A dramatic rescue took place recently in one of the most dangerous places on earth, the Iraqi city of Mosul. Hundreds of thousands of Mosul’s residents had fled the war zone, where Iraqi forces have battled ISIS. Among those left behind were two residents of the abandoned Muntazah al-Nour zoo. With no warden to feed or care for them, some of the zoo’s animals had escaped; many more had starved to death or been eaten by cage mates. Improbably, Simba the lion and Lula the bear survived until they were evacuated in April, flown to safety in Jordan by the rescue organization Four Paws International. Confined to their tiny cages, Simba and Lula had remained alive only because of the remarkable kindness of their human neighbours—people on the brink of extinction themselves, who had alerted the rescue organization, and brought the animals food and water despite having little of either themselves.
Of course, what made the situation extraordinary was not just the circumstances, the personal sacrifice in the face of war and tragedy, but that the residents of Mosul had done this for animals. Theirs was the ultimate humanity precisely because their charges were those second-class citizens with whom we share our cities and countryside, the creatures we love and save and kill and employ and eat. For Amir Khalil, the veterinarian who headed the rescue mission, the animals trapped in war zones are refugees—among society’s most vulnerable citizens and deserving of incredible efforts to bring them to safety. But that word when applied to animals, particularly in an era defined by an epic humanitarian migrant crisis, would unsettle many people, including those deeply moved by the Mosul zoo rescue.
Our relationships with animals have perhaps always been filled with contradictions. These days they are also tinged with a growing sense of our own hypocrisies. Never have we known so much about the inner lives of animals or projected so much human emotion onto them, and never have we gorged on their flesh in such epic proportions. New discoveries in pig cognition (the animals have intelligence resembling that of a three-year-old human) may suddenly spur the more sensitive among us to forego bacon at brunch, although not the eggs produced by battery-caged hens. Meanwhile, videos of goats, kittens, dogs, squirrels and turtles doing endearing things online connect us to humans all over the globe—animals consumed as entertainment, not just food.
Our confusion, and the moral calls we make within it, has long fascinated anthro-zoologist Hal Herzog. Herzog cogently explored the deep cultural ambivalence in our relationship with animals in his 2010 book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight about Animals. No longer do most of us live cheek by jowl with animals, and it is easy to hide, forget or ignore the extent to which our lives are still deeply intertwined with theirs. Searching out the connections—via the ethics of pet ownership, the host of decisions related to eating animals—has become a vogue, a new rite of passage for urban folk. Herzog artfully documents the hypocrisy and irrationality that seem to prevail here. If we see reducing the number of animal deaths for meat as a worthy goal, he playfully points out, we should stop eating one-meal chickens and start eating whales. Herzog does not judge; instead, he points out that moral inconsistency is a lived reality for most human beings. The solution might not be to try, fruitlessly, to eradicate it but rather to tolerate it and not let our discomfort obscure the complexity of the moral conundrums we must navigate.
Hoping to turn up the heat on the omnivore’s dilemma is anthropologist and author Barbara J. King. In How Animals Grieve, King probed the emotional worlds of elephants, baboons, bunnies and birds to discover how other species handle a profoundly universal human experience. Grounded as she is in scientific objectivity, King has a knack for walking right up to the dreaded anthropomorphization line without crossing it. That book was filled with examples of animals dealing with death in animal ways: the dolphin who carries the body of her dead calf for days, tending to him gently, not eating or caring for herself—just grieving, it would seem; the ducks or elephants or other animals who sit with, groom or guard the corpses of animals to whom they were bonded, in some cases dying themselves, again seemingly from grief. Our ability to consider death and its implications may be uniquely human, but there is no reason to think our emotional experience of grief is quite so distinct.
In her new book, Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat, King broadens her scope to look at what we know of the fear, pain, pleasure and social connections, as well as the intelligence and personality, of the diverse species eaten by humans around the world, ranging from spiders, insects, octopuses and fish to chickens, goats, cows, pigs and chimpanzees. While she does not touch much on grief here, the knowledge that another being may well be grieving each animal death hangs over the book.
