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.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Arrow Pierces Deer's Face and Lives to Tell the Tale: The Importance of Survivor Images

This morning, the story of a young deer in New Jersey who's face was punctured by a hunting arrow went viral.  The story ends happily enough: Through human intervention, he survived and lives to see another day.

While the news coverage was problematic for many reasons (mockingly nicknaming the deer "Steve Martin" after an arrow through the head gag he popularized, referring to him as "it," celebrating the wildlife department for saving him when the same agency is actually responsible for facilitating "hunts"), the shocking image is powerful enough to transcend speciesist media and offer a glimpse into the real horrors of killing Nonhuman Animals for "sport" and/or "food."

"Hunting" (I place the term in quotation marks to denote it as a euphemism) is like a private club or secret society for men who seek to consolidate their dominance in exclusive yearly meetings made inaccessible to the public.  Men convene in the woods to "bond," "appreciate nature," "get some fresh air," "catch up with friends," "learn life's lessons," etc.  All of these charming sentiments obscure the primary activity that differentiates "hunting" from a camping trip or a hike:  The intended slaughter of deers, bears, and other free-living animals.

Men use the seclusion of the back country to enact patriarchy in these male-only spaces.  The practice is reinforced with highly ritualized behavior.  "Hunters" spend thousands of dollars on licenses, guns, gun accessories, camouflaged dress, lures, etc.  Boys are initiated young and forced (killing is not usually a natural or desirable thing for children) to fire weapons at the Nonhuman Animals they once considered friends.  Killers often end the ritual by consuming the flesh of their victims.

For us advocates (women in particular) who are "uninitiated" in these secret male gatherings, killers assume that we "don't get it" or "don't understand" when we protest the violence.  Like all displays of male power, "hunting" is presumed necessary and any disagreement is thought to indicate ignorance.  This deflection of feminized resistance only reinforces "hunting" (a practice of male supremacy) as for men only and legitimizes male power.

Survivors offer a glimpse into this protected, hidden world.  "Hunting" classes recommend that killers keep their dirty work out of view of the public who would be offended.  Taxidermied corpses portray the animals still alert in life.  But survivors show us the horrors that the patriarchal pro-"hunting" ideology and murder-scene cleanups obscure.

Another survivor in Colorado.
At the time of the news report, wildlife authorities were seeking to help her.

The fact that many National Forest areas and parks practically shut down to the public for men to enter with weapons and inflict genocide on the innocent civilians of the woods demonstrates state-supported male entitlement to feminized spaces.  As eco-feminists explain, Nonhuman Animals and the environment, like women, are treated as resources that exist for men to pleasurably consume.  "Hunting" survivors are not unlike refugees living in farmed animal sanctuaries, rape survivors and slave narratives--they live to tell the tale of male violence.  They make the invisibility of oppression visible again.

See Brian Luke's Brutal:  Manhood and the Exploitation of Animals for more information on masculinity, speciesism, and "hunting."

Friday, November 1, 2013

Zoo Animals Around the World

Artists who photograph or otherwise represent non-human animals are one of the major inspirations for this blog. How they look at animals--whether wild or domestic, or in the wild or in captivity--tells us a great deal about how society as a whole sees, and also treats, other animals.

In these haunting photos by Canadian photographer Gaston Lacombe, we see animals kept in non-American zoos in conditions that most of us would find inadequate, to say the least.  Yet the reality is that many American zoos keep animals in conditions very much like these; many are better, for sure, but many are very similar and some are even worse, even as zoos both in the U.S. and around the world are all changing their message from "entertainment" to "education" and "conservation."

Either way, much of what is happening for the zoo visitor is looking, and much of what is happening for the zoo animal is being looked at, and all that the gaze entails.

From John Berger:

"The zoo cannot but disappoint. The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals. Yet nowhere in the zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal."