Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bucking the Odds: The Head Shot, the Lead Bullet, and the High-Cost Contract to Kill Deer in Bloomington, Indiana

Frida Kahlo "The Wounded Deer"

 In the "progressive" town of Bloomington, Indiana, the City Council passed an ordinance, despite the Mayor's veto,  and then the Parks Board  signed a contract for a company of sharp shooters to come kill deer at our local nature preserve.

Let's stop with the euphemisms of "a tool for deer management" and "reducing the population." Let's stop calling it a "harvest" or a "cull." 

Hard as it may be, please LOOK, READ,  and WITNESS.

This is what killing a deer looks like:

The  other night at Science Cafe, Dr. Angie Shelton, the plant biology  author of the study done at IURTP on which public policy to kill deer has been based,  assured us  that the sharp shooters  the City has contracted to kill  up to 100 deer at Griffy  don't miss (never?) because they use "head shots," and that they've called their tactics "very humane."

Dr. Shelton  also dismissed citizens' concerns raised about their using lead bullets, despite the fact that California has already banned them, and other states are looking into doing the same for environmental reasons. 


Quote from a hunter: "A deer's brain is under the size of a tennis ball .. so as long as you can guarantee that you can hit a swinging tennis ball on a string every time .. knock  on wood..."

 So much for head-shot accuracy.

Another caveat about head and neck shots  from an experienced  hunter writing on Whitetail Heaven:

 So, where on an animal should we try to place our bullet to ensure a one-shot, clean kill? There's no denying the surest fatal shot is to the brain or spinal column. Either will put an animal down almost instantly, and result in very little ruined meat. Under most circumstances, however, this is not a shot I would recommend. For starters, the brain is a relatively small target, and even a narrow miss can result in a broken jaw, lost eye or other similar wound that condemns an animal to a most unpleasant, slow death. I once shot an antelope sporting a fresh bullet wound through the bridge of its nose. Whether the hunter who first hit it was aiming for the brain, I can't say for sure, but the buck was clearly laboring, almost choking on blood, and would have suffered considerably had I not come across it.

Neck shots are equally uncertain, as the spinal cord must be severed to ensure instant death. Miss by even a little bit, and you've probably got an animal with a muscular wound from which it will likely recover, but not without considerable agony. In the worst-case scenario, you may sever the trachea-the animal will likely escape, but suffer a lingering demise. When neck shots don't connect directly with the spinal column, an animal will often drop to the ground almost immediately but quickly recover and run off. If you shoot an animal in the neck whether by design or by accident-it's therefore important to keep a close eye on it until you've confirmed it's down for keeps.

Head and neck shots do have their place in the right circumstances, but they should only be taken at close range by capable shooters who know their quarry's anatomy. They're also acceptable in the rare event of an emergency, when a dangerous animal needs to be brought down in a hurry. "

And this from a hunter's blog in Field and Stream on  why head shots on deer are "contemptible":

"The most damning testimony against headshots is readily available. Anecdotal evidence is everywhere, and a quick Internet search will produce all manner of gory photos of deer without jaws or those otherwise disfigured by errant headshots. The lung shot, on the other hand, provides the same lethality and conservation of meat, while affording a much greater margin of error. Even a heart shot, slightly off, will strike the lungs". (

All these photos are from the sites of proud hunters. This one, titled "Deer Face Blown Off," was taken by a  proud father whose little son took the shot, and  who gloats that you can see the bullet hanging off the jaw:

Oh, and by the way, the $31,000 the City claims the sharp shooting of deer in Griffy Lake Nature Preserve will cost, may not be the whole story.  Solon, OH, ended up spending  about $160,000 their first year of killing deer---with added costs of security, meat processing, etc.

Indiana University, on whose property Dr. Shelton's studies were done (a property abutting the IU Golf Course, which everyone knows is "deer salad bar"), is not allowing hunting on their land, nor are they helping to foot the bill. Bad publicity? 

Here's how you process a deer:  BE FOREWARNED: A dozen graphic images, but very telling. This is image number one:



Monday, July 21, 2014

Don't Shoot the Messenger:

(This post is prompted by a lengthy discussion I had last night with two super smart, visionary friends who are architects, one of them specializing in natural landscaping--my thanks to them).

 Listen up:

Bloomington doesn't have a "deer problem."

Bloomington has a "people problem."  It has an over-development problem. It has an urban sprawl problem. It has social and class problems. 

But the deer are easier to blame. Their presence annoys some  privileged homeowners (and homeowning is a privileged position) who maintain ecologically-damaging  but ever so pristeen chemically-treated expanses of lawn, their ornamental gardens free of weeds through the use of broad-spectrum pesticides like RoundUp (thanks to Monsanto) and other versions of glyphosphates.  They're frankly pissed off because they pay a lot of money to landscapers and to garden centers to get their expensive ornamental plants, with no one telling them  that, Like us, deer love wide open spaces full of things to eat.  These folks might as well put up "DINE HERE" signs. (I garden without any toxins for myself and the wildlife,  and there's more than enough to go around.)

I bike and walk a lot around town,  and a day doesn't go by that I don't see some homeowner  in the "fancier" neighborhoods attacking a patch of unwanted plants with a container of RoundUp or other posison. Goddess forbid you should have a dandelion (though the some of the same folks might well  head to the Farmers' Market on Saturdays with their special "market basket" to buy the very same dandelion greens from organic farmers).

Leaving the hardware store the other day I almost bumped into a man carrying a birdhouse in one hand and a 5-gallon jug of RoundUp in the other. Did he not put the two things together?


Bloomington is a town in which the university dominates. There are at least two Bloomingtons, a version of similar town-gown splits in other university towns.   Like many towns, the affluent and the poor live in very different worlds, and while there are grumblings about homeless panhandling and so on, most of those in the "professional category" (however one defines that) can move about "untainted" by the signs of poverty and desperate, from the organic co-op to the upscale restaurants for meals that cost a month's worth of groceries for many poor.

The City has slowly been transforming  downtown into luxury condos and apartments for wealthier students who apparently wouldn't dare show up to college without all the  "amenities" (gyms, cable,  pools). Rents can go for a couple grand a month, and many of them drive brand-new SUV's  (Something is wrong with that picture: I'm a professor with a  mortgage of  $594 a month, and a 10-year old car).

More and more construction of  ugly high-rises and the emergence of even more brew pubs and bars  where students can get drunk,  pushes the rest of us out of downtown. Welcome, students,  to Smallwood Plaza,  with its own fitness center, etc.:

Welcome, students,  to  Renaissance Luxury Apartments under construction.

In  addition to adding to  the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots (the haves can afford these places, the have-nots can't), Bloomington's rapid and seemingly unchecked development  has  devastating effects on our environment, as well as the character of this community.  It's the same old story seen in big cities San Francisco, New York, and so on---old-timers are being pushed out, areas are getting "gentrified" (code word for better-off white people with Architectural Digest on their coffeetables, granite countertops, and vaulted ceiling updates), that eliminate old mom and pop stores, which are replaced by expensive coffee shops and restaurants popping  up like mushrooms.

Additionally, as student rentals of what were once single-family homes  overwhelm many old neighborhoods, more and more  faculty and "professionals" choose to live "out"  in developments, some of which cater to the McMansion set, but all of which generally now necessitate the use of cars to get anywhere--and where again,  "chemically-treated lawns" and ornamental gardens, often maintained by lawn service companies  employing leaf blowers and huge riding mowers  (the gas fumes alone are enough to choke the town) are almost de rigeur.

This is NOT the "New Urbanism," as it was initially conceived, which was in its early years intended to create architecturally-and socio-economically- mixed neighborhoods that were walkable, sustainable, and inclusive.  But, in fact, what we have  here is not only reckless development that caters to well-off students and professionals with six-figure incomes, but contributes to endless sprawl  with a major impact on our environment.  All of this continues to fragment and disrupt forest and wild areas,  and is  also elitist and classist. This is the "the new segregation."

Bloomington claims to be progressive, it claims to value "diversity" (what a horrid word), it claims to be a "green city," but it's far from it.

Herbicides are used to control not only parks, but forest areas, including Griffy Lake "Nature Preserve," for which the City has recently signed a contract with White Buffalo Sharp Shooters to come kill the deer by sharp shooting them. More poison like triclopyr (also used on campus by IU biologists in places like Dunn Woods) and more killing. 

Labeling the deer as "the problem" and diverting our attention from thinking about the larger horrors of over-development and loss of habitat and all the environmental damage is maybe what makes human beings so dangerous. 

The B-Line  and Clear Creek Trails, which I often walk and enjoy, are  increasingly  surrounded by more ugly developments, as greenery and trees vanish. No plan was made for wildlife corridors or for preserving a sufficient amount of   green space. Herbicide and "overmanagement" are de rigeur.  Commercialism seems to be the name of the game.   "Nature" is almost archaic.

But the fact is, we need to stop ignoring what the land and the animals are telling us.  STOP BEFORE YOU DO YOURSELVES IN.

Here are a few examples from Bloomington:

This used to be a wildlife preserve on the Sarkes Tarzian estate in Bloomington until developers like  the ironically named "Deer Park Management" bought it and took away all the habitat and set deer loose in the City. Notice their logo is a deer.  But the  real deer are gone, and now living their lives in neighborhoods (they are welcome in mine).

The  displaced deer initially fled to another brushy, wooded area across the street and lived there until more developers came in and created Renwick, and a "faux-urban village," which is more like a bad suburb where a mix of upper-middle-class and wealthy reside.

They call this their Renwick  "village center." It consists of a high-priced workout center, a coffee shop, a women's clothing store, a hair salon, and a store selling expensive workout clothing, etc.   Poor people do not live here. One rarely sees strollers, hikers, joggers, or bikers. 

This is not progress, this is devolution.  This is also not "new urbanism" as it was initially conceived, but a blight of quickly dated housing.  It doesn't have a real center or foster a strong sense of community. This is selective isolation from  the real Bloomington, and the residents still have to drive their cars and trucks to get anywhere  they would actually want to be (it's not really walkable unless you're heading across a very busy intersection to chain stores like Kroger's).