King has gathered the most recent scientific research into what it is like to be, say, a cricket or a blue-head wrasse or a Nigerian dwarf goat, and, taken all together, it is more than a little mind-blowing. For example, paper wasps, which King notes have brains “less than 0.01 percent the size of our own,” recognize each other’s faces. Fruit flies take time to ponder their decisions. And who can fail to be impressed by the great feat of communication involved in the waggle dance of the honeybee? The evidence is growing that insects are not the instinct-driven automatons we believe them to be. Neither are fish. King gives us fish that cooperate with other species of fish when hunting, using anticipatory thinking, communication and team work in the process. She presents the orange-dotted tuskfish, which has mastered tool use. (It employs rocks to open clams.) Fish also like to play, and, it would seem from anecdotal evidence, have the capacity for empathy toward other fish. King puts forward a strong case that, yet again, long-held assumptions that fish do not feel fear or pain are wrong.
This greatly complicates the reality that fish (and insects, for those who have the stomach for it) have been the animals we find easiest to justify eating. In fact, not long ago people in North America who called themselves vegetarians would often eat fish; it is only recently that the terminology—vegetarians, vegans, pescetarians, flexitarians, reducetarians—has become specialized enough to invalidate that elision.
It may make sense that animals with which we do not spend much time—like insects and fish—have remained crawling, scaly mysteries, but the same seems to be true of animals like cows and goats. In fact, goats may embody our bizarre contemporary relationship to animals better than any other species. Goats have nearly surpassed cats as the internet’s favourite animal, and pygmy and dwarf goats are the latest animal to be swept faddishly into North American homes as pets. But, King writes, “in an odd pairing with the soaring goat-as-pet phenomenon, goat consumption is catching on in the [United] States, where the number of goats slaughtered has doubled every ten years for the past three decades.”
Some of the most remarkable creatures to which King introduces us are those who have forged deep connections to human beings—anthropocentric as it may be to say so. King tells us that cows are good at recognizing individual humans—something that makes sense, she says, “when we think of the many centuries’ experience they have had with us just as we have had with them.” But the real stars of the book are the cross-species emissaries, or mercenaries perhaps, who have realized there can be great benefit to close attachment to the featherless and furless bipeds that seem to run things. Take Mr. Henry Joy. He was raised by an elderly man to whom he was deeply bonded. They watched TV together, they did chores together, they were inseparable. When the man moved into a nursing home, Mr. Henry Joy was adopted by a devoted new human who immediately recognized his special touch with old folk. He became a cherished therapy animal, visiting local nursing homes and allowing himself to be held and stroked by even their most ornery residents. If you are not impressed, consider this: Mr. Henry Joy is a rooster, a bird with a lot of personality who vocalizes his likes (which include being carried around in a basket) and dislikes (anything with wheels). King cautions us against viewing him as an exceptional chicken. In her view, Mr. Henry Joy does not prove that one chicken can be special; he proves that any chicken can be special.
In our attempts to relieve our ethical indigestion, it is tempting to gravitate toward a kind of sentiocentrism—an informal ranking of animals by intelligence that ends with taking the brainiest beasts off our plates, or more concisely, “eating dumb.” But King does not go there; she is passionate but not prescriptive. She is also aware of how quickly scientific certainty about the relative dumbness of animals can be turned on its head.
The whole concept of “bird brain” emerged from a scientific belief that an avian cerebral anatomy ruled out the possibility of the kind of sentience that now seems evident. One more big mistake from the big brains. Our earlier understanding of these animals was not just wrong; it was extremely convenient as it allowed us to treat egg- and meat-making chickens in the most economically efficient ways. Many animal welfare experts rank chickens as the animals in most urgent need of rescue today; we inflict more unnecessary suffering on them in greater numbers than on any other living creature. Supporting that reality has been our unwillingness to consider chickens as beings with feelings, personalities and preferences, let alone rights.
