation we are not allowing for a proper ethical integration of human and non-human cooperation.

Type 1
Naturalizing 1 (deceptive naturalness)
I understand this to be National Parks and Marine Reserves. I support wholeheartedly both of these initiatives and hope they increase and spread. In 2007 the most unlikely candidate to propose the largest marine reserve in history did just that – George W. Bush signed off on Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, recently re-named The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in the south-central Pacific, and Barrack Obama has just expanded it thereby making it off-limits to development and commercial fishing. It is three times the state of California.

Type 2
Over-Humanising 2 (deceptive humanness)
I understand this to be places like landscaped ponds and gardens or glow in the dark bunnies or genetically modified seeds and food. By holding up the human-centred transformational effects, we are denying the underlying agency of the biospheric other at work.

Type 3
Naturalizing 2 (deceptive naturalness)
By this I understand Bill Gammage’s book “the Greatest Estate on Earth” to be a perfect example. While colonial and post-colonial thought saw Australia as wild and empty (terra nullius) Gammage has shown that the land was completely under the stewardship of Aborigines who cleared land, created fire breaks and even transferred fish to other locales. Though from the outside eye, it looks completely untouched, it is in fact shaped and managed through a cooperative system of humans and non-humans. Another example of this I saw first hand in the Solomon Islands where the lagoon around the place I was staying was full of turtles and giant clams. I assumed they were part of the natural marinescape but was informed that the turtles and clams were brought there from other lagoons further ashore. The turtles decided to stay, the clams had no choice. All of them seemed to fit there.

Bill Gammage’s work emphasises how much we look but how little we see. This work is a revelation in that something, which we just assumed for 200 years, has been seen as completely false. It changes everything and asks us to re-examine and question. This is exactly what we need to do on a much larger scale. What answers are we constantly being given without noticing? What does it mean when we see non-human others engaging in pet keeping such as baboons with kidnapped puppies? What does it mean when we see that dogs have evolved to look at us in a different direction than they do everything else? What does it mean when animals adopt their prey instead of eating it? These video clips and vox pops are all much more than workplace distractions we watch on YouTube, they are a congregating area for humans to try to engage with and co-evolve with non-human others.
I cannot believe it is an accident that aside from porn, animal clips on YouTube are the most watched on the Internet. We are hungry for a connection that is there but somehow intangible.

All three of these frameworks acknowledge the combined labour and agency of human and non-human bioshperic others. This is us on the planet.

Plumwood’s article is successful at giving us an alternative view of the typically cynical post modernist view. It is optimistic, empowering and important. As long as humans and our language, reason and uncriticised dominance are the focal point of the discussion, the discussion is mired in separation. A new dialogue of two-way learning needs to be opened up in earnest to acknowledge the agency, labour and legacy of bioshperic others. We need to ask the proper questions of ourselves before we can ask the others in a true sense of ethical openness, acknowledgment and respect. Maybe then we will be able to listen.

Value Judgements or Value?

In the human – animal interface, the word value is batted around quite a bit. Humans judge animals on their characteristics and behaviour using a human model of ethics. Predatory animals are usually seen as ‘guilty’ and their prey is seen as ‘innocent’. These value judgements seem, and are indeed, bizarre and out of place, but we engage in them none the less.

I keep my cat indoors because I have deemed the wildlife he will kill as more valuable than his living conditions. I have judged this so because I am offering him a different way of life where food and shelter are readily available, and he doesn’t have to fight with the neighbours’ cats for territory. He doesn’t have a choice in the matter. I have placed my value system on his existence whether he likes it or not.

Predatory animals are forever placed in this position. The charismatic animals, such as dolphins are valued much higher than sharks. And of course, human lives takes precedence over sharks and everything else in the wild. People move to remote areas of British Columbia to be close to nature and then demand a cougar cull when their dog is eaten. People move to the coast and so the government puts nets, drum lines and fishermen with guns in boats to keep them safe. ‘What value a life’ is the constant question.

The living versus the dead value of animals is increasingly used as a counterpoint to the wildlife trade. While I think this is a valid counter argument, it still enmeshes animals into a human construct of capitalism. Instead of a $100 bowl of shark fin soup, a live shark can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars as a tourist attraction for a community. This is a worthwhile argument to pursue, especially in poorer nations, where they can keep their resources alive and flourishing and attract much needed revenue to their areas instead of exporting them for pennies. However, none of these arguments take into account value, actual intrinsic value, of an animal’s right to live. Tom Reagan’s subject of a life theory fits well here. A shark’s value lies in its ability and right to live. A human construct should not have to be used to frame this or justify it. It should just be.

