Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 11, 2016

Rooting for the Bulls

Filed under: animal rights,Spain — louisproyect @ 8:47 pm

The news that a bull had gored a matador to death for the first time since 1985 got me thinking about this barbaric “sport” the same day I saw “At the Fork”, the powerful documentary  about humane livestock breeding. My immediate reaction was to root for the home team—the bulls.

The same day there was another home team victory. Two men got gored during the Pamplona bull run, the yearly event that was celebrated in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”, a novel that romanticized bullfighting and the macho values we associate with the morally questionable novelist.

To get a handle on this barbaric practice, I looked at Adrian Shubert’s “Death and Money in the Afternoon: A History of the Spanish Bullfight”, a 1999 Oxford University book. It is much more of a dispassionate scholarly work than the one I would have preferred to read, namely Timothy Mitchell’s “Blood Sport” but was immediately available as a Columbia University EBook. I will allow Schubert to supply the history while I will try to supply the passion.

Although the origins of bullfighting are shrouded in mystery, we do know that by the 11th century it had become entrenched in Spanish society as a pastime of the aristocracy. El Cid, the aristocrat and military leader who was celebrated in an epic poem and who fought both with and against Muslims, was into bullfighting. Like other aristocrats, he was on horseback and used a lance to kill the animals. The noblemen had underlings who fought on foot alongside them using swords against the bull. These two roles continue to this day in the bullfighting ring with the horse-mounted picador and the grounded matador, who has assumed the lead role once assigned to men like El Cid.

By the 1700s, bullfighting had become much more than a sport for the aristocrats. It had become a major source of revenue for public expenditures just like the lottery is today. It paid for good things like hospitals and bad things like the military.

Schubert identifies Francisco Romero as a key figure in the transformation of bullfighting into a mass, money-making spectacle. Born in 1700, Romero was a shoemaker by trade but became involved in bullfighting by assisting a nobleman who fought on horseback just as was the case in El Cid’s day. After becoming adept in the “sport”, he began to give exhibitions of fighting bulls on foot that climaxed with a single sword thrust. By 1726 he had become famous and gave bullfighting the impetus it needed to become a combination of entertainment and revenue generator. By 1749 Madrid had its first bullring and five years later King Ferdinand VI designated it a source of funding for municipal hospitals.

With the rise of the royalist state, the bullring became a microcosm of Spanish society. The seating was segregated by class and the rituals attending the matches were as stylized as the Super Bowl, which in its way performs the same function in American society today.

They performed the same role in the colonies of the New World as Schubert reports:

The new rulers of America wasted little time in introducing this spectacle of power to their recently conquered domains. Beginning in 1529, Mexico City celebrated San Hipólito’s Day, the day on which Hernán Cortés had conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán only ten years before, with a bullfight, and from 1535 on the entry of new viceroys into the capital of New Spain was marked with a series of bullfights.

When the Spanish empire began to crumble, the same colonies began to associate killing bulls for sport with their masters, especially in Cuba. For José Martí, the bullfight was “a futile, bloody spectacle …and against Cuban sentiment as being intimately linked with our colonial past.” Instead the Cubans preferred baseball that the colonial authorities viewed as “anti-Spanish” and had it banned from 1873 to 1874. The ban was reimposed in 1895 just after the war of Independence began. Cubans in Tampa and Key West held baseball games to raise money for the war effort and U.S. military authorities quickly banned bullfighting once they took possession of the island.

After Spain’s defeat, Spanish intellectuals tried to understand why their country was so weak and so decadent. Known as the Generation of 1898, they saw the American victory less in terms of the futility of colonization and more as an expression of their own problems. José Ortega y Gasset, the best known of this group, viewed bullfighting as expressing “pornography without voluptuousness”, “ridiculous Don Juanism” and denounced it as follows: “In sum, whatever has to do with enthusiasm, grace, arrogance, sumptuousness, everything, everything is made negative, corrupted, bastardized, deteriorated, because of those emanations that come from the bullrings to the city and from here to the countryside.”

If bullfighting was a symbol of Spain’s feudal past, essentially a product of the failure to carry out a bourgeois revolution, it naturally follows that General Franco would see it in the same terms as the 18th century monarchs—a way to express the hierarchy and “traditional values” going back to the 11th century and earlier. Schubert was a bit surprised to see that the left backed bullfighting as well. “In 1937 there was even one in Republican Alicante to raise money for the Communist Party militias. (The bulls might have come from the Popular Front Ranch [Ganadería del Frente Popular]!)” One can’t blame him for not having a sharper class analysis but it is obvious that the willingness of the Popular Front to use bullfighting to raise money might have something to do with its failure to retain power. Its inability to confront the Ancien Régime was its undoing after all.

