Tag Archives: the machine

The Naming of Cats – Cecil the Lion

Cecil (lying down) and Jericho, two named lions in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.  Photo: Brent Stapelkamp

Cecil (lying down) and Jericho, two named lions in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Photo: Brent Stapelkamp

My Facebook just pretty much exploded with photographs of Cecil, the GPS-collared male lion who was baited out of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe this month, shot, skinned, and beheaded so that a dentist from Minnesota could have something pretty on his wall.

Okay, it was terrible, it was stupid, let’s all fantasize about hideous fates befalling the hunter and the horrible guides who helped him do it.  Now, look past that for just a moment.  Approximately 655 lion trophies, perhaps more — each one shot, skinned, and beheaded — are exported from Africa every year.  The same tragedy which befell Cecil happens, on average, nearly twice a day.  Why does only Cecil’s death deserve global attention?

I’m not ripping on anyone supporting justice for Cecil; it’s an honest question, and I feel that answering it could bring us closer to finding out what it is that makes people commit offenses like this one.  Cecil appears to “matter more” than the other lion likely killed elsewhere for the same reason the same day, or the fourteen other lions killed that week, because he has a name.  A beautiful adult male trackable via his collar and identifiable by a distinctive, dark mane, he was photographed often and was familiar with, and to, visitors.  No doubt nameless when young, over time, with familiarity, he became Real, like the Velveteen Rabbit.  The mechanism by which this happens — by which humans bond with an animal sufficiently to imbue it with a perceived personality*, most visibly manifested in a name — is the same mechanism which creates vegetarians, pet owners and animal shelter workers.  I believe that failure of this mechanism is where we get people like the trophy-hunting dentist, who said:

“I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and [was] part of a study until the end of the hunt.”

This lion, killed previously by the same man, does not have a name.  Did you hear about this lion on the news?  Source: NY Daily News

This lion, killed previously by the same man, does not have a name. Did you hear about this lion’s death on the news? Source: NY Daily News

He was perfectly happy to “[pursue] an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally” until he found out the lion had a name.  Likewise, most of us were much less interested in him and his hobby until we found out the lion had a name.  Compare the reaction of people to the 19-year-old who posted photos of herself with unnamed trophy animals (including a lion) in 2014 to the backlash coming at Cecil’s killer today.  The 19-year-old blipped across my screen.  The dentist has held top billing for several days.

Serial killers do not relate to their victims as other people; they must “depersonalize” them before committing atrocities upon them.  Scientists do not name their laboratory animals.  (Part of why Jane Goodall’s research was considered so groundbreaking is that she did name the chimps, which was considered scandalously unprofessional at the time.)  Likewise, while dairy cows (who can live with their humans for years) sometimes have names; beef cattle (eaten after 18 months) generally do not.  Factory farmed animals do not have names.  (These animals all get identification numbers, which is a practice we’ve seen elsewhere as well, and for remarkably similar reasons.)  And hunters rarely name their targets (with some notable exceptions, such as “Old Three Toes“).

Looking at it the other way, when did you last see a pet owner whose dogs were named 1, 2, and 3?  Animal shelters name their animals, even if the animals also receive ID numbers.  Show and race horses are named.  Zoo animals (at least the “charismatic megafauna“) are named.  Animals on television are named.  And individual wild animals which are somehow distinctive, like Cecil, can become named.  This makes them Real.

We do not hold the same love for “tigers” that we do for Tigger; we do not hold the same love for “wolves” that we do for the Sawtooth Pack; we do not hold the same love for “lions” that we do for Cecil.  German Shepherds and collies were generic until we met Rin Tin Tin and Lassie.

From Names and Personal Identity, by H. Edward Deluzain:

“[The] bestowal of name and identity is a kind of symbolic contract between the society and the individual. …by giving a name the society confirms the individual’s existence and acknowledges its responsibilities toward that person.”

There is something about becoming Real, being given a name, which changes the animal’s perceived nature, often causing humans to treat it as a member of our extended family, rather than as a fashion statement, furniture, or food.  I am hesitant to call the process making the animal a person, but that is a very close description.  I am very interested in this mechanism, because it lies at the heart of what keeps us from becoming like that Minnesota dentist.

But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?

T.S. Eliot


*Please note that all animals have a personality, whether humans can perceive it or not.

 

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Why Don’t We Ship Meat Animals Comfortably?