As we keep circling this idea of value, it brings into account the various debates of introduced species, feral species, endangered species and of course the predator / prey dichotomy. As long as predators keep being vilified for preying on and eating the creatures which evolution has deemed them to eat, false value judgements will keep being made. We have to stop thinking we are on the outside looking in; we are on the inside too. If we continue to act as judge, jury and executioner, there will be nothing left to value.

Advance Australia, Play Fair

Two Great White Sharks have been killed in the nets off Bondi Beach this week. Two shark individuals of a vulnerable and thereby protected species have been taken out of the system their 450,000,000-year evolution has helped to create.
Is this really where Australia wants to find itself at the end of 2014? Yes, steps have been made to improve our policy toward sharks in Western Australia in regards to the government finally stopping the obvious shark cull, but the country, as a whole needs an educational and cultural shift in regards to its attitudes towards sharks.

While WA has suspended the shark cull via guns and drum lines, NSW and Queensland are continuing their lethal shark net and drum line measures. In addition, the shark finning and fishery industries are continuing unabated. Does this seem fair for a land girt by sea?

Shark nets are a literal line in the sand of our human / nature dualism. They are supposing that we are not part of nature and that we should be protected from nature. Well, we are nature. Every little bit of us can nourish something else. To prevent this from happening by killing hundreds of sharks is nothing short of narcissistic genocide. Val Plumwood’s argument for Ecological Animalism is a fine one in my book. When I share the ocean with a shark and we both swim away intact, I feel a strong sense of gratitude and respect. Both the shark and I have the ability to kill and eat each other but we both make a choice not to.

I accept that the shark can eat me. I am not enraged at this fact; I am humbled by it. We share the food chain of the system we live in on this planet. Our bodies, human and shark, are potential food. The shark’s body is no less important than my human body. It is a collection of organs and skin and flesh which when broken down, provide nutrients to other living creatures. And yet despite this simple fact of biology, the human side of this dualism continually upholds a superiority stance that elicits emotions such as rage, spite and revenge

We the public, do not want government help to protect us from sharks and nor should we expect it. The ocean is a wild place. It needs to be accepted as such when we enter the water. Why would I hold a government accountable for my death in the ocean? Why would I hold a shark responsible for my death in the ocean? It is my choice to be there and as such, the only living thing responsible for myself is myself. I accept that I am food for others and others are food for me.

The difference here lies in intent and execution. If I willingly buy prawns knowing that the by-catch death of other creatures far exceeds the actual death of the few prawns I will eat, then I am negating the importance of the lives of the other creatures who have died along with the prawns. If I ask myself the question: I can do this but should I? And then answer, yes, and buy the prawns, I am consciously choosing to negate the importance of the lives of the by-catch creatures, the prawns and the other creatures reliant on this system to supplant my wishes above their existence.

If we willingly put up nets as barriers which we know will kill the sharks and any other marine creatures unfortunate to be caught in them, if we answer yes to the question I can do this but should I?, then we are negating the importance of all creatures, including vulnerable and threatened species, who live in the oceans to support our desire to take up temporary residence in the form of a swim.

We need to ask the questions first to level the playing field and play fair.
download (1)

Giving Bodies Back

In recent discussions with my good friend, we discussed human and animal death and Val Plumwood’s view of human / nature dualism. She made a profound comment on human death – we are opting out of the system through cremation. I agree with her wholeheartedly and it got me wondering about the statistics. As I thought, they are disappointingly high. The East leads the way in cremation.
Ironically, cremation in the West really began as an environmental initiative – to save land for parks, farms and housing. But what my friend and I both sense is that it is much more about what no one says – the horror of being eaten. Humans separation of themselves from the natural world – over there somewhere, shimmering perfectly in our imagination or out there toothed and fanged and kept at a safe distance from us is having consequences. Plumwood’s notion is very much at work here. We would rather have our bodies incinerated into bone rubble (it isn’t dust that remains but rather bone rubble which looks very similar to shell and coral rubble with many subtle colours throughout) than return to where we came from – the earth through the maggot and the microbe.