And so the City spends 4 years doing studies on deer and planning for their kill.

Bloomington needs a truly progressive voice---but it might already be too late.

For now, I'm listening to what the deer are saying:  I'm not your problem.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

More Bang for Their Buck

Background: (if you already know the story, skip right  ahead to "More Bang for Their Buck" below)

In Bloomington, Indiana, where I currently live---a town proud of  its progressive politics in a very red state---the City Council passed an ordinance (7-2)  to hire a company of  professional sharp shooters to come into our local nature preserve  this winter and bait, lure, and kill deer who will come to trust the food source in the winter when they are hungrier. The hired assassins  will wear camouflage and  night-vision goggles, and  fire from tree stands in a quasi-militaristic operation.

 The Parks Board (4-0) approved and signed the contract, and the Mayor,  an animal advocate who has opposed killing the deer, signed as well. The cost to the city: $31,000 a year (plus security and other "incidentals"). As both our DNR biologist and a representative of White Buffalo, the head of the company contracted to kill deer, described what will become an  annual event: "It's like mowing your lawn."

Killing deer---mowing lawn.  Hmmm, maybe I'll stop getting out the reel mower that I occasionally run over my patch of grass and just go shoot some deer. After all, it's the same thing, right?

There is  thin evidence that the deer are solely responsible for changes in the forest  here  and  plenty of evidence that  we   human  animals have created the  problems  that lead affect our natural world, like climate change/global warming, using  herbicides  to "manage" the forest, etc.  The  "preserve" is actually a multi-use recreational area that allows fishing and boating and hiking, and a portion of it abuts the Indiana University Golf Course, which in its chemically treated savannah-like greenery, is a deer buffet. (If only we could teach the deer to golf!)

Even if it were determined through a count that there are too many deer (too many deer can mean different things to different people), there are numerous humane options to killing deer,  but without a count, no one knows how many deer there are. So if White Buffalo kills the 100 deer the contract permits them to kill, there might be 0 deer left.  Calls for head counts have been met by disdainful and dismissive remarks by our public officials, writing opponents off as "Bambi lovers" and "naive," and even "the same as climate change deniers."  No need, they say, we can tell with our keen eyes  from browsing patterns there are too many deer. You   Oh, excuse me, I forgot, le mot de jour is "over-abundant." The deer, they say, are "over-abundant." And what about the human population?Are we not "over-abundant" as well, as we ruin our own planet?

Even Indiana DNR biologists concede  the deer at our park are far from biological carrying capacity, meaning they aren't close to eating themselves out of house or home.  Our  officials tried "the deer are starving and it's only humane to put them out of their misery" rhetoric.  But  the DNR also  described the herd as  very healthy.

Many opponents are questioning not only the questionable science, but  also   the questionable ethics of killing healthy,  sentient beings.  But moral arguments fall by the wayside as opponents are  denounced as   "Bambi-loving idealists" who care more about animals than people (you know the kind--some of them are even radical vegans and just kooks, a real fringe element), and  who  don't understand that nature is cruel (huh? you mean it's not all love and happiness out there in the kumbaya forest?) and who anthropomorphize wildlife  (you mean eagles and rabbits don't meet for cocktails,  and foxes and possums don't have book clubs?).

And now the DISCLAIMER:  For those tone-deaf and often thin-skinned  public officials who endlessly complain they are so  offended by what  opponents to the deer kill are saying, as in "deer killing deer is unnecessary and  inhumane," please note that  what follows is  a nod to the tradition of 18th-century wit Jonathan Swift's famous essay,  "A Modest Proposal."  HINT: It is a satire.

A Modest Plan for Humanely Reducing the Populations of Both Deer and Low-Income People

Just in case all this  "Bambi-loving" talk about compassionate conservation and ethical environmentalism has actually provoked any doubts among even our most  sensible citizens that the plan to reduce the deer population through a cull is not humane, allow me to join public officials pressing for the kill in easing  everyone's mind that not only are these sharp shooters as accurate as smart bombs (making the kill completely humane), but the deer meat, which we refer to by its francophilic moniker "venison,"  will be donated to the poor and low-income,  many of whom are, as we know, not taking full personal responsibility for their destitute situations.  No one is going  to go so far as to call anyone  shiftless and lazy, but  they are eating up public resources like pigs in a truffle patch, and they place a heavy burden on hardworking taxpayers by reproducing offspring at alarming rates.

So it makes good sense to donate  the sharp-shot carcasses of  these monstrous, herbivorous  deer, because  what insensitive lug would ever stand in the way of boosting the protein levels of  our hungry brothers and sisters? (Apparently those afore-mentioned  Bambi-lovers care more about saving a bunch of "rats with hooves" than filling the bellies of the starving with something other than dastardly peanut butter).