The people of Catalonia were far more willing to carry out a social revolution in the 1930s than other Spaniards, largely as a result of experiencing Spanish power in the same way that the Cubans did—as a colony but one that was internal rather than external. In 2010, they finally caught up with Franco’s legacy and eliminated one of the pillars of fascist culture as Joe O’Connor reported in a National Post article on July 30, 2010 that cited Adrian Schubert:

Originally, the Catalans were separate, a kingdom unto themselves known as Aragon, with a distinct language, governing institutions and customs that persisted long after the birth of the Kingdom of Spain in 1469.

By the end of the 18th century bullfighting, as we picture it today, was already fully developed as a commercial enterprise. It was the first form of mass entertainment in Western society. Arenas dotted the Spanish landscape. Stars were worshipped like matinee idols. Festivals would end with a bullfight, followed by a feast. People loved it, even in Catalonia, the first region in Spain to industrialize and, by the 1850s, the wealthiest.

“A Catalan nationalist movement emerged in the 1850s,” says Adrian Shubert, a historian at York University. “The Catalans saw themselves as more sophisticated, more European, more advanced economically than the rest of the country.”

And the future, to the Catalans, was to be European, and being European meant no more bullfights. Bullfighting was a symbol of Spanish backwardness, of barbarity, a tradition unbecoming a progressive people. To the rest of Spain, bullfighting was the people; it was Castilian virility, artistry and bravery in the face of death.

“Franco detested the Catalans,” Mr. Shubert says. “He saw them as separatists and a threat to the unity of the Fatherland.”

Under Franco, the Catalan language was banned in public, and banished from media. Nationalism went underground and wouldn’t emerge again until after the general’s death in 1975.

Sooner or later bullfighting will die out entirely in Spain since young people raised in post-Franco Spain see it as inimical to their values. It is no longer the cash cow it once was and is mostly the pastime of an older generation and tourists seeking “the real Spain”.

CAS International, the largest worldwide organization committed to ending bullfighting, advises tourists on its website:

As a tourist, you can also help us in our fight to end bullfighting. A few tips:

  • Never go to a bullfight or a cruel patronal event, not even once. If you go to these events, your money and presence support the bullfighting industry. Ask other people to follow your example
  • Do not buy any bullfighting souvenirs
  • Let shop keepers know (in a polite manner) why you don’t want to buy bullfighting souvenirs. You can use our Spanish, French or Portuguese letter.
  • Do not eat or drink in bars and restaurants that promote bullfighting.

Among the tourists visiting Spain, a certain amount of them will be testosterone-laden men in their 20s who take part in the Pamplona bull run possibly without understanding its connection to what takes place in the ring. In fact, the run terminates at the bullring where the animals will be sacrificed at the altar to the traditional values of medieval Spain as Vox reports:

Veterinarians Susan Krebsbach and Mark Jones also tried to scientifically evaluate the suffering endured by bulls by showing video recordings of 28 bullfights to three independent veterinarians, who then graded the animals’ distress. They found that animals were typically wounded more than 10 times every fight, and that signs of distress like tail swishing, slowing down due to exhaustion, reluctance to move, and labored breathing were all common.

“The frequency with which bulls during bullfights exhibit behaviors identified as indicators of distress, suggest that fighting bulls experience distress — they suffer in the bull ring,” Krebsbach and Jones conclude.

It should not be particularly surprising that bullfighting inflicts massive amounts of pain on the roughly 250,000 bulls it kills annually. There’s plenty of evidence in the literature on dairy cows suggesting that cattle are capable of feeling pain. For instance, experiments have shown that giving painkillers to dairy cattle improves their gait — suggesting that they were feeling pain, and that alleviating that pain made walking easier. Cows’ behavior suggests an ability to feel emotion, as they warm to people who pet them and produce less milk among people who frighten them.

They’re also remarkably intelligent. “Cows can not only solve simple problems but they become excited when a solution is found,” researchers F. Bailey Norwood and Jayson L. Lusk write in Compassion by the Pound. “Cows can be trained to perform simple feats, such as pushing a lever for food, and they can read certain signs. Cows are especially adept at remembering directions and geographic locations, and at recognizing their peers.”

