The distance between the conference room at the Animals in Society conference at Wesleyan and the steamy, concrete backstage parking lot to the circus in Meriden last week seemed like a chasm. It wasn’t just that the circus had real dyed pink poodles and hotdogs and the Animals in Society Conference had vegan sandwiches…or that the circus had stereotyping elephants tied outside the Big Top, tigers in cages barely wider or longer than their bodies in the full sun, and tough-looking men in spandex with no shirts hosing down the asphalt… and the conference had a high wire act of papers that fell mainly in the safety net of the academic and esoteric. There was no reason the two events a short drive away should have been connected, except that I was equally interested in the academic topics around the human and non-human animal bond and in witnessing the flagrant on-the-ground exploitation of exotic animals down the road. I wanted to bridge the two worlds and see how they both made me feel.
Both made me feel unsettled, although the circus experience made me sad, angry and nauseous. Part of the challenge with being a sensitive person (Highly Sensitive People HSPs are 20% of the population) is to consciously keep from becoming numb to people and situations which could call us to take action. It’s also a life-long process of self-knowledge to understand one’s own boundaries, emotional needs and the type of moral universe one wants to be part of creating. My choice to visit the circus was a way for me to get out of a left-brained space and into a heart space, knowing that it could be painful and being willing to risk that pain.
Kathie Jenni, a Professor of Philosophy and expert in animal ethics, environmental ethics and moral psychology at University of Redlands, has written a profound paper on the power of the visual and our ethical responsibility to witness and watch things that might call us to action. You can read her paper here.
Her paper is an eloquent argument for why as a musician I am now also making films. (Film editing also uses a musical sensibility.) The power of music in combination with the visual is extremely potent and has tremendous capabilities for building a more empathetic world.
This is a quote which I have on my desk in my office.
Not to transmit an experience is to betray it. – Holocaust survivor
Animals and Society Institute produces a wide range of research and
teaching materials for all age ranges and is not an animal advocacy organization, but a scholarly home base for exploring the human animal bond. The institute produces in-depth, thought-provoking and extensive materials for students of all ages and I highly recommend their website for more information http://www.animalsandsociety.org/
A few ideas from the ASI-WAS conference at Wesleyan
Paper by Kelly Enright, “Extinction: How we lose, mourn, and live with lost species.”
Kelly mentions the work of sculptor Todd McGrain who is making statues of extinct birds and placing them where they used to live. His project is called The Lost Birds project. She mentions the idea, in connection with the ivory billed woodpecker, that locals often know a species has moved into an area but are reluctant to share the news, knowing that it means an influx of scientists and onlookers into a habitat. She also asks, “when species disappear, do we make them noble?” I would add, do sculptures venerating the species that are on the brink and not yet gone create public discussions that lead to behavior changes? Hard to know, but many artists are hoping they will. Case in point, The Elephant Parade touring cities in Europe to raise awareness for the endangered Asian elephant.
Lori Gruen, Chair and Professor of Philosophy, Environmental Studies, and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University presented “Panthanatology –Mourning Chimpanzees,” which explored whether chimpanzees understand death and how they grieve and what it does to the humans who work with them. I kept wishing she would reframe the talk around quality of life issues — how relationships, regardless of species, are what make life worth living, and the implications for captive animals whether in labs, zoos or circuses, or as pets. It was clear that she was emotionally very connected to her work, leading her to found a blog to memorialize all the chimpanzees which were killed for medical research called The First One Hundred. It made me wonder about our own species and how we choose to pay tribute and memorialize the dead.
The First One Hundred blog seems particularly poignant in light of the recent news about the U.S. government withholding from their families 15,000 names of Iraqi civilizians killed in the war. Would listing all of the names with a paragraph about each of them prevent civilian deaths on this scale in the future? What is the impact of a blog memorializing the first 100 chimpanzees used in medical research? Are the people involved in medical research on the chimpanzees today in labs reading this blog and making their own as each chimp dies? Where is the action point of awareness?
If you have a chance to see the movie released this week about the chimpanzee Nim who was raised by a human family called Project Nim, I highly recommend it. I saw it a month ago at the Independent Film Festival in Boston and it is directed by James Marsh who also directed the brilliant Man on Wire.
Kari Weil, University Professor of Letters at Wesleyan, analyzed two of the works of the UK video artist Sam Taylor-Wood, A Little Death and Still Life, but never showed us the films, which considering how short they are, and the availability of the video projector, seemed strange. Here is a link to one…
And then the paper about Robotic Bees…
Elizabeth Johnson, a PhD Candidate in Geography at the University of Minnesota, gave a rigorous and insightful look at the field of biomimicry and the extent to which research labs in universities will go to maintain funding and relevance. Her talk was complex and covered a wide range of ideas, but in light of the two-year project I led for NatureStage about the miraculous and mysterious abilities of honeybees, I was particularly appalled by the Robotic Bee project she described being funded by the NSF for 10 million dollars here at Harvard. Humans have used animals for centuries for warfare and medicine, and honeybees are dying off by the millions in large part due to how we have exploited them to support our industrial monoculture food supply. The irony of trying to exploit the bee even more in the Robotic Bee project is staggering. Instead of trying to change the system which underlies the honeybee disappearance (habitat loss, commercial beekeeping, pesticide use leading to low immune systems), there is an exploitation of the situation by the project leaders to ostensibly create robotic bees that can fill in the pollination duties for a third of our current food supply when the real bees are unable to be trucked around for weeks at a time. In China where honeybees have all but disappeared, some farmers go so far as to hand pollinate each fruit tree with ladders and large feather dusters in a poignant example of what bees do that humans really can’t.
In one video describing the project, the speaker admits there are many uses that could be of interest to the defense industry, although he tempers it with promising robotic bees that could do search and rescue in hazardous zones and post earthquakes, etc. It all feels like avoiding the real problem of societal self-reflection. Do we need more robotic insect imitators flying around disaster areas beaming satellite information about everyone’s whereabouts or do we simply need more heart-centered, empathic people making our daily lives in our neighborhoods richer and more interconnected? Just think what 10 million dollars could do for neighborhood enrichment programs, the arts and education. Honey also has over a hundred medicinal properties. I challenge a robotic bee to master that miracle.