This  plan is close to foolproof, because from a PR standpoint it  comes  cloaked in kindness (unlike the distasteful idea some have proposed of rounding up the poor and  baiting and luring them to their deaths when they're hungry--sharp shooting indigents  is apparently not on the menu of  services that White Buffalo provides).  But here's the additional and  unseen benefit. The sharp shooters will be  using lead bullets, which we've been assured are  safe because their shooters are so accurate (how clever of them to ignore the brouhaha generated by the  Left Coast People's Republic of California which has banned lead bullets  after claiming to discover evidence of environmental damage and dangers to other animal life, not to mention the  so-called  hazardsof consuming lead in meat, particularly by pregnant women and children). 

Permit me to add a link here to demonstrate the kind of wonky, anti-scientific, and sentimental pablum  these bleeding hearts  rely on to support their inane cause:

And another from that radical, animal-loving organization the Humane Society of the United States, who seems to forget the word "human" is "humane" without the "e":

And this from a  hunter who appears to have gone soft in the head:

It's easy enough to  discount  all these naysayers fretting  about health and environmental impact  of lead bullets, since the fact that our great state of Indiana  allows hunters to use them  certainly proves there's no harm. (After all,   Indiana made #2 on the left-wing HuffingtonPost list of the least green and most polluting states. From my own observations, no  one seems the worse for the  million pounds of PCB waste Westinghouse dumped in our very own county that poured  into landfills and waterways.)

The  added benefit to this lead-filled  bounty of deer meat--oops, I mean venison--- plan is that   in these fiscally-challenged times when we should be growing our businesses and putting our dollars into more profitable ventures like all the   high-rises and hotels and fancy student condos downtown (and removing those annoying benches where homeless people like to sit and sleep, and spoil the view), killing deer and serving   lead-laden meat to the poor and down and out  offers the potential of a  cost-saving  opportunity extraordinaire. Now some of these nattering nabobs of  effete extremism claim that lead from bullets in meat  affects overall health and may contribute to organ failure (even so, sometimes euthanasia may be  the most humane  way out of poverty), but my modest proposal here focuses on the potential for  merely decreasing fertility in those who consume it.  This means that as we reduce the deer population with hired sharp shooters,  we can simultaneously, by donating the lead-laden venison to food pantries,  assist in reducing  the number of poor people by being proactive in limiting  their procreation.

Voila! It's killing two birds with one stone, so to speak,  by feeding  one to the other, thereby humanely  reducing populations of both, and returning this city to its former glory.

I end my modest proposal by commending our progressive  public officials for their forward-thinking perspectives, and I look forward to living in  a city that is not so  plagued by poor people and annoying wildlife (I suggest we go after rabbits next, then crows, then chipmunks and squirrels).  I raise my hat to a  truly  21st-century environmental vision!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Thinking the Unthinkable: Highly Recommended

A terrific interdisciplinary anthology!  HAPPY WARNING: This is the animal studies anthology your mother warned you about!  It offers a serious challenge to "those apolitical and obscurantist academics who produce dense works of 'theory' that do not engage with the material world, remaining 'safe' and, therefore, ineffectual."  It also asks the rest of us to consider our own practices in real, everyday life.

YAY to a real Critical Animal Studies.  Care and compassion matter.  Trivializing and ridiculing animal suffering only compounds the problems.   Distancing ourselves, with just the occasional gesture toward, only furthers the plight of animals who are more desperately in need of our help than ever. 

 July 3, 2014

What happy rescued pigs free to run around and do their own thing look like.  And here's a happy rescued  pig with two happy rescued goats:

Pigs raised for food  in factory-farmed gestation crates

After spending Sunday  up close with  five gorgeous rescued pigs and three rescued goats at a sanctuary for farmed animals in Southern Indiana, and then heading on Monday  to the Bloomington Animal Shelter a with a friend who was picking up the kittens and mama cat she is so kindly fostering, I was reminded yet again, for the umpteenth time,   how impossible it is  to separate my own body, and its  sufferings, joys, pains, desires, hungers, thoughts, and vulnerabilities from those of our non-human kin.  What I mean is, we all have an interest in living, we all have  inherent value, and an interest in bodily integrity, we all know pleasure and pain, we all have emotions (thanks to our limbic brains),  we are all sentient animals, and we are all mortal. 

My free desk copy of this excellent anthology (loving the subtitle)  arrived the other day, despite my dread that this would be yet another academicky  "animal studies" book written for university courses that would remain only mildly provocative, if not "overly-theorized,"  and full of jargon and only mild gestures toward the realities of animal suffering, and certainly not openly critical of many of the major U.S. universities' own complicity in that suffering (everything from the corporate connections  and industry funded research that not only justifies the studies that support those industries but also almost always ensures silence of any critique).  For many who perform research on animals, there  is an unbridgeable gap between human animals and non-human animals, and that anyone who points out this false justification for mistreatment and cruelty is sentimental, unrealistic, and irrational (a feminizing position--and we all know how hysterical and emotional women can be)....


Apparently because I advocate for animals and teach an animals and ethics class, a fellow faculty member involved in the sciences  recently informed me that a "few scientists" at my institution  are scared of me because they think I am an animal terrorist. My first reaction was to burst out laughing at the absurdity. Then I became concerned.  In a professional setting, particularly, that's a serious charge. But I should have seen it coming. One of the guest speakers I had invited early on to my animals and ethics class to help fill in some information on our brief section on animals used  in research instead  proceeded to  tell the students they should all get used to killing mice, which prompted a  horrible story about a mouse-killing in a lab, and repeatedly added the caution that "animal terrorism is illegal."  Then he left.   Note: I have been unable to find anyone who experiments on animals who is willing to come talk to my class.