This is the animal that’s being tormented in a bullfight, that’s being stabbed repeatedly and having its organs pierced and ruptured.

In 1936 Munro Leaf wrote a children’s book titled “Ferdinand the Bull” whose eponymous hero preferred smelling flowers in the pasture to butting heads with other bulls or—naturally enough—being the prey of a matador.

The book was treated as a Rorschach test by the media at the time, which saw Ferdinand as either a fascist or a communist. The fascists themselves had no problem deciphering the message. Franco banned it as a pacifist work while Adolph Hitler ordered it to be burned as “degenerate democratic propaganda”. Following the Nazi defeat, the Americans handed out 30,000 copies to Germany’s children in order to encourage peace even as they were smuggling top Nazi officials out of harm’s way in order to build up a reliable anti-Communist resource.

Ever the jerk, Hemingway wrote a short story in 1951 titled “The Faithful Bull” that was intended to refute Munro Leaf. It ends this way:

So the man sent him away with five other bulls to be killed in the ring, and at least the bull could fight, even though he was faithful. He fought wonderfully and everyone admired him and the man who killed him admired him the most. But the fighting jacket of the man who killed him and who is called the matador was wet through by the end, and his mouth was very dry.

Que toro más bravo,” the matador said as he handed his sword to his sword handler. He handed it with the hilt up and the blade dripping with the blood from the heart of the brave bull who no longer had any problems of any kind and was being dragged out of the ring by four horses.

I have never read “Ferdinand the Bull” but I have good memories of the Disney cartoon that is completely faithful to the original.

July 8, 2016

At the Fork

Filed under: animal rights,farming,Film,food — louisproyect @ 8:12 pm

Opening today at the Cinema Village in NYC and the Laemmle in Los Angeles is a documentary titled “At the Fork” that makes the case for alternatives to profit-driven, industrialized and inhumane food production. As it happens, one of the interviewees is Mark Bittman who has written books and articles promoting the humane treatment of farm animals, many of which have appeared in the NY Times over the years. It is therefore something of an irony that no review of “At the Fork” appeared there in keeping with a recent decision to end the paper’s obligation as “newspaper of record” to cover all film premieres in NY. You will, however, find a review of “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates”, a film that Manohla Dargis describes as follows:

Two idiots need dates; they get them.

That’s about all you need to know about the aggressively stupid “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,” a would-be comedy about a pair of imbeciles who are best understood as representations of the enduring, marrow-deep contempt that some moviemakers have always had for their audiences.

So a thoughtful documentary about food production gets overlooked while one exhibiting “marrow-deep contempt” for audiences makes the cut. I would argue that the failure to review “At the Fork”, the 95 percent of farming based on the industrial model, and the inclusion of a review of “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” are all joined at the hip and apt symbols of the Decline and Fall of American Civilization—such as it was.

“At the Fork” begins with a barbecue at the home of director John Papola’s father with heaps of spare ribs cooking on the grill. He explains that meat is king at his Italian family’s household even though for his vegetarian wife Lisa it is anathema. This leads the couple to conduct an odyssey across the USA in search of farmers who try as much as possible to create a setting for pigs, chickens and cows that are as close to their natural habitat as possible even though their ultimate fate is not death by old age but a slaughterhouse.

This ethical contradiction is addressed most cogently by Temple Grandin, one of America’s leading authorities of humane treatment of farm animals who has garnered attention for her achieving this status despite suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. Grandin advocated and designed a slaughterhouse that could be housed on a ranch, thus saving animals from the deeply traumatic long-distance travel on trailer trucks. Key to their effectiveness is a lengthy, circular ramp that has been proven to be less stressful for cattle that are not used to confinement.

The farmers and ranchers who operate such facilities are a remarkable breed with a keen sense of the ethical and economic factors that naturally collide with each other. In the case of egg farms, you get to the heart of the choices that must be made. In the typical egg farm based exclusively on profit, the chickens are confined in cages and fed through automated conveyor belts. It is the Fordist model applied to living creatures. But unlike a fender or a steering wheel, a chicken is a sentient being that suffers every single minute it is in such hellholes. By contrast, free range chickens that lay eggs in a setting close to that of their ancestors from millennia ago enjoy their lives while being a source of nutritious food. (Recently Bittman has made a strong case for eggs being a protein-rich foodstuff with very little risk of bad cholesterol.) A carton of eggs based on the industrial model cost about $2.50 while the free range type cost from 8 to 9 dollars.  In a different economic system, it is likely that the humane choice might come down to $5 but it would be worth the extra money just to have good karma.