Cages of living cats smuggled from China are loaded off a truck in Hanoi on January 27, 2015. Photo credit: Kien Thuc

Cages of living cats smuggled from China are loaded off a truck in Hanoi on January 27, 2015. Photo credit: Kien Thuc

On January 27, 2015, Police in Hanoi seized a truck carrying more than three tons of live cats, shipped from China to restaurants in Vietnam.  For those of you counting, that’s approximately 600-700 cats, at 8-10 pounds apiece.  In one truck.

The trade in dog meat pops up on my dash from time to time, along with photos of similarly crammed cages, but the concept of cat meat has generally appeared primarily in “humorous” references to Asian restaurants in America.  I am not surprised, but am saddened, to find the issue is quite real.

Deciding if there is some fundamental difference (hint: there isn’t) between the animals we keep as pets and the ones we keep as food is a long and hairy road.  Walking along it for a little ways: I think it is interesting (terrifying) that I usually see pet animals transported humanely if not luxuriously, but I never see meat animals shipped in reasonably-sized containers.  A million years ago I noticed an article which casually mentioned that a truck transporting sheep had fallen over, and 400 sheep were lost.  It occurred to me to wonder how crammed into the truck the animals were, if the truck was carrying 400 of them, and ended up figuring the sheep each had slightly less than three square feet in which to stand (provided they were standing at all).

There’s just something about how, once we have taken the mental step which allows us to think, “This animal is to be used for human consumption,” we lose all concept of “We should respect this animal as a living being in need of food, water, shelter, and personal space.”  Maybe it’s only for a “short time”, from the farm to the slaughterhouse; maybe “they don’t mind”, because you either cannot read, or deliberately misread, their behavior; but we never seem to ship food animals in comfortable crates.

Pet animals go in style; United Airlines, for example, requires that “each kennel should contain no more than one adult dog or cat, or no more than two puppies or kittens younger than size months, of comparable size, and under 20 pounds (9kg) each”, and “The kennel must be large enough for your pet to freely sit and stand with its head erect, turn around and lie down in a normal position.”  Delta requires that “[t]he kennel must provide enough room for your pet to stand and sit erect — without the head touching the top of the container — and to turn around and lie down in a natural position.”  Here is how meat dogs travel.  (Terrible, awful, graphic photo, accompanying terrible, awful, graphic article.)

Here’s how show chickens travel; here’s how meat chickens travel (from a page advertising this poultry/rabbit transport cage, which allows you to load “10-12 of live chicken” in a space 91.5cm x 51cm x 30.5cm, or about 36″ x 20″ x 12″ high).  (As an aside, here’s a frankly horrifying notice about how hatcheries use unwanted male chicks as packing material for female chicks.)

Show cattle; meat cattleShow pigs; meat pigsShow horses; meat horses.  (Please note that I tried to look for “neutral” photos here instead of “shocking”, we-don’t-normally-do-things-that-way photos.)

What switch flips in our brains that makes us make that shift?  How can we stop it flipping?  How can we unflip it?

The Monkeysphere

The online magazine Cracked, which is primarily known for cramming the maximum amount of four-letter words into the minimum amount of space but still occasionally tosses out some utter brilliance, in 2007 put out an article called “What is the Monkeysphere?”  The article presented the concept of Dunbar’s number, the theoretical maximum number of social relationships any given animal (including humans) can form and maintain at any given time.

The theory goes: Think about having a pet.  A dog, for example.  Your dog has a name (“Gozer the Magnificent”) and wears a funny hat and likes eating frozen rhubarb.  Now imagine you have five dogs.  Their names and personalities are a little harder to remember, but you can still keep them straight.  Now try to picture owning a hundred dogs.  Likely, you can’t even picture that many dogs, much less think of individual names or personalities for each.  The maximum number of dogs (or people, etc) with whom you can form caring social relationships is somewhere between five and one hundred.  That’s Dunbar’s number.  That’s the biggest social sphere we, as “monkeys”, can create.  That’s our monkeysphere.

Dunbar’s number varies from person to person and from species to species, but the basic principle is the same.  Where animal research, farming, zoos, and the pet industry — animal industry in general — goes wrong is about the point where the number of animals being cared for by any one person becomes greater than Dunbar’s number.