There are others who teach and write about animals at my institution, but mostly it's "academic writing" that keeps a safe distance from animals themselves, their lives, their plights and focuses on clever analyses and lots of theory. I frequently review submitted articles for three different academic journals on animals, and while often the writing is good and the ideas are smart, there is little evidence of advocacy, and what I call "the vanishing animal."

So I am extra high on this anthology, which is published by Canadian Scholars' Press,  and is chock full of smart writing.  The  Table of Contents alone sends me over the moon (right along with the cow that jumped),  but an additional plus is that  I can flip to almost any page and find a phrase or sentence that makes me wanna holler.

Here's an inter-title that brought tears of joy to my heart (and, by the way, I like Donna Haraway as a person very much, and think she's one heck of a  brainy gal, even if I disagree with her animal politics): "The Haraway Effect: The Fetishization of Hybridity and Boundary Dissolution." And why?  Because you can't theorize away animal suffering or ignore the horrors of what we inflict just because we believe animals owe us their lives and bodies.  Theorized hybridity, celebrating some kind of collapse of  borders translates to refer to  transgenic animals and animals bred specifically for pharmaceuticals and mass-produced pigs whose organs are used in xenotransplantation, etc.---they are no longer animals, they are no longer real, they are no longer sentient, and therefore they can be exploited

And this is my biggest fear, "losing the animal," as more and more academic writing postulates and theorizes the animal into oblivion. In fact, I have a forthcoming pedagogical essay in a Routledge book on posthumanism that expresses this concern in more detail.

But back to this fabulous anthology.  If you can spare another minute,  allow me a few quotes just from the intro (the photos are ones I've chosen for this blog, not part of the book):

1. "... the violence directed at non-human animals ... 56 billion land-based animals killed each (uncounted numbers of water-dwelling).  .... millions more killed in the vivisection and clothing industries, sport hunting, and other forms of animal exploitation ...."

2. "Exploitation of non-human animals has intensified in scope over the last century, and each year moutning numbers of individual beings are subjected to unspeakable cruelties and death.  The scale of suffering and violence is almost incomprehensible."

3. "Efforts to protect these animals, what is broadly termed 'animal rights', are widely disparaged and dismissed.  ... the ethical issues surrounding our use of animals are profound and significant.  They are linked to matters of the most urgent concern, not just for those we victimize, but also for ourselves, since the animal exploitation industries are major factors in a global environmental crisis that is pushing many species toward extinction and creating dangers for human survival, especially for the world's poorest people.  Exploitation of non-human animals in the context of global capitalism has created unprecedented environmental destruction and biodiversity loss and is a threat to our own survival."

(As many of you already know, the  Animal Welfare Act does not cover rats, mice, or birds.)

AND, for my academic friends, who know well the pitfalls of postmodernism if you're not a straight white guy, here's the gorgeous kicker that made me practically leap  for joy out of my ergonomic seat in my Ballantine office.

4. "The field of animal studies now includes a substantial body of work that examines how our ideas of other animals and our treatment of them are socially constructed. Some of this work is of considerable historical interest; however, many academics in this field take inspiration from the work of French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida (please see my earlier blog post on Jacques and his cat) and American postmodernist Donna Haraway, neither of whom offers much to animals, not even a commitment to vegetarianism.  It is difficult to understand how either Derrida or Haraway has gained prominence within the field of animal studies.  Haraway's work is actually opposed to animal advocacy. She has expressed her antipathy toward the idea of animal rights, rejecting the very concept of oppression of animals as a social justice issue analogous to colonialism, racism, and sexism." (May I insert here that I don't analogize oppressions but the rhetoric and structures and interlinking historically of the treatment of people deemed "animal" because we care so little for the suffering of either.)

5. "The influence of Derrida and Haraway is especially pernicious because, as Noam Chomsky notes of postmodernism in general, their arcane writing and irrationalism is largely meaningless, as it is dissociated from popular struggles and undermines activism.  Deliberately vague and apolitical, postmodern animal studies avoids any direct commitment to animals or to serious criticisms of their exploitation.

My one complaint so far is that though the book does acknowledge, it  doesn't look closely enough at interconnections (race, gender, etc.).  BUT, it's not a downer. It's a wake-up call. It reminds  us all that it's not futile to care, it's not wimpy to have compassion, and we must not fear our own feelings or get overwhelmed by the enormity of it all, nor succumb to normalizing institutional conventions of apathy and and a media that often are complicit in reinforcing the status quo.

The goal of cruel practices and policies is not simply a straight arrow to the conclusion that people just enjoy being cruel.  Most people aren't immune to suffering and pain, and most people don't enjoy inflicting it on others. Animals make money. Period.  And in order to keep the cycle going, those doing the profiting must work hard (lobbyists, legislation, etc.) to keep us at arm's length so we don't have to deal with the realities.