If you have doubts that it matters much that a “dumb” chicken suffers one way or another, you might be better off going to see “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” anyhow. But if you are sitting on the fence, there is plenty to put you in the humane treatment camp especially the terrible fate that awaits pigs on the assembly line of Smithfield and other mega-corporations. The film takes you inside an immense shed where female pigs are confined in gestation cages. The Humane Society, whose executive director is interviewed extensively in the documentary, condemns their cruelty on their website:

Pigs are among the smartest animals on Earth. Studies show that they are more intelligent than dogs and even some primates: They can play simple video games, teach each other and even learn names. They also form elaborate, cooperative social groups and feel fear, pain and stress.

Yet on U.S. factory farms, where sows are kept in row after row after row of gestation crates throughout their pregnancies, they’re also among the most abused. The 2-foot-wide cages are so narrow, the animals cannot even turn around. They chew on the bars, wave their heads incessantly back and forth, or lie on the pavement in an apparent state of dejection. Nearly immobilized, the pigs spend months staring ahead, waiting to be fed, likely going out of their minds.

My only criticism of the film is its connection to Whole Foods that is described as a partner on its website. While the stores are certainly a superior source of food that is produced in humane conditions, its CEO John Mackey, who is an interviewee in the film, has little regard for humane conditions when it comes to human beings. In a Salon.com interview, he enunciated his libertarian beliefs:

When I was in my very early 20’s I believed that democratic socialism was a more “just” economic system than democratic capitalism was. However, soon after I opened my first small natural food store back in 1978 with my girlfriend when I was 25, my political opinions began to shift…

I didn’t think the charge of capitalist exploiters fit Renee and myself very well. In a nutshell the economic system of democratic socialism was no longer intellectually satisfying to me and I began to look around for more robust theories which would better explain business, economics, and society. Somehow or another I stumbled on to the works of Mises, Hayek, and Friedman, and had a complete revolution in my world view. The more I read, studied, and thought about economics and capitalism, the more I came to realize that capitalism had been misunderstood and unfairly attacked by the left.

While Mackey likely endorses the idea that pigs should not be confined in gestation cages, he certainly puts their welfare above that of others in similar confinement:

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, whose net worth exceeds $100 million, is a fervent proselytizer on behalf of “conscious capitalism.” A self-described libertarian, Mackey believes the solution to all of the world’s problems is letting corporations run amok, without regulation. He believes this so fervently, in fact, he wrote an entire book extolling the magnanimous virtue of the free market.

At the same time, while preaching the supposedly beneficent gospel of the “conscious capitalism,” Mackey’s company Whole Foods, which has a $13 billion and growing annual revenue, sells overpriced fish, milk, and gourmet cheeses cultivated by inmates in US prisons.

The renowned “green capitalist” organic supermarket chain pays what are effectively indentured servants in the Colorado prison system a mere $1.50 per hour to farm organic tilapia.

Colorado prisons already grow 1.2 million pounds of tilapia a year, and government officials and their corporate companions are chomping at the bit to expand production.

That’s not all. Whole Foods also buys artisinal cheeses and milk cultivated by prisoners. The prison corporation Colorado Correctional Industries has created what Fortune describes as “a burgeoning $65 million business that employs 2,000 convicts at 17 facilities.”

While I recommend “At the Fork” wholeheartedly, I hope that the director might rethink his ties to John Mackey—at least if he cares as much about human beings as he does about farm animals.

 

June 1, 2016

Gorillas in captivity

Filed under: animal rights — louisproyect @ 8:26 pm

I met Hugo the gorilla in Houston back in 1974

Back in 1974, when I was living in Montrose, a Houston neighborhood that was a vaguely bohemian mixture of gay bars and strip joints and that was also home to the SWP headquarters, a comrade named Gene Lantz invited me to go see the famous gorilla named Hugo who lived in a Montrose house. Gene was one of the few local Texans we had recruited that sided with the pro-Barnes majority I was sent down to reinforce. Most of the rest were aligned with the minority that backed the Ernest Mandel faction based in Europe and Latin America.