If a lab tech is told to care for ten mice, they all get names, personalities and individual identities.  A lab tech caring for a room full of 500 mouse cages, each containing between one and five mice, barely has time to count the mice as they blur past during each daily check.  A slaughter worker tasked with “stunning” four cows an hour can move slowly and patiently, properly aim the “stunning” device, and make sure each animal is dead before the rendering process begins.  A slaughter worker tasked with “stunning” one hundred cows an hour — as many currently are — is “processing” something like one cow every thirty seconds.  There is no time for patience or proper aim.  A zoo or wildlife park worker who cares for ten to fifteen animals has names for each one, and the animals are often treated as personal friends.  A zoo director, overseeing a collection of five hundred to two thousand animals, starts to see them as “units” rather than social companions.

Other factors — primarily money — come into it as well, but there is something about reaching Dunbar’s number that really damages the structure.  Once the humans can’t form social relationships with the individual animals anymore, they stop treating the animals as beings with which you might form social relationships — and that starts the whole downward spiral, where “what we should be doing” begins to look more and more different from “what we are actually doing”.

Just a thought.

This.

Slaughterhouse by Gail EisnitzWhen I first started working in the laboratory animal industry, and got my first taste of the Machine, my immediate reaction was that I was hallucinating.  I could not possibly be seeing what I was seeing, I reasoned, and I immediately went researching.  Surely there was an explanation for the things I saw happening.  Surely I was wrong!

It disturbed me beyond measure to discover that not only was I not wrong, but that I was only getting a miniscule taste of what was really happening.  The more research I did, the more horrified I became, until I eventually had to put things down and walk away.  Every time I tried to write something about a I would do research on a and then learn about x, y, and z as well.  Then I would have to research them, and….

These days I’m a little calmer, and I can pick up books and do research again.  My most recent acquisition, Slaughterhouse, by Gail Eisnitz, is the closest thing I have so far seen to what happened to my brain when I saw the laboratory animal industry for the first time.  Due to the “shock value” cover and title, I’d been avoiding it, but it turns out to be a well-written, rational, well-researched volume which makes its statement simply and reasonably (well, as reasonably as it’s possible to be in this case).  It follows Gail, a journalist for an animal welfare group, from the moment a USDA inspector writes her saying “Something’s wrong here” to her struggle to get someone, anyone, to break the story, and through it you see, through her eyes, her unbelievable, terrible discoveries.  Every piece of awful information leads to two more pieces of awful information, and the higher she climbs in the bureaucracy, looking for the source of it all, the more distressing it becomes as she realizes that the people in charge know, and they don’t care.

This is a book you will read with your mouth open, drop at the end, and say, “No.”  No, this isn’t true.  This does not happen.  She’s a journalist; she’s being sensational.  She’s biased.  She’s just selling a story.  Speaking as someone who’s seen another facet of the Machine at work — the laboratory side — Eisnitz is not lying.  The things she is describing are real.  They are happening right now.

It’s such a relief, and it’s so scary, to know that someone else sees it too.  Through my research, I’ve actually amassed quite a collection of books over the past few years, and most of the books actually corroborate to varying degrees what I personally saw, but Slaughterhouse is the first to describe the entire eye-opening journey of discovery.

I strongly recommend it, although I would suggest not reading it while eating a hamburger.

99% of the Time, the System Sucks

I am not a vegetarian, but, 99% of the time, I will not eat meat.

I was raised a confirmed carnivore, and, having worked with animals for many years, I appreciate the food chain as well as anyone else, including the human position on (or near) its top.  I double majored in biology and animal behavior.  I understand that we are all protein in different packages, and that protein moves around the system most efficiently via predation.

The people who taught me that animals are intelligent, living things with their own needs and personalities also taught me that everyone in the household — including the animals — works for their living.  While I took out the trash and cleaned the house, the dog defended it and provided ambiance; the cat caught the mice in the kitchen; the horse carted me around on its back in return for food and care.  Cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens (should) likewise enjoy a peaceful life being cared for, fed, sheltered, and watered before turning in their service, feeding the rest of the household.

Thus I feel that there is no moral imperative not to eat meat.  We are all (and this includes humans) required to work for our place in the world.  If I feed, water, and shelter a cow, and provide her with medical care — if I treat her like any other member of my family — I should be able to ask her for her milk, and, at time of need, provide her with a humane death, and eat her.  She will feed my family (and others!) for a month, properly apportioned.  If I stopped working and paying the bills, I would soon not have a house to live in, or any food to eat.  In the wild, animals work to obtain their own food, water, and shelter.  Why should a cow not have to work for her living?