People often deflect with humor; it's a kind of macho,  arch, clever, I'm not a wimp strategy:  "I was shampooing my hair in bunny tears" is not a joke, when you consider  the thousands of caged rabbits in labs who have needlessly suffered through the pain of being held down while   having chemicals forced into their eyes, blinding many of them.  And of course the jokes about eating animals: "knock  the hooves and antlers off  those deer and put them out on the grill."

 As Gary Steiner concludes in his essay in the book, "Only by acknowledging that we human beings are a certain kind of agent, one that can formulate and act in accordance with principles like justice and morality, can we ever begin to embrace the responsibility toward animals that we have too long ignored. It is for this reason that I think we should resist the lure of postmodernism and be willing to be humanists just a little bit longer."

Monday, June 23, 2014

Animals and Ethics Class (Honors 242)

A few fabulous questions my students have asked over the years:

1. If we stop farming animals, where will they go?
Will they become instinct?

2.  Is it possible to be a Christian and a vegetarian at the same time?

3.  Are those pictures of suffering and cruelty to animals on factory farms real?

4.  If I grew up on a farm, can I still be in this class?

5.  Do you think it hurts my horse when I ride her?

6.  If people know that animals suffer so much in factory farms, why do they keep eating meat?

7.  Why is it called "compassionate meat"? The animals still have to die.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A place for everything: homeless cats and immigrant deer

"But I change the sheets every  Monday." (pet deer)

                (feral cat)

     "Forget the fireplace and the commercial cat food---I dare you to touch me . . . ."

My mother was fond of the old adage:  "A place for everything and everything in its place." This philosophy governed  weekly house cleaning rituals and the tasks I was assigned every Saturday, like clock work, when I'd pull a bandana over my hair, and pull out the dust rags and the Hoover, and begin to rein in  the messes of my four younger siblings. Order, the antidote to chaos. Toys in boxes, books  back on shelves, dishes in the cupboard.

Which brings me to the topic at hand---what it means to be "out of place" in a much larger sense: e.g., urban  deer and feral cats. Or might that also be immigrant deer and homeless cats?  

The vitriolic and often mean-spirited  rhetoric around human homelessness and human immigration seem to spring from the same, or at least similar, panic about governance of  geographical spaces and, in this case,  who  (not what) belongs where and who doesn't belong here. (I won't go into the historic imbalances of private property allocations, exclusion, etc.) "Home" in this country can refer to a  "house," or "apartment,"  but certainly not a car or a doorway, not a cardboard box, and not a pad of pavement under an overpass. There is a particular  uncompassionate  anxiety expressed around homelessness  that blames  those without what we think of as "homes" or "places to go" for their plight.  "Home" can also mean "country" or "national identity,"  or "looking like an American" (which, for a long time, meant you know what), and is often launched like a grenade at immigrants, both documented and undocumented, particularly if they don't "look like you know what."

In addition, as we regularly hear from  angry right-wing Tea Partyers, there's just way too much free-loading going on these days:  by the homeless (many of whom are of course damaged war vets and the mentally ill, as well as those who have fallen on hard times) and by the "illegal immigrants" (you know the ones who come "in search of a handout," but on whom our economy depends, the shadow labor hired cheap to drywall our remodels and landscape our expensive gardens and care for our children).  And, additionally,  if you don't look like me (whatever the "me" looks like), you really need to go "back to where you came from" or, at the very least, "go home."

But what does that mean?  Home, I mean. Globalization, human encroachment, overpopulation of people, long histories of colonization and imperialization, destruction of habitat all add up to a tectonic shift in notions of place: for better and for worse, animals and people are both moving around and being moved around, and more and more animals who don't live with humans are showing up "loose" in urban spaces. 

In Bloomington, Indiana, where I live, it's become hard to ignore the kinds of  angry rhetoric  that gets deployed around nonhuman animals who are not "in their place."  Consider specifically feral cats ("homeless") and, more urgently, the urban deer ("immigrants" ), both of whose very lives are endangered by the fear and ignorance of human beings, and both of whom are perceived as being in the wrong place (deer don't belong in cities and cats belong safely ensconced inside someone's house).  One is "wild" and one is "domestic."  Or so we believe. And never the twain shall meet, which is why feral cats and urban deer defy these neat categories that help us humans organize our lives and, well, make us feel more human and less animal ourselves. Advocate groups  like Feral Cat Friends or Alleycats, whose volunteers are devoted to the philosophy of TNR (trap, neuter, release) are considered misguided, and defenders of the deer are dismissed as naive "bleeding hearts" (Bambi lovers, etc.).