Since I was fascinated by the great apes at the time (and still am), I decided to take him up on his invitation. We arrived in the living room of a man named Charles B. Greer Jr. who was one of Montrose’s “characters”. He had built a cage for Hugo abutting his living room, in which the animal was sitting quietly near the rear. With a mischievous smile on his face, Greer invited me to go up to the bars and take a look in at Hugo. As soon as he saw me, he stood upright and charged directly toward me like a football defensive lineman coming after a quarterback. When he rammed into the reinforced bars of his cage, it sounded like a bomb going off. This made Greer laugh out loud. It was obvious why he enjoyed keeping a caged gorilla next to his living room—it was a good practical joke to play on visitors. Hugo’s needs hardly entered the picture.

As I expected, I discovered an article about Hugo after Googling “Montrose Houston gorilla pet”. It appeared originally in the September 23rd 2014 Houston Chronicle, a rancid newspaper that befitted a rancid city like Houston. Titled “The amazing, baffling and heartbreaking journey of Hugo the gorilla”, it finally explains how Greer ended up with a gorilla living next to his living room.

When he was just a tiny babe, he [Hugo] was written up in all the major newspapers, appeared on TV and became a fundraiser for various charities in Houston.

But for practically all of his life, he called the Montrose area home, living in a 10-by-20-foot cage that adjoined a house off Mandell Street, just north of where the Southwest Freeway is today.

His name was Hugo, a gorilla born in the wilds of French Equatorial Africa, torn from the jungle when he was mere months old and brought to Houston, where he was the center of a tug-of-war with city officials.

In May 1951, Charles B. Greer Jr. and his wife, Annie, set off from the U.S. for Africa in an adventure-filled hunting trip. It was a lifelong ambition for Charles to hunt there; he already had extensive experience hunting in Canada and Mexico.

The Greers were also looking to bring back some gorillas, living and dead, for the Houston Zoo and other specimens for the Houston Museum of Natural History.

The little gorilla was a celebrity before he even arrived here. The Houston Chronicle ran a couple of articles on him while the Greers journeyed back from Africa. The paper reported their arrival in New Orleans — and their difficulty in finding a room in the Crescent City (“We tried all the big hotels and got shudders, gasps and firm turndowns instead of rooms,” Charles Greer said at the time.).

Eventually Greer and the Houston zoo could not see eye to eye on Hugo’s living conditions at the zoo, so he ended up permanently in a cage adjoining Greer’s living room. Greer told the Chronicle: “They didn’t maintain the proper temperatures. I’ve seen it 10 degrees below the minimum of 78 required for the primate house. And there were other faults, such as letting the roaches take over and letting zoo guards toss food to the apes.” Maybe Greer should have left him in Africa to begin with. And maybe he didn’t need to go on an “adventure-filled hunting trip”. Where did people like him, Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway ever get the idea that this was supposed to demonstrate their manhood?

It is entirely possible that Lantz had gotten the idea to take me over to see Hugo because I had postcards of great apes all over the walls of my Montrose apartment. After seeing “Morgan” a few years later, I had begun identifying with the eponymous character who was fixated on Trotsky and gorillas. Morgan had a mental breakdown at the end of the film (the full title was “Morgan: a suitable case for treatment”) and to some extent I was feeling so alienated by life in the SWP that the identification with Morgan came easy.

But there was more to it than that. I had read fairly extensively about primates, including Jane Goodall on the chimps and George Schaller and Diane Fossey on the gorillas. Fossey had become a passionate defender of gorilla habitats in Africa so much so that it got her killed. She was violently opposed to people like Greer snatching animals from the natural surroundings and bringing them to zoos so that we can gawk at them.

When Fossey started off as a naturalist, her parents refused to support her. So she had to take jobs working as a department store clerk or a factory machinist to keep her going. Once she got established in Africa, she focused on keeping poachers out of the gorilla’s habitat who sought to sell infant animals to zoos. Wikipedia reports:

On three occasions, Fossey wrote that she witnessed the aftermath of the capture of infant gorillas at the behest of the park conservators for zoos; since gorillas will fight to the death to protect their young, the kidnappings would often result in up to 10 adult gorillas’ deaths. Through the Digit Fund, Fossey financed patrols to destroy poachers’ traps in the Karisoke study area. In four months in 1979, the Fossey patrol consisting of four African staffers destroyed 987 poachers’ traps in the research area’s vicinity. The official Rwandan national park guards, consisting of 24 staffers, did not eradicate any poachers’ traps during the same period. In the eastern portion of the park not patrolled by Fossey, poachers virtually eradicated all the park’s elephants for ivory and killed more than a dozen gorillas.