We are cheating the system in the worst way. The one and only offering we have is to give our bodies back and we are opting out.

Even our lives on earth are cheating the system more than ever. Plastic grass, or artificial lawn as its nicer name implies, is becoming a growing trend as well. One of the ads states, ‘even cows can’t tell the difference’. I’m pretty sure they can. Mr Mervyn Victor Richardson would be disheartened to think that his iconic Victa lawnmower created in 1952 and so highly celebrated at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, might be a tiny footnote of Australian life if this trend really takes hold.

This human / nature dualism is humming away in our subconscious and our decisions as always, have consequences. There is a growing tend toward green burials. Benjamin Law’s piece in the Monthly ‘Dead, Wrapped in Cardboard’ (2009) gives some insight into this movement away from embalming and cremation. It encompasses what another friend’s mother said. ‘I want to be wrapped in a shroud and buried under a tree.’ She died recently and was cremated but it made me wonder if this type of burial is possible and it seems that thankfully, it is.

Himalayan sky burials are in peril due to dwindling numbers of endangered vultures and bodies are rotting in towers instead of returning to the system both literally and spiritually as food. We are part of nature whether we like it or not. Animals are food for us and we should be food for animals. It is our only way to give back.

As I write this, a big blowfly has flown in and it reminds me of one of my favourite poems from years back:

Ode To The Maggot
By Yusef Komunyakaa

Brother of the blowfly
And godhead, you work magic
Over battlefields,
In slabs of bad pork

And flophouses. Yes, you
Go to the root of all things.
You are sound & mathematical.
Jesus, Christ, you’re merciless

With the truth. Ontological & lustrous,
You cast spells on beggars & kings
Behind the stone door of Caesar’s tomb
Or split trench in a field of ragweed.

No decree or creed can outlaw you
As you take every living thing apart. Little
Master of earth, no one gets to heaven
Without going through you first.


My old friend Nick and I have just had our first snorkel of the season in our beloved Gordon’s Bay. We’ve shared the space with groupers there for years. He and his wife were married at Clovelly and my wedding gift to them was a framed picture I had taken of Bluey, the giant grouper, in Gordon’s Bay.
We arrived at around 8.30am this morning to find a lone snorkeler exiting the water. He was dripping in Zen and told us if we quieted our minds the grouper would come to us. It was great to see someone else walking peacefully away from the experience we were just about to have. Quiet minds or not, they did come to us and we shared the bay with them.
The water was incredibly clear, refreshing and invigorating. My friend Rani and I always call a swim in the ocean ‘a blessing’. It is a blessing in that we are so grateful to have access to such a beautiful place but it is also a blessing in that the ocean creatures who live there bless us with their presence.
Nick and I were truly blessed this morning. One of the smaller blue groupers was the first I saw. He had his mouth wide open and was getting a good clean of his ridiculously white teeth from the tiny fish darting around his mouth. In 17 years of snorkelling a Gordon’s Bay, this was the first time I had seen one at a cleaning station in full swing.
The next was Bluey, a massive blue grouper who hung with us in about 6 feet of water. The three of us just hovered together in silence. He and we swayed together, making eye contact, as his eyes looked us up and down. Now and then he would change the direction he was facing looking at us and the direction of our bodies. He was waiting for us to kick him up a sea urchin but we just floated together. We were becoming together as Donna Haraway would say. My encounters with groupers are always a blessing for me and today was no different.
In the midst of lots of reading, it has become even more apparent how abysmally we treat the animals of the sea. And so these encounters are becoming even more sacred to me as the years pass.
As Nick and I were sitting on the rocks in the after glow, a kayak fisherman paddled up into the landing in the bay with two fishing rods in position. My heart sank as it always does at the sight of any fishing gear so I scurried over to him before he left. He was an amiable Englishman who informed me he had hooked a few pike but they had all snapped his lines. I had just been reading David A. Fennell’s work on fish pain and sentience and had learned that 43% of all hooked fish die after release sometimes as long as a week later. Those few pike were swimming around with hooks in their mouths, gills and gullets and would suffer and then be eaten by other fish who would suffer the same and so on and so on and so on. The cycle of suffering is immense and almost endless from one single fisherman.
I remember being at Bawley’s Point about 8 years back and finding a massive Australian Fur Seal washed up on the rocks. Its mouth was frozen in a horrific death mask grimace full of a large jumble of recreational fishing gear. The hooks and lures were protruding through its cheeks and lips exposing its teeth. It had died a long excruciating and cruel death at the hands of recreational fishermen. I find it much harder to share space with fishermen than with fish.
Last summer, my friend Pamela, her friend Steven and I went snorkelling at La Perouse. This was one of my favourite spots in my early days of snorkelling. Instead of the pristine oasis I recalled, we were greeted with garbage – everywhere. There were used sanitary pads floating in the water and no fish in sight. There were however more fishermen than we could count. As we were entering the water a large group of Korean spearfishermen were also coming in. My friend Pamela asked them to put their spear guns away while we snorkelled for safety reasons. They obliged. We saw absolutely nothing; lots and lots of algae and garbage and murky water but no fish. We eventually made our way under the bridge at Bare Island when a large shadow appeared. We looked up and saw a couple in a small dinghy with 4 fishing rods. “See any fish?” the woman asked us as we bobbed out of their way. “No” Pamela answered, “You caught them all.” She wasn’t kidding. I saw a single juvenile leatherjacket under the bridge just after that encounter and I’m sure it didn’t last the day.
As Nick and I talked about the ocean this morning he recounted an incident with his 6-year-old daughter Kristin. He was cooking fish for supper and asked her if she’d like some. “No” she said, “I only like fish in the sea.”
Amen to that Kristin.
What a blessing.

