Sweet pandas and rats with wings

By Jane C. Desmond

The hunters and the hunted (Issue II/2021)


Joyful elephant. Photo: Tim Flach

Goats strolling in the streets of Llandudno, Wales, seabirds swimming in newly clean Venice canals, sea lions lounging on sidewalks in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and wild turkeys romping in a playground in Oakland, California…these are just a few of the remarkable images appearing in newspapers around the world over the past 9 months as humans abandon the streets of cities large and small to quarantine during the Corona virus pandemic.

For all its devastation and loss of life, the pandemic has also underlined, in undeniable urgency, our deeply intertwined relations with animals. This time of global crisis is also a moment to reconsider those relations, to deepen our understanding of the historical, cultural, economic and ethical underpinnings of the myriad of ways around the world that humans live with animal species as varied as tarantulas, cats, pigeons, boar, elephants, donkeys, and of course, pangolins, the latter proposed as a vector for the transmission of the Covid-19 virus to humans.

“They may appear as pests that infest our kitchens, or as revered figures in some religious iconography.”

Even in the most urban of settings, our daily lives are saturated with animals—whether in children’s picture books, in the celebrated dishes of national cuisines, as pets lounging by our feet, or as exotic sights on display in local zoos. Animals are the source of leather for our shoes, the fur trim on a winter coat, the wool mittens, the ingredients in some traditional medicines.  They provide us with sporting entertainment on the racetrack, and serve as research subjects in our labs, including those used right now in the development of Covid-vaccines. They may appear as pests that infest our kitchens, or as revered figures in some religious iconography. Many of these relations we have with animals are so naturalised that we simply take them for granted.

In the last couple of decades though, our understandings of these relationships have begun to change as a new interdisciplinary field of study, called variously “human-animal studies” or “anthrozoology” has begun to develop rapidly and to start to take hold in universities and research centres in many countries, especially, but not exclusively, in the U.K., the E.U., in Australia and New Zealand, and the United States. This new interdisciplinary work strives to understand the complexities and contradictions of how human communities actually construct our relations with animals, and to grasp what difference that makes to us, to the animals, and broadly to the environment we share.

Central to this new work is the understanding of cultural difference. An animal, like a grasshopper, may be largely seen as a pest, a foe of agriculture in the Midwestern corn fields of the United States, a being to be eradicated with sophisticated chemical pesticides, while in Thailand similar insects may be seen as a good source of protein, a crunchy snack. Indigenous and other cosmologies in some parts of the world may revere specific animals, drawing their image into art forms like dance, temple carvings, and song. Even the pigeon, alight in so many cities, can be cared for as a valued part of social heritage, as among Berlin pigeon racers of Turkish origin, or shooed away, seen as a pest, denigrated as “rats with wings” in places like New York City.

Psychologist and researcher Hal Herzog, in his well-known book “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat” (2010), shines a light on these multiple relations and emphasises the contradictions so many of us live in our daily life. Why, in some communities, do we pamper our dog as a pet, regarding him or her as a “member of the family,” (which is how a majority of dog owners surveyed in the U.S. describe the relationship) while in other places dogs may be eaten as part of special stews (as in some parts of S. Korea or China for example)? 

These are some of the contradictions we live with and that become normalised, but of course it all depends on who that “we” is referring to. Here is where a careful study of communities, cultural frameworks, and histories is so essential and so revealing. What is accepted, even celebrated in one community, may be denigrated, or forbidden by custom, or religious tenets in another. In Cuba for example, roast pork has traditionally been eaten as a special meal on Christmas Eve, but in traditional Muslim and Jewish tenets, pork would be seen as “unclean” and avoided.

“Elephants are charismatic megafauna, and easy to care about.”

These relationships between animals and humans are subject to change however. What was acceptable to one generation may not be to another, as current younger animal activists in South Korea demonstrate, working against the consumption of dog meat. And as scientists learn more about the extraordinary abilities of animals, our current relationships to them are subject to scrutiny and even long-standing traditions can be retired. In 2017, for example, after 146 years in the business, the renowned Ringling Brothers Circus, dubbed “the Greatest Show on Earth,” closed down after years of protests by animal activists against its keeping of elephants in captivity.

Elephants are charismatic megafauna, and easy to care about.  But many species are in danger, and we are losing species at an alarming rate, so much so that our own epoch has been dubbed by some scientists as the “Sixth Extinction.” How do scientists get the public to care about the vast majority of species that aren’t charismatic?

Herzog emphasizes the importance of “cuteness” in how we relate to animals, and the choice of the panda as the logo for the World Wildlife Federation recognises this power of animal charisma to move us to action on behalf of certain species. But, in fact, we are just as dependent on the non-charismatic as those alluring mammals. The alarming decimation of the bee population makes clear how dependent we are on these buzzing, stinging pollinators, not just for fruits and vegetables, but even for the beauty of the flowers on our table.

“Some primates, trained in captivity to communicate via symbol systems, can even communicate with us in OUR languages, as did Koko the gorilla.”

One of the drivers of recalibrating relations with animals is our ever-growing grasp of their abilities. Our understandings of animal cognition often depend on measuring how they stack up against our own. After all, this line of thought goes, did an animal ever invent calculus?  Invent tools? Paint a picture? Devise complex languages?

Recent research suggests that every time we draw that line of human exceptionalism, we start to find it smudged by new research. Many species (like chimpanzees and crows), seem to have a sense of numeracy, and can communicate in complex ways. Some primates, trained in captivity to communicate via symbol systems, can even communicate with us in OUR languages, as did Koko the gorilla. Other animals, like the bower bird who assembles nests that look like art installations, seem to display a sense of aesthetics, and some species, like primates and dogs, can even demonstrate what seems to us like a sense of ethics, calibrating actions along lines of “fairness” in the distribution of food. And many animals seem to mourn, as Barbara J. King shows us in her book “How Animals Grieve”. Elephants, for example, sometimes surround the body of one of their dead, gently touching the body with their trunks, standing for hours as if in recognition of the passing.

Ultimately, it seems likely that in the 21st century as our understandings of animals slowly increase, our ways of treating them and our sense of obligation to them, on farms, in courts of law, and in the shared environment on which both human and non-human animals depend, will transform substantially from what it is now.

What might the future look like if we took seriously a goal of making our relations with animals more conscious, more ethical, more compassionate, and more attuned to their needs and not primarily our own?

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