Sunday, April 6, 2014

Animals on the Table: Centerpieces

Captive animals have been objects of human gaze since the popularity of public zoos in the 19th century and as part of private menageries and collections before that.  Nonhuman animals have an even longer history appearing on dining tables for consumption by humans.  Oftentimes, the form of the animal is non-recognizable as just a piece of meat.  But sometimes – as famously linked with Henry VIII at his Tudor feasts – the animal appears as it did when alive, carefully reconstructed to be a stunning centerpiece.

Today, getting attention in magazines and on Pinterest, are table-displays with captive, live animals.


While goldfish, guppies, and bettas are the most common live animals gazed upon as centerpieces, the April 2014 issue of Martha Stewart Living has an idea for Easter decorations this year:  live rabbits.

While it might not be shocking that Martha and her editors have considered rabbits commodities for gustatory consumption, as demonstrated by a recipe she shared with readers in March 2001, it is a curious choice they’ve made to refer to real rabbits as Easter d├ęcor.  The verbiage of this How-To, along with its accompanying image, seem to consider live rabbits as easy-to-handle trinkets you might happen to have at your disposal.

"Add to the holiday tableau... if you have them on hand, a couple of Hotot bunnies."

Dwarf Hotots are cute as heck with those sweet faces and ‘eyeliner’ peepers, but even if it would be possible to get them to sit still as centerpieces, why the suggestion that readers try?  Back in February 2011, Martha met with a representative from the House Rabbit Society and learned of the unique needs of rabbits as “wonderful companions.”  Her website even includes adoption tips.  Yet, somehow, this year, real bunnies have been given a role of utility on par with craft moss and artificial, pastel eggs.

It is difficult to imagine Martha and her team suggesting the use of a few live, black kittens for a Hallowe’en centerpiece, or a couple of Labrador Retriever puppies – America’s most popular dog breed in 2013 – for a Memorial Day display.  (And her readers would surely be appalled at the idea of braising any of those animals with olives.)

How does a fish, rabbit or any other animal benefit from being on display on the table?
As a feast for the eyes, the live-animal "centerpiece" is ironically human-centered.

Berger, John. “Why Look at Animals?” About Looking, New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Swan Centerpiece:
Goldfish Centerpiece:
Betta Centerpiece:

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Grief Bacon

Lately I've been thinking about how we grieve, or don't grieve, for animals, and for which kinds of animals.

I've started working on a new book about the subject because while it's clear that people who call themselves animal lovers grieve quite strongly for their own animals when they die (that's what the Rainbow Bridge was created for, after all), most people don't think at all about the billions of animals per year who die to fill our bellies.

That's why I was struck by this image that has been floating around the Internet this week, and by the interesting German name associated with it: "Kummerspeck," which translates to, as the image says, "Grief Bacon."

The idea is that for many people who overeat when they are stressed or unhappy, putting on weight in the process, that weight is called "grief bacon." It can just as easily be called "unhappy fat" or "sadness fat" since technically "speck" means fat (pig fat, actually) but "grief bacon" sounds more pleasing to the American ear, I think.

But what if we turned around the notion of "grief bacon" and looked at it another way? What if, instead, we looked at bacon and felt grief for the dead pig whose life was taken in order to produce the bacon? What if the emotion of grief wasn't the sadness of the emotional eater, but the sadness of the griever, grieving for the pig who never got to feel any happiness in his or her life?

What if this was the new image that went viral with the words "Grief Bacon?"

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Sexual Politics of Vegan Food

Carol Adams has written extensively on the sexual politics of meat, arguing that women and other animals are both sexualized and commodified to facilitate their consumption (both figuratively and literally) by those in power. One result has been the feminization of veganism and vegetarianism.  This has the effect of delegitimizing, devaluing, and defanging veganism as a social movement.

But this process works within the vegan movement as well, with an open embracing of veganism as inherently feminized and sexualized.  This works to undermine a movement (that is comprised mostly of women) and repackage it for a patriarchal society.  Instead of strong, political collective of women, we have yet another demographic of sexually available individual women who exist for male consumption.

Take a browse through vegan cookbooks on Amazon, and the theme of “sexy veganism” that emerges is unmistakable.

Oftentimes, veganism is presented as a means of achieving idealized body types.  These books are mostly geared to a female audience, as society values women primarily as sexual resources for men, and women have internalized these gender norms.  Many of these books bank on the power of thin privilege, sizism, and stereotypes about female competition for male attention to shame women into purchasing.

To reach a male audience, however, authors have to draw on a notion of “authentic masculinity” to make a highly feminized concept palatable to a patriarchal society where all that is feminine is scorned.  Some have referred to this trend as “heganism.”  The idea is to protect male superiority by unnecessarily gendering veganism into veganism for girls and veganism for boys.  For the boys, authors have to appeal to “real” manhood. Thankfully Meat Is For Pussies (A How-to Guide for Dudes Who Want to Get Fit, Kick Ass and Take Names) appears to be out of print.