Round and Round

Yesterday’s Melbourne Cup double tragedy of the two horses Admire Rakti and Araldo have underlined the complete absence of respect and care of animals when they have been commodified and ‘put in the bank’.

The footage on ABC’s Lateline last night was disturbing to say the least. We see Admire Ratki in the stall, head low and quivering while hearing a woman’s voice off camera yelling, ‘get the vet, get the vet!’ And as the horse collapses she can be heard saying, “he’s going to die!” Meanwhile the Japanese team members are seen pulling savagely on the dying horse’s bridle trying to make him stand up as he dies. They are seeing the death of their millions of investment dollars.

When the live export debate finally ignited a few years ago, people were rightly horrified to see the cruel and barbaric overseas treatment of sheep and cattle in abattoirs and yet here we are, in Australia at the major event of the year seeing the same treatment.

When an animal becomes a commodity, something that can be invested in, traded and exchanged, it is put in the bank. It becomes a thing; not a living animal but an investment. It becomes an amount, a faceless, nameless, non-sentient amount of money.

125 racing horses have died this year in similar ways. These animals are overworked and their labour is an investment and an entertainment that is worth many millions of dollars worldwide. The final moments of Admire Ratki’s life show us quite clearly how that labour is rewarded. In his short 7-year life, there does not seem to have been much of a reward for his labour. These animals are on a leash and their agency is limited to what they can achieve for their investors through being walloped violently while running at full speed. They are in the bank as they are seen as a monetary investment and they are on a pedestal as long as they fufill the needs this human construct has put upon them.

Animal labour has existed for as long as humans have been able to harness it, literally. Animals are used to pull our wagons, plough our fields, transport us and entertain us. Their labour is a multi-billion dollar slave trade the whole planet engages in.

Zoos, wildlife parks and aquariums are also examples of this as are wild animals in dolphin and shark swims. The tragic example of Tilikum the orca in captivity featured in the documentary Blackfish (2013) reminds us of the horror of sentient animals who are put on a leash, in the bank and on a pedestal. When Tilikum enacted his agency and refused to continue to be on a leash, 3 people died and yet the animal remains in miserable circumstances in a marine park despite providing years of service and siring 31 calves for the marine park industry. He is a living sperm bank and a spectacle. A lack of respectful affordances and etiquette when dealing with animals is demeaning to these animals and to us. It diminishes our joint capacities of becoming together. Just because we can do these things to animals, doesn’t mean we should. We can all do better.

For the sake of the lives of Admire Rakti, Araldo and Tilikum, let’s hope we do.