Fossey helped in the arrest of several poachers, some of whom served or are serving long prison sentences.[25]

In 1978, Fossey attempted to prevent the export of two young gorillas, Coco and Pucker, from Rwanda to the zoo in Cologne, Germany. During the capture of the infants at the behest of the Cologne Zoo and Rwandan park conservator, 20 adult gorillas had been killed. The infant gorillas were given to Fossey by the park conservator of the Virunga Volcanoes for treatment of injuries suffered during their capture and captivity. With considerable effort, she restored them to some approximation of health. Over Fossey’s objections, the gorillas were shipped to Cologne, where they lived nine years in captivity, both dying in the same month. She viewed the holding of animals in “prison” (zoos) for the entertainment of people as unethical.

In addition to poaching, the biggest threat to gorillas is the encroachment on their habitats from both big capitalist logging and mining interests as well as subsistence farmers driven to the deep forest because most of the available land is being used to produce coffee for Whole Foods, et al.

All this brings me to the incident at the Cincinnati zoo where an endangered gorilla was shot in order to protect a toddler who had fallen into his enclosure. I am not going to weigh in on the debates that are raging on the Internet, including whether the African-American mother was negligent.

My main interest here is to assert the need for the abolition of every last zoo, aquarium, and circus that shanghais animals for our entertainment. I also include idiotic lion taming acts like Siegfried and Roy’s. There is an urgent need to protect the environments of great apes not only for their benefit but for ours. Take the orangutan, for example. Its natural habitat is in Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia. Deforestation on behalf of palm oil plantations and oil exploration contributes to global warming just as it does in Brazil for ranching and mining. We have a vested interest in such forests remaining pristine and the animals left in peace.

Under socialism there should be a crash project to rebuild the natural habitats of all great animals that have fallen victim to capitalist progress such as the gorilla, the bison, the lion and the tiger. There might not be any zoos in the future but naturalists will go into these habitats and place cameras that can record the daily activities of the animals as the feed and procreate. The video will be broadcast on cable television and the Internet worldwide on a 24/7 basis so that you can watch a gorilla beating his chest from the safety of your living room. Trust me. That will be a lot more entertaining than watching one sitting morbidly behind bars in a cage or even in a supposedly naturalistic “enclosure” like the one at the Cincinnati zoo.

 

November 19, 2015

I understand despair driving ALF

Filed under: animal rights — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

A guest post by Jon Hochschartner

In June 2015, according to the Mississauga News, the Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the firebombing of two trucks in Canada owned by Harlan Laboratories, a company which provides research animals to vivisectionists. Police said the blaze caused no injuries.

For a while now, I’ve counseled animalists against this sort of illegality, advocated by groups like the ALF. Not because I have a moral opposition to torching the vehicles of vivisectionists. But because I’m convinced such actions are ineffective. Individual acts of sabotage cannot address systemic problems. They do, however, invite government repression against the animalist movement as a whole and send dedicated activists to prison for decades at a time. And yet, frequently, I wonder whether the alternative — building a mass movement against animal exploitation — is possible in this moment in history.

Take Jacobin Magazine, the current voice of the far left in the United States, which should be a proponent of animalism. So far as I’m aware, the publication has addressed our movement twice. Both times, it has done so with hostility and condescension. In an article from August 2015, called “Peter Singer’s Race Problem,” Sarah Grey and Joe Cleffie pushed back against the idea animal suffering and human suffering were in any way comparable, and argued making analogies between them was inherently reactionary. In an article from October 2015, called “Welfare for All,” Adam Fisher argued workers were the real victims of factory farming, as opposed to animals being literally dismembered. As the saying goes, with friends like these, who needs enemies?

This is at a time in which animalists are bending over backwards in their attempts to court leftist allies. In our movement, blogs are proliferating everywhere, trying to examine non-human exploitation from a socialist lens, from a feminist lens, or from an anti-racist lense. And yet it seems no matter how much we concede, ideologically or tactically, we have gotten nothing in return from the broader left. Further, this is at a time, in which — animalists should not need to be reminded — over 65 billion land animals are slaughtered every year, according to Farm Animal Rights Movement. To put that in a bit of perspective, the Population Reference Bureau estimates only 107 billion humans have ever lived. So in this respect, we can agree with Grey and Cleffie. There can be no real comparison between animal and human suffering. The former is infinitely worse.

So I understand the despair that drives groups like the ALF. While, ultimately, I know only a mass movement can liberate animals, I understand the despair which led animalists to place incendiary devices in vehicles owned by a company profiting from non-human exploitation. I understand the despair that makes animalists give up on humanity’s capacity to change, and take matters into their own hands. After all, if we can’t sway the left, those who should be most sympathetic to our arguments, perhaps systemic change — even mild reform — is not possible in the here and now.

