Thursday, May 16, 2013

Dead Animals/Dead Animal Images

Animal rights advocates have long used images of dead and suffering animals as a way to draw attention to the exploitation of non-human animals by humans, just as anti-abortion advocates have long used images of aborted fetuses to protest abortion. In both cases, activists use the stark images of dead animals or fetuses to arouse in the passerby empathy, moral outrage, and, ultimately, action. They hope that people will change their outlook and take action to stop the suffering that they are witnessing.

Photo by Lawrence JC Baron
While these tactics are well-used, these photos from 2011, sent to me by Eric Greene, represent a much less common approach. These protesters, from the Spanish animal rights group, are not holding signs of dead animals, but are actually holding the bodies of  recently dead animals. Many of the protesters, as in the case of the man at the left, have been moved to tears by the animals they are holding and the action in which they are participating.

Photo by Lawrence JC Baron
As Eric mentioned to me when sending me these images, animal bodies are around us in many ways: we see them hanging in butcher shop windows or in pieces in the meat section of the grocery store. We see them on the side of the road as "roadkill." If we live in a hunting state, we see them whole in the backs of pick up trucks. If you have ever lived with a companion animal, you have probably cradled that animal in your arms while he lay dying, just as the man in the photo above is doing. But to see people standing in the street with hundreds of dead animals in their arms? It certainly begs attention.  This second picture, in fact, reminds me of a military cemetery like Normandy, with each human/animal body as a tombstone. Certainly for the activists, it is a war that they are fighting, and while the animals won't get a grave with a marker, this act is their commemoration.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Social Construction of Cockroaches

For many, cockroaches are stereotyped as dirty, file, disease-ridden, and unworthy of life.  Admittedly, even vegans sometimes have difficulty overcoming the "heebie jeebies" cockroaches can sometimes trigger--our socialization against certain animal species is that strong.

In many areas of the world, cockroaches are eaten as food.  Some places (like Russia and Jamaica) even use cockroaches in traditional medicine.  For Westerners, however, cockroaches are considered so vile, they are only worthy of human contact in derogatory "fear factor" contests. In fact, many of us find cockroaches so creepy, they are suitable for Halloween costumes.

Yet, as Sociological Images points out, "What seems normal is not necessarily  natural or inevitable."  Apparently Americans were not always so disgusted by cockroaches, as evidenced in this advertisement from the 1930s or 40s depicting well-to-do women gleefully participating in a cockroach race.  

Incidentally, cockroach racing resurfaced in Australia in the 1980s, where it continues today, albeit with the more charismatic hissing cockroach.

According to Cockroach, by Marion Copeland (2003), cockroaches have enjoyed an important role in human folklore, appearing in Aesopian fables and Greek mythology. They become symbols of clever wit, resilience, and survival.   They also represent the dichotomy of light and darkness, as well as power and weakness.

Cockroaches also surface in the story of human slavery and colonization.  For example, most of the species of cockroaches we are familiar with in the United States only arrived to North America with the Spanish colonizers of the 1500s and ships transporting slaves from Africa not long after.  Many oppressed peoples have taken on the cockroach as symbol of the injustice they face.  Alternatively, the cockroach image has also been forced on the vulnerable to dehumanize them and justify their subjugation.

The cockroach's long history in the story of humanity has not gone completely underappreciated.  In The Cockroach Papers:  A Compendium of History and Lore, author Richard Schweid reminds us that cockroaches, too, are sentient beings worth saving.  Smashing the stereotypes (he notes that cockroaches clean themselves as much as cats do, for example), Schweid reminds us that cockroaches serve many important functions for our ecosystem.  Ultimately, he argues, humans and cockroaches can and should coexist.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Cat Imagery in the Suffrage Movement

Cats were a common symbol in suffragette imagery.  Cats represented the domestic sphere, and anti-suffrage postcards often used them to reference female activists.  The intent was to portray suffragettes as silly, infantile, incompetent, and ill-suited to political engagement.

Mocking anti-suffrage postcard

Reads:  "We don't care if we never have a vote."
Photo from the Palczewski Suffrage Postcard Archive

Mocking anti-suffrage postcard
Photo from the Palczewski Suffrage Postcard Archive

Another common theme in anti-suffrage cartoons and postcards was the bumbling, emasculated father cruelly left behind to cover his wife's shirked duties as she so ungracefully abandons the home for the political sphere.  Oftentimes, cats were portrayed in these scenes as symbols of a threatened traditional home in need of woman's care and attention.

Public sentiment warmed to the suffragettes as police brutality began to push women into a more favorable, if victimized, light.  As suffragettes increasingly found themselves jailed, many resisted unfair or inhumane imprisonment with hunger strikes.  In response, jailers would often force-feed female prisoners with steel devices to pry open their mouths and long hoses inserted into their noses and down their throats.  This caused severe damage to the women's faces, mouths, lungs, and stomachs, sometimes causing illness and death.  The British government responded by enacting the Prisoner's Act of 1913 which temporarily freed prisoners to recuperate (or die) at home, at which time they could be rearrested.  The intention was to free the government from responsibility of injury and death from force feeding prisoners.  This act became popularly known as the "Cat and Mouse Act," as the government was seen as toying with their female prey as a cat would a mouse.  Suddenly, the cat takes on a decidedly more masculine, "tom cat" persona.  The cat now represented the violent realities of women's struggle for political rights in the male public sphere.

Sympathetic suffrage  postcard referencing the  Prisoner's Act of 1913
Photo from Collectors Weekly