What We Do With Animal Intelligence

Kanzi and the Animal Mind

A few weeks back a group of old friends and I gathered for a pub lunch. As animal lovers and human guardians of rescue bunnies, dogs, cats, birds and fish, we relish chances to talk about our world with animals and they enjoy surveying the newest scars inflicted on my arms by my cat Rufus.
I mentioned to them a vintage Time Magazine article that I had recently read. The issue was published August 16, 2010 and the cover reads “What Animals Think”. The article inside is written by Jeffrey Kluger and it fascinated and terrified me at the same time. I told my friends an anecdote from the article about a male bonobo named Kanzi who had been raised in a lab and taught English words, 384 of them so far. From his lab home at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa he describes his life with great acuteness.
Here is the quote from the article than stunned my friends and I:

When he tried kale he named it slow lettuce because it takes longer to chew than lettuce.

Just think about that for a moment. This is an animal that has concepts of time and similarity of foods and is able to express it to us in our own language! Imagine all the other things animals feel, know and believe yet don’t express to us in a way we can understand. I will never again call kale by its name; it will be known as slow lettuce from now on as far as I am concerned. When I told my friends this at the table, a few of them had the same reaction I did when I first read it, sheer horror at what we do to animals and how little we acknowledge their intellect. One of my friends’ faces fell and she sat open mouthed at the prospect.

Another quote reads:

It takes me a while to find the ball in an office down the hall, and when I finally return, Savage-Rumbaugh verbally asks Kanzi, ‘Are you ready to play?’ He looks at us balefully. ‘Past ready’, he pecks.

Yikes. Finally, some truth is being shown and told about animal intelligence but only after millennia of mistreatment; talk about shoot first, ask questions later.
How we finally acknowledge this truth and deal with it will be the deciding factor. We now know that animals feel, know, dream, mourn…they have intellect and we share this planet with them. Will we go forward well with this knowledge or will we do as we have with say, fossil fuels and climate change…we are aware of the consequences but they are here to use and we can use them so we should. It is still early to tell but as the article was written in 2010, I don’t know how well we have gone forward in those 4 years.

When I was 14 my beloved dog Sheeba had three puppies. One of the puppies, Ebony, went to live with my aunt and uncle and Sheeba and Ebony spent every weekend together at the cottage and both grew to ripe old ages together. While watching Sheeba and Ebony romp around one day, my best friend Annie innocently asked, “Do you think they know?” We all burst into gales of laughter as my family loved Annie’s unusual way of looking at the world, but on hindsight, her question was a profound one. We all assumed that yes; both dogs knew they were mother and daughter. Sheeba’s memory of the birth must have been present in her consciousness. Their sense of each other’s scent would have been constant throughout their lives. They had to have known. How could they not? But Annie’s question was deeper than that. She wanted to know that they knew.

I have never had any doubt of animal intellect or emotion. Having grown up in an extended family full of animals who were often shared between us, I could see first hand how they remembered us and their different feelings toward us. My cousin’s dog clearly remembered me after 8 years absence and cried with joy for an extended period and an exposed tummy for a rub. My brother’s dog does the same when I return to Canada often accompanied by urination.
Our beloved Sheeba had an extremely close relationship with our elderly next-door neighbours; it was such a close bond, this elderly couple thought of Sheeba as their child. One night as my mother and I were sleeping, we were awoken by an unnaturally high-pitched scream, like a living siren. We awoke to find Sheeba at the end of the bed with her nose pointed to the ceiling in a howl of anguish. It was such an awful sound; we weren’t sure what was happening. I touched her with my foot and she stopped as if woken from a bad dream, licked her lips slowly and curled back up to sleep. The next day we were told that our neighbour Pat had died the night before at the same time Sheeba had let out her anguished cry. My dog was in grief and mourning; of this I have no doubt.

When my very co-dependant cat Rufus is separated from me, his distress is apparent and unfortunately in a very unhealthy way, shared by me. Trips to the vet are fine in the taxi, he enjoys the car ride. He is even fine in the waiting room but the second he is alone with the vet, things change for the worse. When I have to travel overseas and some poor person has to care of him, things get even worse.
Three years ago when I had a couple stay in my flat to take care of Rufus, I stayed with a friend for a few weeks before my trip so Rufus could adjust to this new couple in his home. Things were going poorly so I went back to the flat to see him and try to calm him down. That night while lying in bed I talked to him in my mind, reassuring him that they were nice people who were going to feed him and play with him and take care of him and that he should give them a chance. A few days later the woman in the couple rang me and said that my visit had ‘flicked a switch’ and that Rufus was calm and was no longer hissing and ambushing them and had even slept on the end of the bed with them.