September 15, 2014

Karl Marx and hunting animals

Filed under: animal rights,Ecology,farming,food — louisproyect @ 4:18 pm

Of the three magazines that brandish “Review of Books” in their title, Los Angeles’s (http://lareviewofbooks.org/) leads the pack, at least from the standpoint of serving as a critic of capitalist society. In an epoch of imperial decay, that’s the most important criterion after all. At the bottom of the pile is New York’s (http://www.nybooks.com/), a publication that was pretty edgy in its early days, to the point of publishing Noam Chomsky and putting a David Levine drawing of a Molotov cocktail on the front page. Nowadays it is a snoozefest for elderly professionals, the print counterpart to PBS. In the center of the pack is the London Review of Books (http://www.lrb.co.uk/), a journal that was distinguished by a takedown of Christopher Hitchens that was both laugh out loud and politically cogent. While it still is a source of trenchant social criticism, the LRB has a blind spot on Syria, offering its readers Seymour Hersh’s conspiracy theories about rebels gassing their families. It was up to the good people at the LARB to publish Muhammad Idrees Ahmed’s devastating critique of Hersh, a sign that it was not in thrall to pack journalism.

In the most recent issue of LARB, there’s an article by Jedediah Purdy titled “Killing It” that is accompanied by a drawing of an aproned Karl Marx holding up a bleeding chicken in one hand and a butcher’s knife in the other. With such an image, it is no surprise that the article claims:

Writing 20 years before the first volume of Das Kapital appeared, Marx imagined desultory killing as one of the joys of human liberation. In a passage that became a touchstone for parts of the 1960’s New Left, he urged that a free person should be able to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner […] without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” This was the ideal of unalienated labor, spontaneous and expressive, exercising all human powers without ever turning the worker into the tool of her task.

To start with, I am not sure how much of a grasp that Purdy has of the 1960s New Left since he was born in 1974. In fact the New Left—strictly speaking—was much more into Marcuse than Marx.

Furthermore, like most people with a casual interest in Marx no matter their academic credentials, Purdy leaves out the rest of Marx’s sentence that can be found in the German Ideology:

He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

In other words, Marx was not writing a paean to killing animals but rather making an observation about how a future communist society would allow the full development of human beings rather than the current state that forces them into limited economic roles. Indeed, rearing cattle is not exactly what most people would choose to do on a vacation as opposed to recreational hunting or fishing.

Jedediah Purdy, by David Levine in the NY Review of Books

Just a few words about Jedediah Purdy. He is a law professor at Duke University, where misinterpretations of Karl Marx are rampant even if well-intentioned. A cursory look at Michael Hardt’s oeuvre should bear that out.

If Zizek, another celebrity given to misinterpretations of Marx, is the Elvis super-star of Marxism, Jedediah Purdy basks in the glow of being rather super himself. An article in the April 10, 2006 Washington Post refers to him as “A Super-Scholar, All Grown Up and Still Theorizing”. A portrait of a wunderkind emerges:

When we reached him, Jedediah Purdy, now 31, was in his office at Duke University’s law school where he is an assistant professor, counseling a student in the throes of the seemingly inevitable “first year of law school crisis.” In his mid-twenties, though, Purdy was one of Washington’s intellectual darlings: ensconced at the New America Foundation — a think tank that bills itself as featuring “exceptionally promising new voices” — and named by Esquire magazine as one of the nation’s “best and brightest.”

Ensconced at the New America Foundation, Purdy made sure that nobody would confuse him with some kind of bomb-throwing anarchist: “Just let me echo about five million other progressives and say, Bring us someone who can do every night for a year what Barack Obama did in his keynote address to the DNC.”

Turning our attention now to Purdy’s “Killing It”, we learn that it is a contribution to the ongoing discussion about the “food movement”, for lack of a better term, that includes Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman at its helm. Purdy notes that Pollan went out hunting wild pigs with a .290 rifle and was pleased to have bagged a 190-pound creature.

In something that amounts to a sleight of hand, Purdy makes Karl Marx into a 19th century precursor of Michael Pollan as if communism, hunting and meat-eating were part of the same overall project of human emancipation:

Doing violence seems to force the doer either to celebrate it or to recoil in a futile effort to get the feeling out of one’s own nerves. Without much warrant, I suspect all of this informs the idea behind many ritual sacrifices: that the priests, or the community, either take the power of the animal into themselves or expel its pollution. Either way, the transaction is intimate, metabolic: the killer comes right up against the “specific expression” of life and powers that Marx was after.

