Animals in times of crisis

I have said it on facebook and I will say it here again; please consider donating to the RSPCA in Queensland to help them deal with looking after some of the animals stranded or injured in the floods. Like everyone else, they will likely need support for quite some time.

My thoughts are with Queensland so much at the moment, and something I notice is that those of you in Queensland are too busy coping to be doing the reflecting and commenting that the rest of the nation is doing – so forgive me for the luxury of sitting here and thinking and commenting and analysing news reports, but it is a way of connecting with you all, and I hope that I can find a way to translate my thoughts into practical help in the near future.

I suppose many of you will have seen this? It is an article accompanying a striking picture of a frog riding out the floods on a snake’s tail. The man interviewed in the article mentions anecdotes in which animals have been seen helping animals in disasters.  It’s something I would love to hear more about, although a cursory Google search didn’t reveal much – maybe because they are the sorts of stories we just tell to a person who tells it to someone else.

It makes me wonder though, is altruism something we want to see in animals? Many books I’ve read suggest so. I have been writing about the way that fantasy books rely upon representing animals who have the impulse to band together and help humans; an aspect of this is also the way that the animals are shown to be united already in common cause, all understanding each other and willing to help each other, at least in the case of a fight against catastrophe.

I am a little suspicious that there in in these kind of stories an aspect of paternalism towards nature.

When I read this article on Wikipedia, why was I so pleased whenever I read that one species of animal helped another? Why was I even more thrilled at the thought that the action was not mutually beneficial, not “symbiotic”, but actually altruism, as I felt I understood it?

For when I read about one member of a species dying or sacrificing time or food or whatever for another, it seems to make sense, to hit the button that I guess is programmed by my vague notion of the survival of the fittest. It makes me realise that if I stop to think about it, I have made the assumption that nature is cruel, and that sympathy exists only amongst kind. It is worth wondering where do these received ideas of mine come from?

At any rate, for animals helping animals: the experts are here.

I was interested as well to read this article about people calling for there to be changes to the law to account for pets and other animals in a crisis. I found it noticeable that the RSPCA take the human angle here, justifiying their argument with the idea that pets are important because of what they mean to us. I can understand that – I feel like Ned is a golden retriever member of the family, and it is true – or at least I think that it is true – that much of the distress is on the human family member’s side, we are the ones who can think out and imagine terrible things.  I hope, though I am not sure that many animals were in a way protected, in a way,  by a lack of cognition, by instinct taking over, and that when they did die the deaths were simple, and had no agony of emotion.

The article is interesting in what it says about our domestic animals, what they mean to us, and the strangely liminal place they have in our families. They are so important in the private space of the family home that we love them as we do people and we grieve for them as we do people, and yet in the public sphere we cannot admit or ask for bereavement space because of a lost pet. People with pets of their own understand but it is a kind of secret understanding, I think, one that you hesitate to share.

Perhaps these floods will allow us a kind of public mourning of our beloved animals, perhaps we can crack through our embarrassment, our reserve, and the scale of the shared experience will let us re-examine the rights of pets, their importanc ein our lives, but also the extremely liminal, uncertain, ambivalent place they have in law and in culture.

Also: Holy CRAP there are ancient man-eating dinosaurs in the floodwater along with venomous snakes.

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3 Responses to Animals in times of crisis

  1. Jason Heeris says:

    there are ancient man-eating dinosaurs in the floodwater

    Actually, they’re better than dinosaurs — they survived. Crocodiles, like paper, are not beaten by rock.