My issue arises when the life of a captive animal moves from “work” to “slavery” — when the animal is no longer paid for its efforts.  This happens somewhere along the continuum from “small family farm” to “enormous animal factory”.  A farmer handling 20 head of cattle can call each one by name, tell you her birthday and her social rank in the herd, her likes and dislikes, and her medical history.  A farmer with 200 head of cattle has little time to spend with each individual.  A corporation with 200,000 cattle uses a computer to tag and electronically track its bovine “assets”, which become managed by electronic gates and subsystems and by several tiers of employees.

Today, an unimaginable number of animals are “processed” each day.  Large corporations, each encompassing dozens of farms, each farm managing hundreds of thousands of animals, provide most of our meat.  The entropy of such a system is enormous, and even if it began with the animals fed, watered, sheltered, and vetted, soon the edges will wear and corners will be cut.  Animals cannot be paid for their work — they can barely be counted.  When one “unit” “breaks down”, it is simply discarded — there are millions of others to take its place.  There is no time, when herding 10,000 cows a day through the milker, to be patient with a nervous cow, to notice impending mastitis, to separate a single animal to treat a small wound.  The process cannot be stopped.  In such a system, a dead animal is simply one who has reached the end of the assembly line early.  It can still be used: if not for human food, then for pet food, fertilizer, cosmetics.

The animals receive the bare minimum of care necessary to maintain them in an “alive” state, because they are (marginally) more useful alive and certainly easier to transport.  No time can be devoted to anything more than the minimum.  In the rush, things get delayed, ignored, forgotten.  Employees get overwhelmed and frustrated, and take out their anger on the animals.  Procedures are performed en masse, and if individuals cannot cope, they are culled.  The budget is tight, and animals cannot form a union and strike for better pay.

The methods of an animal’s eventual death under such a system — the “humane slaughter” which is such an unbelievable oxymoron it makes my eyes water — is a topic for another post, or perhaps a hundred posts.  It suffices to say that it isn’t, in any sense, the quick death free of pain and fear that all living things should receive.  Nothing about the factory farming system works — especially not for the animals.

Most of our commercially available meat today comes from these titanic animal factories.  While I love eating meat, and do not have any personal problem with eating another animal, I have all sorts of personal issues with the treatment of animals in such factories, and I will not eat animals which came from such places.  This leaves me out of luck at restaurants, most public venues, and other people’s homes — basically anywhere that does not get its meat from a small, family farm which still has a low enough number of animals that they can afford to handle them humanely.  These still exist, fortunately, and are becoming more popular, so now, with careful planning and researching, I am able to locate occasional meat-based products that do not involve the Great Machine.  And thus I am not a vegetarian; but in 99% of cases, I will not eat meat.

Euphemisms

When I shop for eggs, I wish to buy eggs which have not been factory farmed.  I know that standard living conditions for factory farmed laying hens in the United States involve up to five hens being crammed into a wire cage approximately one foot cubed, suspended above a trough full of droppings.  I appreciate the effort that the hens have put into creating those eggs for me to eat, and I do not show my appreciation for hard work by cramming birds into tiny spaces and watching them peck each other to death.  I don’t know.  Maybe I’m weird that way.

I want to fund the farmers who “pay” their laying hens (and any other animals they may have) with the standard package anyone should get for hard work: food, water, shelter, and medical care.  The problem is finding these farmers, because all the other farmers (or, rather, the massive corporations who employ those farmers, who produce most of our commercially raised eggs) have figured out that most people don’t like picturing chickens crammed into little cages.  They don’t want to actually stop doing that — that would be inconvenient and expensive for them — but they want us to think they have, so we’ll keep buying their eggs.  So they use euphemisms.

They started by calling the eggs “organic”.  That sounds nice.  We associate “organic” with things made without pesticides, without additional hormones, without dosing the animals with unnecessary antibiotics.  Surely animals being raised in “organic” conditions are happily out at pasture, frolicking with the butterflies?  Nope.  “Organic” does not imply a single thing about an animal’s housing conditions.  “Organic” eggs may come from hens which are not chemically treated, or at least not chemically treated above and beyond some extremely loose standards set (sometimes) by the USDA, but the hens are still crammed in little cages.  Little “organic” cages, possibly.