 "Go back to the forests," we say to these deer who  in this case (a) are actually "urban," having come from private city preserves  that were then sold off to developers and disrupted by houses and apartments (one development ironically calling itself "DeerParkManor"), and (b) would likely die of stress myopathy if drugged and relocated. "Go back to the forests," we say, as we destroy  the forestland and habitat to develop profitable cookie-cutter houses,  creating the perfect conditions for an edge species like deer, and other "displaced" wildlife.  And of course who's to blame?  Well, the deer, of course, who quietly wander in Bloomington, now well-adapted to urban life,  going about their cervid business, which is munching greenery and living their amazing lives among us.  But they're the ones who are wrong, not us, we say, we need to eliminate them so we can enjoy our suburban ornamental gardens. Echoes here of the  hate-filled language around the thousands of immigrants who flow into the U.S.( please note our economy depends on the labor of undocumented persons whom we can easily exploit); the "othering" language around  deer includes variations  "dirty and disease-ridden," "dangerous," "predatory" (deer are actually prey animals), "free-loading" (helping themselves to gardens or bird bath below-----and note,  Mr. Buck, that bird bath is for BIRDS, not deer, how dare you?).

Below is a picture of a "homeless" cat. At least that's how he was described in Photo Bucket. How do we know he's homeless? He's taking a nap under newspapers. There's no evidence of human comfort around him; instead there's flora, maybe someone's garden,  and he appears to be sleeping on a rock.  Substitute a human being under newspapers or cardboard box and add a shopping cart, maybe strip away the foliage and put in a dumpster, and you've got all the signifiers. Human  garbage. Cat garbage. Homeless.

He needs a human to take him "home" and domesticate him. He must belong somewhere.

However, take this same cat and put him here:

Transformation! House cat.  Sofa. Where a human would sit.  The status of each of these cats is calculated by the relationship each cat has to the human world. One is a pet, loved and doted on. The other is a nuisance, something to eliminate.

Small aside:

The refusal to spay and neuter domestic  cats leads to their  proliferation, increasing the feral population at astronimical rates (shelters euthanize cats at a much higher rate than they euthanize dogs, etc.)   

Feral cats are not a cat problem, they are a people problem.  Urban deer are not a deer problem, they're a people problem.  And maybe instead of seeing them as "problems," we might start to think about them as urban companions, and contemplate what it means to share space with them.

The way we define ourselves in relation to urban deer and homeless cats is quite striking, and has  material impact on their very flesh and blood bodies.  We're happy to see cervids behind bars in zoos, or maybe off in the distance in a woods, or on a wintry holiday card, but certainly not in our backyards. We love our pet indoor cat who is well-fed, vetted, and "pillowed,"  and may even match the sofa, but despise the "stray cat" who enters uninvited, a transgressor, threatening our well-organized lives, a disruption.  He doesn't look clean (with the deer, people claim they look sick and thick and they're starving, which they're not). 

These outsiders  don't belong here. For one, we  can't control them. They interfere with the way we imagine our own lives to be.  They interrupt what we think of as "civilized life," which includes our love of gas-guzzling cars and cables and cell phones.  It's annoying when you go to back out from the garage and find a feral cat curled on the car hood.  It's disconcerting when you set off on a stroll through your neighborhood, and a young doe crosses  the street in front of you.   But what if we started asking different kinds of questions?   Like, why are they here?

Animals  ask us to think deeply  about ourselves. We, too, are animals.  But we set impermeable borders. We want to rise above our own animality, because it terrifies us to imagine that we, like other sentient creatures, share pain, suffering, and ultimately death. We, like them, are vulnerable.  Why is it we enjoy these animals  as represented on the Discovery channel at a safe distance (of course we can shut them off with the remote any time we want, and we don't have to deal with the inconvenience of their physical presence up close: their actual bodies, and the bodily evidence of their presence (scat, poop, marking by male cats, flower damage by deer, etc.), but fear or despise them when they move among us?

Homeless cats. Immigrant deer.  This could be a poem.  Fur, claws, hooves, antlers, eyes, noses, ears, one a predator, the other prey, though not of each other. Sometimes  I imagine the deer and cats passing in the night. What would they say to one another? What are all these people doing here?

(More to follow)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

At the Supermarket

As a kid, I remember opening my mother's fridge, hanging off the door handle, and whining, "But there's nothing to eat."

This  wasn't the true.  What I really meant was, there's nothing I want to eat.
Big difference. Sure there were apples and oranges and bananas left out for the taking. There were nuts and my mother's homemade bread.

But sometimes a kid just wanted that toxic blast of SUGAR. 

We'd get it when we visited my dad's relatives,  a hefty blue-collar bunch, as wide as they were tall,  and generous to a fault--my favorite side of the family.  There was no end to the sugar rush. Coca-Cola was offered like water, candy was there for the taking. Salad  involved a lot of mayo, whipped cream, and jello.  And then the mental sugar of TELEVISON (which we didn't have), and no restrictions on how much we watched The Three Stooges, with our Cokes and piles of candy in front of us. Kids' paradise.

My mother was ahead of her generation, though at the time in my book, she was as outdated as they came. Her vegetable bin had actual  fresh vegetables, and sometimes the carrots actually had green fringes dangling off the ends. And if she bought beets, she cooked the greens! I mean, really! And there were nuts and fruits and milk and orange juice.

What, no potato chips? No Coke? No Ding-Dongs?  At my friends' houses I couldn't wait for the cornucopia of sweets, salts, and fats to make their appearance. Thank God for Fritos and Lay's Potato Chips, and Snicker's bars! Thank God for processed foods, sugared cereals, and TV dinners. Thank God for eating yourself sick.