  2. Erin says:

    On the topic of perceiving nature or natural things as altruistic, or as having human characteristics: I find this so interesting. As you say, the very idea of nature holds a particularly ambivalent position in western societies (and particularly for people who support nature protection). One the one hand, we have come to conceptualise nature as a wilderness; the very definition of nature is that which is separate from humans, or made by humans. As a way of emotionally connecting to nature, we give it human characteristics. One way that conservationists attempt to gain support for a cause from a broader audience is by humanising animals or natures that are considered to be under threat (almost always by showing the eyes of the animal looking directly at a camera – as humans connect through eye contact). Yet, we also see nature in a supposedly scientific way as well. Science de-humanises them in on way- by separating particular species, placing them in the context of their local natural ecosystems, which are connected to broader ecosystems (and now to a global ecosystem). We understand these integrated lives as part of a process of evolutionary theory, in which animals are only unwitting and unconscious subjects in the process of change, living as a furry (or scaly, or feathery :o) bundle of instincts and neural circuits and synaptic connections. As scientists often point out – there is no rhyme or reason or greater being (arguable of course) directing or guiding these changes, we are just the product of particular characteristics surviving through the generations or not, allowing particular animals to adapt to particular places.
    However, when we interpret scientific knowledge for ourselves (and as it is often protrayed in public discourse), we combine this holistic scientific understanding of nature with our personalised experiences, knowledges of, and connections to nature. The snake is both a bundle of natural instinct, but when we come across it on our path and it rears its head back, we interpret its actions, we look at it’s eyes, and we give it intention based on human characteristics (just watch any nature documentary). Thus, we see nature is both separate from us and a part of us, as inhuman and human. It just depends on the context as to how this is interpreted at any particular time.
    On the subject of pets then, it gets particularly interesting, because they are both nature and culture. They have been bred to embody the traits that connect them ‘emotionally’ to humans. There is currently some really interesting research about how dogs have been bred to read human emotions in a way that even chimpanzees cannot – such as understanding our line of sight, looking into our eyes (even though this is apparently a sign of aggression in wolves) or being able to follow where we are pointing, and reading (and responding to) out emotions. In return, most people who have spent time with dogs are able to understand what a dog wants just by it’s bark – even if it is not their own pet! Just by hearing a bark they can generally label whether the dog is happy, anxious etc. Yet we also see them as somehow still ‘wild’, and not always completely predictable or part of us. It is when they do wild things (like lash out and bight something) that we tend to separate ourselves from them, confirming their animal-ness. This seems to happen whenever a non-human entity is violent – even the weather (think of how a cyclone is portrayed in the media once it’s hit land, although again, a cyclone is different because it was never ‘tame’ to begin with).
    So in short, we see nature in two almost opposing ways simultaneously. On the one hand, it is a non-human bundle of connections (scientifically speaking), which is terrifying for many of us because we see it as unemotional, that is, there is no intent or emotional connection that guides the behaviour of the plants and animals. It is simply out there. On the other hand, we see animals saving each other (like that snake, or famous examples of lions rearing the babies of the antelope they have killed for dinner) and suddenly they become something we can connect with, and not fear. They are an entity with intent and emotion, which we can connect with ourselves because we can now interpret their actions.

    Wow, sorry for the epic post! I haven’t got time to re-read it so I hope it makes sense! P.s. I never realised you could comment on someone’s blog without having your own blog.

  3. Jason says:

    Science de-humanises them in [a] way- by separating particular species, placing them in the context of their local natural ecosystems, which are connected to broader ecosystems (and now to a global ecosystem).

    I think this is an oversimplification. You seem to be talking mainly about taxonomy here, which while an important convenience for discussion and analysis, is not a vital component of the theories resulting from being scientific about living things.

    I’ll agree that our current taxonomy-of-life system is quite human-centric, given that there’s really no good reason to separate out the homo genus… we were just never comfortable with classifying ourselves as pongo. But that’s not the whole picture and practice of science (or biology, or ecology, or genetics, or…)

    We understand these integrated lives as part of a process of evolutionary theory, in which animals are only unwitting and unconscious subjects in the process of change, living as a furry (or scaly, or feathery ) bundle of instincts and neural circuits and synaptic connections.

    See, here’s the problem: humans fit that description too. If that process dehumanises animals, it also dehumanises humans. But really, it’s not that science “dehumanises” anything — it’s simply that our informal, messy, ambiguous, irreducible concept of “humanity” is completely orthogonal to a scientific description of physical entities; be they asteroids, electrons, synapses or a trillion-or-so cells making up a woylie.

    I’ll put it another way: replace the words “We understand” with “We can describe” — because that’s what science is really for, creating descriptions and models. That same sentence now reads somewhat differently, would you agree?

    And it’s not to say there is no place for humanitarian or animal-sympathetic concerns in science — science as a practice, as an activity, as a cultural phenomenon. The models of biological science say nothing about being nice to each other, but that doesn’t imply we should or shouldn’t — we can do what we want, and science only gives us more knowledge upon which to base a decision about how, and what will happen when we act upon that decision, and what to look at next.

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