Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Emerson said it best

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animal rights, sociology, psychology

In Frederik Pohl's novel Homegoing a space-faring race called the hakh'hli carry a herd of dedicated meat animals, the hoo'hik (pl. hoo'hiki, I think). They are a bit brighter than the average chimp, so every infant hoo'hik is "pithed" shortly after birth. This involves destroying the higher centers of the brain so the critter will never reach self-awareness. Hakh'hli scientists have been trying for centuries to breed a hoo'hik that is much less intelligent, but, they report, "It always ruins the taste." Imagine if we had to do that to our cattle…

Emerson wrote, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." A former boss had this guideline for writing research reports: "Consistency over truth." To paraphrase Ayn Rand (so wrong in so many other ways), be careful how you pick your premises. For example, some folks think all animals have the same rights. Take their premises to the logical conclusion and you realize that yon nest of termites must be allowed to devour your house, without fear of being poisoned or otherwise discouraged or hindered.

Along any spectrum we find a series of "stations", and when it comes to animals and animal rights, there is more than one spectrum. If we were truly consistent, our station along each of them would be similar, but this is seldom true. Hal Herzog has written on just this quandary in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's so Hard to Think Straight About Animals.

Consider the species Rattus rattus. A little smaller than a gray squirrel, they weigh ten times as much as a mouse. While most people will lay out snap traps for mice, fewer will do so for rats. Then there are the pet store rats (same species, but inbred so they are light brown or white); lots of people keep rats as pets, yet a wild rat outside is likely to be trapped or poisoned.

In these parts there are groundhogs, often called "whistle pigs." A friend tells of getting a live-catch trap, trapping a groundhog in her yard, and taking it across a river a couple miles from her home. She'd do this two or three times per summer. Once, taking a walk in a parkway on "her" side of the river, she saw a man letting a groundhog loose from a similar trap. She strolled over and made his acquaintance. He lived on the other side of the river. They concluded they'd been trading the same groundhog, or perhaps a family of them, for years.

A groundhog is big, bigger than a Chihuahua. Some people cheerfully kill them, but most won't, so they try the same trap-and-transport method my friend was using. These are various stations on the "How bad do you hate it?" spectrum. Nearly all of us swat mosquitoes, flies and especially biting flies; most will use a termite service to "treat" the foundation of our house if we get an invasion; how many of us will use deadly force against the rabbit that gets into our bulb garden? So there is some kind of line we draw. Rabbits, and perhaps groundhogs, are on "this" side of it.

I have almost always had a pet cat or two (right now it is one, a spayed calico). At one time our family had four or five adult cats and there was usually a litter or two of kittens about, waiting for us to find homes for them. In a rural area, there are usually plenty of takers for "good mousers". In spite of that many cats, we kept the place clean, and made sure they had basic veterinary care. But the occasional "cat lady" might have 50, 100, or more cats in a house, with cat pee and poop everywhere, and even one or two dead ones being eaten by the others. Does an animal hoarder really "love" the cats? I would say, No, but I can't presume to understand what she is really thinking or feeling. Most of us understand she has crossed some kind of line, but of what kind? It is hard to define.

Two spectra of animal issues are political hot potatoes these days: Meat and Research. I am a committed carnivore. I don't hunt, but it's mainly because I am a poor shot. I have carved up a few deer, rabbits and a pig or two with friends who were trading butchery for cuts of meat. I'm a little farther out this spectrum than the average. My former piano teacher is a vegetarian. When we have had her over, we cooked nutrient-rich non-meat dishes for her. She claimed to not be bothered by the meat dishes we ate ourselves. She is a "health" vegetarian, not an "it's wrong to eat animals" vegetarian. I don't claim to have any vegan friends, because there is no common ground. I don't try to "convert" them when I run across one, and I simply withdraw from efforts to "convert" me.

As to animal research, I take a careful stance. I was a subject of human experimentation, during the clinical trials of the Polio vaccines in the 1950s. My name was in the newspaper, along with about 50,000 other kids. But before kids were involved, there were trials with thousands or even millions of mice and other animals. I am glad there is a safe and effective vaccine for polio. To me it is worth it. On the other hand, I am totally against putting cosmetics in rabbit or hamster eyes to see if they are "irritating". Use human eyes, and pay the humans well. There are a number of cases of substances that pass the rabbit test, but still irritate human eyes, so let's use the appropriate eyes from the get-go!

Hal Herzog is a professor of psychology, and he studies how people relate to animals. He has visited cockfights (called "derbies"), volunteered at a no-kill sanctuary in Utah, gone along on turtle-nest-counting runs, and he and his wife have a cat named Tilly. He concludes that it is impossible for us to be totally consistent about animals. "Cute" animals, the ones that resemble human newborns, will always tug at our heartstrings. "Ugly" animals and those that compete with us for food or shelter will always get no respect. The tasty ones will always find people lined up to shorten their lives in favor of a filling meal.

Here is a statistic that, for me, summarized the dilemmas:
We kill 200 food animals for every animal used in a scientific experiment, 2,000 for every dog euthanized in an animal shelter, and 40,000 for every baby harp seal bludgeoned to death on a Canadian ice floe. (p. 176)
Millions travel to Yellowstone Park and other national parks every year, hoping to see bison, moose, elk, other deer, and the same Canada geese that crap all over the lakeside grass in our county parks. If citified Pigeons are "rats with feathers", I think of geese as "groundhogs with feathers." We all encompass such a variety of attitudes. We are like the Red Queen, who told Alice, "I make it a practice to believe seven impossible things before breakfast."

There either is a human world, or there isn't. As long as there is, there will be a variety of ways that animals are allowed to impact it. I do not accept that animals have "rights" on a level with humans. It cannot be so, or chaos results. If all animals have total civil rights (will they ever get the vote?), there is no human world. That is our dilemma, and as the only animal species with the organization and power to set those boundaries, it is up to us to endeavor to set them wisely, no matter how "inconsistent" some of them may seem.

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