I realise this is all sounding a bit airy-fairy dipped in patchouli and lit up with crystals but the simple fact is people who are animal guardians do have strong emotional bonds with their animals and this is only possible because animals have strong emotional bonds with us. They are sentient beings and to assume that they are somehow lesser or don’t feel things to the same extent we do diminishes both them and us.

This should be the jumping off point for further discussions on animals and us…not whether they feel, but what they do feel and how we respond to that knowledge and those feelings.

Just Because We Can Doesn’t Mean We Should

The rate of human-centred progress over the last 50 years has been astounding. Capitalist forces, globalisation and the global village mentality (where white middle aged male CEOs and male war lords, sheiks and organised crime bosses re the chiefs of the village of course) have all enabled a no-limits mentality of choice. We in the wealthy countries can have almost anything we want when we want it. A 12-year-old virgin bride, no problem. A third world surrogate to have your child, done. A lion or tiger or elephant trophy for your great room, easy. Just because we can do these things doesn’t mean we should. The problem is we think we should because we can.

The idea of ethics and morals has all but vanished from the discussion. Our discussions of choices have all been justified through a capitalist construct that leaves a moral and ethical vacuum allowing justification of our choices: This girl was promised to me as a bride, therefore I own her. I paid good money to this woman to carry our children; she was fairly paid for her services. My canned-hunting trip benefitted the poor African village so now they can send their kids to school.

The treatment of animals has fallen into this vacuum with terrible consequences. Animals are consumed on every level as food, labour and experience and rarely does the question of what we ‘ought’ to be doing in regards to animals come up. We kill sharks to make our beaches safer for beach goers because we can hire people to do it. We eat shark fin and consume shark products because they are readily available in a simple commercial transaction at your local Chinese restaurant or chemist right here in Sydney. We go on baited shark dives because the tourism industry allows and profits from it.

While our personal moral framework allows us to decide not to participate in these activities, the social ethical framework is not enacted to prevent these options being present in the first place.

David A. Fennell’s book, Tourism and Animal Ethics (2012), gives an insight into this idea on page 12:

Saul (2001) argues that ethics is the most demanding of our human qualities and this can be discernable on two basic fronts. First, our capacity to be moral is contingent upon the will to resist the vast spectrum of human needs, wants and desires that we must have at any cost the recognition that we cannot have whatever we want at any price (Preece, 2005). Second, because morality can be taken to culturally derived extremes, it must be rooted in everyday life. In order for ethics to have utility, it needs to be exercised regularly – not unlike the muscles of the body that, if not exercised will atrophy and be of less use. How can we claim to be inclusive of thought in tourism if we are only now beginning to ask questions that have moral significance? And how is it that we can take pleasure in our touristic pursuits if they come at a cost to others? The pleasure principle continues to prevail in this field of practice, with little resistance from the philosophical domain. This statement, bold as it may seem, continues to hold weight.

My grandmother was a very cherished part of my family. She suffered from extreme osteo and rheumatoid arthritis from her late 40s until her death at 91. She was in extreme pain for the majority of her life and tried various remedies including cortisol, gold injections and finally shark cartilage. When she started using it, I was in my early 20s and remember feeling dismayed. My aunt admonished me harshly and questioned how dare I think of it as wrong and how could I possibly question any form of remedy for my grandmother. But I did question it and still do. I loved my grandmother very much but just because she had the option to use this possible remedy which might work (it did not) I didn’t think she should. I think these questions should always be at the forefront of these situations, not a possible footnote to the discussion after it has occurred.

The situation of shoot first and ask questions later is literally happening everywhere, especially in the recent WA shark cull. Many sharks were killed before the discussion even happened.
Our new technologically driven consumer mentality is not allowing time and space for these discussions to take place. Thankfully, this same technology enabled the mobilisation of many people to quickly spread the word of the shark cull and get the discussion into the public domain which allowed an end to the cull.

The question needs to come first. In terms of tourism in general, this question is rarely asked. Many of my friends and colleagues are travel junkies. They are in races with each other to see the most countries before they die. My discussions with them are often heated as the pleasure principle rules this domain and any questioning of it seems blasphemous. Should we travel to places to see sharks teased mercilessly with bait they rarely get to eat, to see sharks put into tonic immobility and treated as circus animals in their own domain? We feel we should do these things because we can. These options are laid out in front of us like a cornucopia of experience. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.