As fascinating and meaningful as “new discoveries” can be, they do not leave us much better equipped to know what it is like to be any kind of creature other than ourselves. In his 2016 book, Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide, the British writer Charles Foster made this argument with incontrovertible force: aware of the limits of MRIs in showing us how animals experience the world, and tired of nature writers “striding colonially around, describing what they see from six feet above the ground,” Foster strove for a beast’s-eye-view instead. He lived underground in a badger sett for weeks, ate earthworms and dove into chilly rivers in Exmoor during his time living like an otter. He even tried, in the last experiment he details in his extraordinary book, to become a swift.
It is a doomed exercise, as Foster tells us at the very outset, if also a fascinating one. We have trouble getting out of our human-centred perspectives. Barbara King recounts a story in which researchers at a Penn State University Field Day invite children to try out a task that their research pigs have mastered—using a modified joystick to move a cursor onto a target. A pig would go first, demonstrating how it is done. When children were unable to replicate it, parents could be overheard saying “Come on! A pig can do it.” King finds the oft-evoked “pig-child comparison” to be off-base—in part because it posits human intelligence as the “gold standard.” And the link to human children seems to have had little effect on the way we treat pigs. King remarks that when it comes to smart-pig research, “the dominant agenda remains to understand pigs better so that we can manage them better and thus eat them better.”
The complexity of our relationships with animals goes beyond animals as meat, of course. Like King, the editors of the scholarly anthology Animal Metropolis: Histories of Human-Animal Relations in Urban Canada, academics Joanna Dean, Darcy Ingram and Christabelle Sethna, seek to make visible some of these other hidden aspects of our ties to the animal world.
The work is a part of what is referred to in the humanities and social sciences as “the animal turn,” a move toward including animals as actors in history and other disciplines, and away from “humanocentrism” in academic knowledge production—in other words “prob[ing] the boundaries between human and non-human species, [and] destabilizing notions of human exceptionalism,” as Animal Metropolis puts it. The Queen’s University philosopher Sue Donaldson, author with Will Kymlicka of Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights, explains that the animal turn can be viewed as a deepening of an awareness that began in the early 1970s with thinkers such as Peter Singer. If animals have moral status, theorists began asking then, should we stop doing X to them? “In retrospect,” she tells me via email, “what is striking about this first wave debate is that it didn’t question the idea that society is human, and animals are part of nature.” Now there is a growing acknowledgement, Donaldson says, that “we don’t live in exclusively human societies, cultures and polities; we live in multispecies societies, cultures and polities.” As a result, today, political philosophers such as Donaldson and Kymlicka are compelled to consider the political interests and rights of the animals with which we share our societies through “ideas of multispecies citizenship.”
Dean, Ingram and Sethna point out in their introduction that humans may have left the wild but the wild has not left our lives. Coyotes encroach, mice get in our kitchens and raccoons get into our garbage, but these are all animals adapting to the ways humans have altered the landscape. Pet animals have perhaps adapted the most to the human-shaped world—something that is both to their benefit and their detriment. The book makes reference to the “burgeoning ‘pet economy’ fuelled by the commodification of ‘dominance-affection-love’ relations between humans and their companion animals,” an area that merits deeper reflection.
The articles cover subjects as diverse as how horses shaped Montreal (ironically perhaps creating a much more human-scale urban landscape than the cities we’ve built around cars), orca captivity in Vancouver and the public perception of animals in medical experiments. Drawing on a variety of scholarly frameworks, the essays drive home just how important even the most invisible human-animal relations are to our own histories in Canada, going far beyond the totemic species (caribou, moose, loon) on which we hang our national identity.
Or take the beavers in Stanley Park. Beavers, of course, are totemic animals that have long been central to Canadian history, in the form of pelts, but how often have beavers been considered as creatures nearly as aggressive in shaping their environment as humans? As Rachel Poliquin recounts in her contribution, beavers were deemed undesirable and evicted by the park managers in the early 20th century; all that remained was a beaver-less lake named Beaver Lake. It stayed that way for nearly a century until a single beaver showed up again in 2008, from parts unknown, to claim its birthright. Soon, it managed to attract a mate and reproduced. Now, the creatures are in an ongoing struggle with rangers over the shape of the pseudo-natural world of the park. In the dark of night, the beavers fell trees, build dams and cause flooding; in the light of day, the rangers work to reverse their efforts. The battle captures something about the way we relate to wild animals in the city, the way we continue to want to curate our wild things, if not tame them outright.
The book conveys effectively the sense that excising animal protagonists from our histories gives us a greatly diminished and distorted understanding not only of animals but of ourselves. And intriguingly, its editors note that the shifts toward integrating animal histories into our own are happening as “developments in areas ranging from medicine to artificial intelligence have challenged what it means to be human, and indeed what it means to be an animal of any sort.”
The essay that most directly addresses the line between human and animal is “The Memory of an Elephant: Savagery, Civilization and Spectacle,” by Sethna. In it she writes about the notable pachyderm Jumbo, perhaps the first international animal celebrity. An African elephant captured as a calf near what is now Sudan, he was displayed in England (where he was beloved), until sold to P.T. Barnum. Barnum toured him across North America as a main attraction in his circus. Jumbo was hit by a train and died in St. Thomas, Ontario, in 1885, while on tour. (A larger-than-life-size sculpture of the elephant now stands at the western entrance to the town.) Evoking John Berger, as well as the animal rights activist Marjorie Spiegel’s ground-breaking book The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, Sethna makes a strong argument that Jumbo’s life and death fit within a broader narrative that encompasses the slave trade, colonial violence, and the captivity and display of the other as a colonizing weapon:
Jumbo’s metamorphosis from African captive to British icon to American celebrity to Canadian roadside attraction masks a colonial journey from a putative state of savagery to civilization to spectacle. This journey was punctuated by the violence of abduction, captivity, and commodification … Jumbo’s fate was common not just to other charismatic megafauna transported to zoos and circuses in cities in Europe and the New World but also to many human animals designated slaves and freaks, establishing how closely racialization and animalization are intertwined.
Sethna sees in this history of colonial circuses a footprint of empire that was larger and deeper than human-centred histories alone might betray. Whether or not one is inclined to agree with her argument, her essay offers a revealing glimpse of what we permit ourselves to do to the Other—however we define that Other in a particular time and place.
As individuals, we negotiate the increasingly complex questions of what we owe, and don’t owe, animals in different ways. In her book, King recounts a story of an octopus I find both delightful and oddly clarifying. It stars a female day octopus who “strangled her partner at conclusion of the mating act. She then carried him off to her den, where, marine biologists think, she consumed him.” It is a reminder that octopuses live lives and engage in cultural norms of their own. They pump blue blood through three hearts; their brains reach into each of their tentacles; female octopuses tend carefully to their tens of thousands of eggs for months on end, and then expel the hatchlings from the den and never see the survivors again. The octopus mother will die soon after. How could it ever be possible for a species like ours to come close to a true and deep understanding of a species like theirs? This is an idea primatologist Frans de Waal explores in his most recent book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, which challenges us to give up a beloved hierarchy in which human intelligence always ranks first, so we may consider the likelier scenario that each species is intelligent in its own, very specific ways.
Meanwhile, there seems to be a growing consensus that we will look back on this time of confusion and ambivalence with no small amount of shame. “A hundred years from now we may well have a much more informed, compassionate and fair perspective of human-animal relations,” Donaldson tells me. However, she adds: “I fear that it will be clouded by a terrible sense of tragedy, of longing for all that has been destroyed, and regret for what might have been.” Noting the great devastation humans have already wreaked upon the natural world, she says, “when we add the coming challenges of climate change to the mix, it’s not clear that there will be many animals left to benefit from changes in human perspectives and practices.”
It is possible, though, that the coming environmental and inevitable economic, social and political changes will be the catalyst for a full-scale reorganization of human-animal relations, and in some cases, perhaps, in who becomes a meal for whom. As disasters and crises both natural and otherwise inflict their damage, humans may find ourselves reminded we too are animals in the ecosystem—and, in a strange way, there may be some comfort in that.