I’ve also heard “pesticide-free” and “vegan diet”.  All right, those are nice — I’d prefer not to eat pesticide-laced chicken, and I know that some large factory farms feed their living animals the ground-up remains of their unusable, dead animals — but neither one really affects the day to day existence of the chickens.  They’re still in little cages, although they are now a little less chemically altered, and less likely to catch horrible diseases from eating their ground-up predecessors on the assembly line.

A euphemism that’s becoming more popular now is “cage free”.  That sounds good, doesn’t it?  In fact, I bought “cage free” eggs (at twice the factory-farmed price) for a couple years before doing the research I should have done earlier.  “Cage free” does mean that the chickens are not crammed into tiny cages, yes.  But instead they are crammed shoulder to shoulder into huge barns, where they fight and have panic attacks every time the overhead lights turn on or off.  (In fact, many barns are kept dark most of the time, to “calm” the birds.)  They can technically move around, but there are thousands of other chickens in the way.  This may be better than standard, but it is still hardly a bucolic idyll.

In a similar vein, I have seen eggs from hens with “outdoor access”.  This means they cut a small hole in the side of the barn, with a yard about big enough for ten hens.  The remaining 10,000 hens in the barn never see this hole, or the yard.  But, technically, they have “outdoor access”.

The phrase which turns out to accurately describe “hens which are allowed to live much like hens should” is “pasture-raised” (or, as on the eggs that I buy, the legend “Our hens are kept on grass 24/7!”).  This means the hens are actually, honestly, kept outdoors.  It can be done, you know.  Even with a couple of hundred hens.  You bring them in at night and they lay eggs for you, and then during the day they go out and are hens.  You rotate them to new pastures regularly, so the old ones have time to regrow and recover, and you get some fine eggs from those happy, happy hens.

You know the big corporations are not pasture-raising their hens.  If they were, it would be all over the carton, because I am happy to pay six dollars a dozen for eggs if I know (and I do research to the best of my ability) that the hens which produced the eggs in question have been appropriately, handsomely paid for their work on my behalf, and I am sure the big corporations would love to get six dollars a dozen for their eggs.  (Standard, factory farmed eggs in my area go for a dollar fifty to two dollars a dozen, normally.)  Likewise, I pay twice the normal price for “pasture kept” milk and butter (“guaranteed kept on grass” and not “grass finished” or “organic” or “hormone-free”, although generally pasture-kept animals are also “organic” and “hormone-free” as well).

(I keep saying “the normal price” when I mean “the price of factory-farmed eggs”.  This reflects somewhat on our culture, and it also annoys me.  “Factory farmed” may be considered “normal” right now, but it should not be.)

Anyway, this whole mess offends me.  It’s part of a bigger picture, where scientists replace “lab rat” with “animal model”, and use even more horribly twisted language to disguise, as much as possible, that they’re letting kids slice up live mice for fun.  I can’t get into that right now, but this little mess, with “cage free” and “pasture”, is a start.

Step One

I have a message to communicate.

Over a two-and-a-half-year period from 2007 to 2010, I learned something.  It is a huge thing, an unimaginably complex thing, and it is horrible.  In this era of gratuitous exaggeration I hesitate to use a phrase like “it ripped chunks out of my soul”, but at times it felt like that was happening.  It snuck up on me slowly, aggregating imperceptibly out of little fragments of information, and then abruptly it was visible.  It was not a pleasant thing to learn.  Having it in my head now is difficult.  Knowing what I know, I have an urge to communicate it.  This is the kind of thing that I feel everyone should know.  It is awful, but it is fixable, and the first step to fixing it is to tell someone else about it.

I want to tell someone else.  I don’t know where to start.

The idea is so complex, I can’t fit it into a sound bite.  I can’t casually mention it over dinner.  And it’s unpleasant, so it’s not something you can take in all at once.  The mind just stops processing.  It took me two years to see it, and I was seeing little bits of it every day.  When the picture came into focus, it was breathtaking — but that focus rested on two years of accumulated pieces of data.  I can’t fit that into a blog post.  I can’t fit that into a piece of writing someone will want to read.  It’s too big to fit through a pencil, a keyboard.  The scream, waiting to get out of my head, is huge.

So I’m having to take the thing apart, piece by piece, and try to reconstruct the original fragments of data which led me to my original epiphany.  I’m probably going to do it wrong.  Some things I’m not remembering correctly, and some things are too painful to think about, even now.  But I want to tell someone.  I must tell someone.

When I figure out where to begin, I’ll get on with it.