At my house, dinner meant something cooked from scratch.  And "snack" meant popcorn.  Dessert was  ice cream, but only after you'd had all your dinner, which along with the main course, included vegetables and salads.

Years later, I am grateful to my mother. There isn't a vegetable I don't love.  There's almost nothing I won't eat.  And I'm a very happy, food-loving, omnivorous  vegan.

Tonight I made one of my rare trips to the supermarket. "Supermarket" in Bloomington means either Kroger's or Marsh, or the one closest to me, O'Malia's. I should be used to it now, but I'm not. I travel up and down all those  aisles choked with processed items  wrapped in plastic, boxed, and canned, full of high fructose corn syrup, heart-stopping levels of sodium, additives, preservatives, and at least 15 ingredients I can't pronounce,  and I'm the kid again saying, "There's nothing to eat."

Only this time, it's the stuff of my mother's fridge I crave. My cart is empty until I turn the corner  to "fruits and vegetables."

The  general produce is never local, most of it shipped from out of state.  It's also  almost never organic. There may be a few limp greens or lettuce that are labeled organic,  but the bulk of the produce is eerie looking. The vegetables and fruits are over-sized, too bright and shapely, often waxed, and heavily sprayed.  They look nothing like what I grow in my organic garden. And they're expensive.   And all that "saving" they advertise? Caveat, emptor. What's being saved?

A friend of mine just told me that her daughter attended a 4-H camp this summer where all the food was vegan. Huh? I said. 4-H vegan? She said indeed it was true, that the camp had figured out that serving whole foods was cheaper than serving---well----meat, and processed foods. The irony still lingers.  4-H, which teaches children to raise farm animals and then trade on their affections by selling them when they're nice and fat to slaughterhouses, feeds vegan food at camp, but not for ethical reasons, but because they've figured out it's cheaper.

What strikes me as deeply sad  is that in the richest country in the world, we have the largest childhood mortal obesity problem (not to mention adult  mortal obesity), while we have an  excess of supermarkets that offer aisles and aisles of crap, but very little "real" or "whole" foods. (In poor inner-city neighborhoods and rural areas, there's nary a "market" of any sort to be found, other than the corner liquor store also offering over-priced canned pork and beans, or the local gas station with its racks of chips and candy).

When I walk into these so-called  "supermarkets," I have a freak-out moment because I don't recognize much of what is there.  This is because there's very little "real food" in supermarkets.   What Americans have grown accustomed to is row upon row of packaged, processed foods, so removed from the source that they have to give it special names that involve words like "bits" and "fingers" and "puffs."   Frozen tator tots don't look or taste anything like a real potato dug out of the ground.    Every since the first TV dinner reared its ugly little head in the early 50's, convincing the American housewife that this was the culinary time-saving wave of the modern future, we have fallen victim to the perverse machinations of greedy corporations selling us absolute crap labeled as "food." Why? Because they make so much more money doing so.

Some years ago, Nestle's was busted over a terrible scandal in Africa. They had gone into countries where women routinely breast-fed their babies, and where the water sources were highly contaminated, yet  convinced these women that their babies would be better off drinking Nestle's formula to "protect" their children, using---well, yes---the contaminated water. Healthy babies suddenly sickened, ended up with dysentary, and died horrible, slow deaths.

Supermarkets are scary places.  You don't have to go to McDonald's to get "fast food." It's right there at the supermarket. I don't even recognize probably 80 percent of the products sold. And yet hard working people go in every day and fill up their carts with over-priced products, believing they're buying "food." Maybe there's a reason so many pharmacies can be found right in supermarkets.  Supermarkets sell stuff that makes us sick. We go to the doctor who prescribes medication for us to buy at the pharmacy. And then we're back at the supermarket picking up a few more items.  It's a vicious cycle.

Supermarkets are only part of the "food crisis" in America.  Our food system is very broken, from the corporate farming that has stolen the livelihoods of small farmers and created growing practices that have nothing to do with healthful foods, but profit.  Let me say two words: Monsanto and GMO's. This is why it's even more imperative nowadays to shop at local  farmers' markets, if you're lucky enough to be able to get to one in your area, and buy local produce if it's available, and try to grow your own, even if it's just a pot of tomatoes and a few greens.  Community gardens are also a great option, collaborative,  and inexpensive, usually with water sources and sunlight in full supply.  When you start to eat "straight from the garden" and "straight from the trees," you'll be amazed at the flavor, and you might even feel the difference in your body!

I keep wanting to write a sci-fi story about how evil aliens plotted the demise of Earthling by cleverly setting up  modern supermarkets. Wait, maybe it's not so sci-fi after all. We have a government that spends a lot of time and tax payers' dollars keeping us occupied with "outside terrorist threats." The biggest threat to this country is  not terrorism, but our collective bad food habits and subsequent horrible health issues, caused, in part, not just by our own individual choices, but the absolute corporatization of our very broken food system. 

We are what we eat. 

P.S. This is not food: