Flickr Recent Photos


I am the walrus

I am the walrus

I am standing on a slippery rock next to a two thousand pound mountain of leathery blubber. Steam is coming out of her nostrils and she is turning her head toward me, wanting to get her whiskers rubbed. I’m a little freaked out but I oblige, and before I know it, I’ve fallen in love. Welcome to the walrus enclosure at the New York Aquarium. I recently spent the day there, looking behind the scenes, with a friend who has worked with the walruses, seals and sea lions there for years, training them and tending to their needs. Most of these creatures arrive at the aquarium as foundlings – in the case of the walruses, orphaned pups, whose mothers were killed in a subsistence hunt off the Alaskan coast. It didn’t take long for me to notice how mutually affectionate the relationships were between these animals and their caregivers – relationships that were so full of nuance and tenderness that it was obvious I was dealing with some pretty special creatures. Pinnipeds, as the members of the seal and walrus family are called, are easily as smart as dogs, maybe more so although it is hard to judge these thing precisely. They have complicated social hierarchies, can learn to respond to complex commands and like to play. They are the kind of animals we should feel a great fondness for but our species’ interactions with them have been violent throughout history. Perhaps it is because pinnipeds carry out the most graceful parts of their lives submerged in water, invisible and unknowable, that we have always felt compelled to set upon them as soon as they haul themselves out into our more solid environs. On some level, we must have always wondered what it might be like to be one of them, transiting at will between the world of land and air and the alien depths of the sea. Maybe we were even a bit jealous. But are the minds of animals really so unknowable? What is this separation between us and them? Is it all in our perception?

John Berger writes in his (1980 ) essay, “Why Look at Animals?” :

The eyes of an animal when they consider man are attentive and wary. The same animal may well look at other species the same way. He does not reserve a special look for man. But by no other species except man will the animal’s look be recognized as familiar. Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning the look.

There is, as Berger points out a built-in asymmetry in our regard for other creatures. Yi-Fu Tuan, in his (1984) ‘Dominance and Affection,’ makes the case that our affection for animals is essentially inseparable from our desire to dominate them. This seems especially apropos to Western culture. Über-naturalist David Attenborough concurs, specifically blaming Genesis 1:28 :

“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

The exhortation to dominate other creatures has wreaked havoc on the planet ever since Attenborough points out. As God’s favored species, we stopped wanting to see the world through the other animals’ eyes and we soon found ourselves looking over at them from one side of an un-crossable gulf. The Industrial Revolution didn’t help either. Abandoning what vestiges of mystical attachment we might still have had for our fellow creatures, we used our new-found science of economics to reduce them to conglomerations of commodities – meat, fur and oil – to be commandeered, processed and sold to the highest bidder. Donna Haraway argues that an emerging science fetish exacerbated the disconnect between nature and culture, enshrining narratives of dominance into the Western world view, whereby it became axiomatic that nature had been put in place exclusively for our use. With nature reduced to something external, the industrialized killing of animals proceeded apace. Enter the golden age of whaling and the extermination of the bison. Our faith in the ‘naturalness’ of our dominance put an end to our qualms Devastation ensued, but the attitude continued.

So who cares? Whether by accident or divine right, our species made it to the top of the shit pile. For those of us living in the (as yet) affluent West, animal products such as meat and leather are cheap and readily available. Surely we can tolerate a bit of cruelty to afford us the things we, after all, deserve. So what if we wiped out a few species along the way? We have been ingenious. It didn’t take long for us to invent substitutes for whale oil and buffalo skins. Yet many of us have pangs.

Consider the pinnipeds. Their lot is still a difficult one. As I watched the seals and walruses cavorting against the backdrop of the Aquarium’s artificial sea cliffs, I found it hard not to think of the plight of many of their wild brethren. Every spring, between two and three hundred thousand harp seals are bludgeoned and/or shot to death off the east coast of Canada – the largest annual kill of marine mammals on the planet. A war of rhetoric has raged for years between the proponents of the hunt, staunchly backed by the Canadian government and a well-funded animal rights lobby, who have effectively leveraged outraged celebrities as spokespeople for their side. The government touts the economic benefits of the hunt and has sponsored a veterinary study that concludes the clubbing of seals with a spiked implement called a hackapik can be acceptably humane, if carried out correctly. But in a hunt of this magnitude, there are inevitable lapses, where the seals aren’t cleanly killed and visibly suffer. Some escape, mortally wounded, only to die later. The animal rights people have documented several of these disturbing cases, posting them on the internet to great effect. The veterinary report, though comprehensive in what it focusses on, deals primarily with the effectiveness of the actual killing technique – that is the effectiveness with which the seals’ skulls are crushed and cerebral hematoma ensues, after which the sensation of pain is said to stop. The data by and large corroborates the government’s view that the majority of the seals taken suffer little pain before dying. But these are the best case scenarios, carried out in the presence of inspectors. The science of suffering is a complicated thing. To understand it more fully, one need

s to look beyond the mere
instant of a seal’s death and consider the agitation it experiences before being killed. We face the same old problem again. We need to get inside the animal’s mind.

Temple Grandin has explored the terrain of fear and agitation in her groundbreaking studies of cattle on their way to be slaughtered. Her genius was to rethink the entire killing process from the cow’s point of view and to then to modify slaughterhouse accordingly, to minimize the animal’s stress at every stage up to and including the moment it dies. Grandin’s work even garnered her a PETA award for its contribution to the reduction of animal suffering – an amazing feat given the organization’s general antipathy toward the meat industry.

By this sort of standard, taking the animal’s psychology into account, the humaneness of the commercial seal hunt leaves a lot to be desired. The shifting North Atlantic ice is a far less controlled environment than a slaughterhouse and corners inevitably get cut. These intelligent and social animals are often killed within sight of each other or are chased across the ice floes, bullet-riddled and bleeding, before being finished off with the spiked clubs. Not surprisingly, this isn’t exactly soothing for the seals and though this kind of brutality occurs in the recreational and subsistence hunting of other species, the sheer scale of the seal hunt – the huge number of animals involved and the commercial pressures which the sealers are under to meet quota – put it in a class by itself. Industrial hunting is a recipe for animal suffering, even though we might intend otherwise.

But does it matter? This is after all a moral question. Temple Grandin entreats us to understand that “animals are not things.” Surely then we should accorded them some basic dignity. If, like Grandin, we were able to imagine ourselves in the animals’ place, maybe we’d start to treat them better. Inhabiting the animal mind though, isn’t really as easy as it sounds, especially if one lacks Grandin’s unique cognitive gifts. They are like us and not like us, according to John Berger. To think of animals merely as fuzzier, more primitive versions of ourselves does them as great a disservice as turning them into commodities. Since we can’t easily teleport an animal’s mind, how then can we even begin to appreciate its needs?

An intriguing way to think about this was proposed, way back in 1934, by the biosemiotician, Jakob von Uexküll. In his ‘Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men,’ Von Uexküll introduced the concept of Umwelt, which he defined as an animal’s entire subjective, spatio-temporal world. This Umwelt is populated by a series of ‘marks’ or carriers of significance, which constitutes the entire universe of things a given animal cares about. This might include: others of its own species, predators and prey, or certain features of its habitat. Von Uexküll maps out the Umwelten of an assortment of creatures including sea urchins, honey bees and jackdaws. Sea urchins seem most concerned about the locations of shadows in their habitat, whereas jackdaws pay attention to their social networks and the dispositions of neighbourhood cats. Their Umwelt also includes internalized maps of the highly ritualized flight paths they follow around rooftops and trees. For a jackdaw, it is important not just to fly, but to fly in the right way.

Seen from the point of view of a seal’s Umwelt, the commercial hunt must be a horrific experience. There is, I think, a clear case to made for revisiting the standards under which the hunt is conducted and to focus on the agitation experienced by the animals prior to being killed. This hunt is a commercial enterprise and is allowed to continue primarily because of its contribution to the regional economy. But the cost to Canada’s reputation as a humane and progressive state should also have a place on the balance sheet. This debit has been building for years and is now accrued to the point where it might be too high.