The vegan movement also favors the tactic of turning women into consumable objects in the exact same way that meat industries do.  Hardee's might have nearly naked women writhing on automobiles with dripping hamburgers, but vegan organizations mimic this by recruiting “lettuce ladies” or “cabbage chicks” dressed as vegetables to interact with the public.  PETA routinely has nude women pose in and among vegetables to convey the idea that women are sexy food.  Vegan pinup sites and strip joints also feed into this notion.  It is the co-optation and erosion of what is essentially a women’s movement.  Instead of empowering women on behalf of animals, these approaches could be disempowering women by preserving a patriarchal framework.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Media, Power, Social Change, and the Feline Absent Referent

My colleague Cheryl Abbate who is a graduate student of philosophy and animal ethics at Marquette University in Wisconsin shared this bizarre news story with me (please click to watch the video).  PETA paid for a somewhat graphic image of a cat undergoing medical experimentation to be posted on buses to raise awareness about Nonhuman Animal testing at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  In the clip, the news station frames the story as a question of obscene imagery and First Amendment rights.  The newscaster, the bus management, and the public are all presented questioning PETA's legal ability to post the imagery publicly.  Never once is the animal testing actually discussed.

Really, the image isn't even that graphic compared to the scads of absolutely horrific, keep-you-up-at-night, scar-you-for-life, secondary post traumatic stress disorder-inducing imagery that is out there (I just returned from a research trip to the Tom Regan Animal Rights Archive and I'm still trying to recover from the images I saw).  But why has the news story focused only on the First Amendment when the big elephant in the room (or suffering orange cat in this case) is staring us right in the face?

If the viewers relied solely on what the news story presented, they'd never even know there was a problem with the systematic torture and killing of cats in their community.  The university's violence against Nonhuman Animals is completely ignored.  Instead, attention is drawn to the  violence to those humans made uncomfortable by the image or those worried about harm to their business.  An attempt to raise awareness about the interests of the vulnerable has been manipulated as a story about the interests of the privileged.

Research has demonstrated that vegan rhetoric is often distorted by mainstream elite-controlled media to either defame and dismiss veganism, or twist animal-positive ideas to support the status quo.  The media is an agent of socialization created and maintained by those in power.  In this case, the multi-billion dollar science industry and the large university get the privilege to shape reality.  These entities not only hold tremendous sway over the community, but they have also infiltrated the institution of media itself.  As we know, the media is run by powerful white men and their corporate interests.

Indeed, many social movement scholars question the ability for social movements to successfully utilize the media to disseminate messages of radical social change and equality.  On the other hand, the power of morally shocking imagery was also demonstrated.  Many concerned citizens have been contacting the university with complaints.  Fortunately, the news team and others working to maintain the existing power structure can't follow the buses around and try to deflect everyone's attention from Nonhuman Animal rights to First Amendment rights.


Cole, M. and K. Morgan.  2011.  "Veganphobia:  Derogatory Discourses of Veganism and the Reproduction of Speciesism in UK National Newspapers."  The British Journal of Sociology 62 (1):  134-153.

Freeman, C.  2009.  "This Little Piggy Went to Press;  The American News Media's Construction of Animals in Agriculture."  The Communication Review 12 (1):  78-103.

Sampedro, V.  1997.  "The Media Politics of Social Protest."  Mobilization 2 (2):  1985-205.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Depicting Endangered Species

Does the public care about saving endangered and threatened species?

Yes and no.

Certainly, we say that we do, but our actions certainly tell a different story, as most of us go about our lives as if anywhere from 200 (on the very low end) and 100,000 species are not becoming extinct every single year, according to estimates from the World Wildlife Fund.

Unlike the previous five major extinction events in the world's history, what we are living through, according to most scientists, is caused primarily by humans. And yet most people do nothing to slow down the climate change which is largely responsible for many of these extinctions, for example, nor do they think about where the exotic wood that their furniture came from and what animals may have once lived in the rainforest from which it came, nor do they worry about the seafood that they eat and whether those fishes are being fished to the point of extinction, for example.

What would make us care, and more importantly, do something?

Studies (see for example Gunnthorsdottir 2001) show that people care more about animals that are attractive than those that are unattractive. So this article from January 2013 on the threatened nature of four arctic species highlights how "adorable" those animals are. As ridiculous as the headline seems, most readers really do care more if the animals are adorable, and thus may take some action to save them.

Artist Justin Steinburg took a similar approach. In a series of illustrations that he did for the World Wildlife Fund, he represented a number of endangered animals as sugar skulls that are used on the Dia de los Muertos--the Mexican Day of the Dead. This is the day when people through out much of Latin America pay respect to their dead ancestors. According to Steinburg's website, "we must learn to celebrate the beauty of these endangered animals while they are still alive."

Steinburg's illustrations, in borrowing the iconography of the Day of the Dead, highlights the fact that these animals are themselves on the brink of death, spurring the viewer to take action to help save them.

But it's worth noting that he also highlights their beauty, and that the animals he picks--a gorilla, a panda, and a tiger--are all among the most charismatic of the large animals, and thus, already those that we would feel most drawn to, and most likely to want to save.

If pandas, arguably one of the "cutest" of all of the animals (if you don't believe me, check this out), are on the brink of extinction, then what hope is there for an "ugly" animal like the Rabb’s fringe-limbed tree frog?

In fact, the fastest growing group of endangered species, with 1,895 out of 6,285 species in danger of extinction according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, are amphibians, one of the least-liked of all animals.

That spells bad news for the tree frog.