Frankly, I doubt that bagging a wild pig with a .290 rifle is what “Marx was after”. Purdy, who grew up and was home-schooled in rural West Virginia, was into hunting as a youth. I suspect that he is capitalizing once again on his “good old boy” credentials that clearly sets him apart from the other faculty members at Duke who if given a choice would prefer tofu to shooting a wild animal.

The shortcomings to Purdy’s approach can be more obvious when you have a look at a scholarly article he wrote titled “Our Place in the World: a New Relationship for Environmental Ethics and Law”. It’s main concern was to identify some kind of ethical basis for the proper treatment of animals within the overall need for reproducing our species:

These situations—we can take the factory farm as just one example—are thoroughly artificial: we made them. We create and control the suffering of animals in these settings, and that fact is the prompt for ethical reflection. To call whatever we do to these animals “natural” would be to give up on ethical reflection altogether; and to imagine that reflecting on our own behavior must mean condemning lions and predatory insects would be far too quick and casual.

While I think that the ethical treatment of animals is fundamental and that both factory farming and hunting both involve unnecessary cruelty, there are more important issues for Marxists and even people like Jedediah Purdy. (In terms of hunting, since Purdy invokes the example of American Indians, perhaps the only “ethical” way to kill animals is with a bow and arrow since this puts hunter and hunted on a more equal footing.)

The real issue is how humanity can survive, something that the food movement barely recognizes, nor for that matter law professors with a smattering of Marxism under their belt. In my review of a rather good documentary titled “Food Inc.” that was based to a large degree on Pollan’s writings, I noted:

Although I strongly urge my readers to see this movie, I do feel obligated to offer some criticisms that get to the heart of my differences with Schlosser and Pollan, no matter how much I applaud their work. A significant part of the movie is devoted to an examination of Stonyfield yogurt, a product that is always in my refrigerator especially since yogurt is a staple of the Turkish dishes I enjoy preparing. The CEO of Stonyfield is one Gary Hirshberg who is seen conferring with Walmart representatives who were about to introduce his products to their vile stores. Hirshfield justifies dealing with Walmart because he believes that there is no alternative to capitalism, even though he doesn’t quite use those words. If we are going to make wholesome food grown in conditions respectful to the environment and to animals, you need retailers like Walmart to make the organic sector grow.

The press notes for “Food, Inc.” quotes Walmart on this score:

“Actually, it’s a pretty easy decision to try to support things like organics or whatever it might be based on what the consumer wants. We see that and we react to it. If it’s clear that the customer wants it, it’s really easy to get behind it and to push forward and try to make that happen.”

– Tony Airosa, chief dairy purchaser for the nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, which recently began carrying organically-produced food in its store. Wal-Mart has since stopped carrying milk containing growth hormone.

In my view, it is utopian to think that the factory food system will be transformed incrementally in this fashion. The Monsantos, Purdues, Tysons and Smithfields of this world are not going to be displaced by organic farming for the simple reason that they were produced by the forces of production that have taken a century to mature. American society is under enormous pressure to compete with other capitalist powers in an epoch of stagnating profits. As such, factory farming is geared to the economic imperatives of a nation that is being forced to attack the living standards of workers and farmers alike.

If any evidence of the bankruptcy of the system is needed, as well as its talent for self-deception, you can start with the White House itself—a symbol of American corporate power and its strategy for continued world domination.

When Michelle Obama planted an organic garden on the White House lawn, Michael Pollan hailed the move in the Huffington Post:

Perhaps the most encouraging action so far has come from the East Wing, where Michelle Obama has been speaking out about the importance of real, fresh food, home cooking and gardening. By planting an organic garden on the White House lawn, she launched a thousand victory gardens (vegetables seed is suddenly in short supply), gave conniptions to the pesticide industry (which wrote urging her to use some of their “crop protection products” whether she needed them or not), and at a stroke raised the profile and prestige of real food in America.

He also was encouraged by Obama’s appointments:

Tom Vilsack has sounded a welcome new note at the Department of Agriculture, where he has appointed a proven reformer — Kathleen Merrigan — as his deputy, and emphasized his commitment to sustainability, local food systems (including urban agriculture); putting nutrition at the heart of the department’s nutrition programs (not as obvious as it might sound), and enlisting farmers in the fight against climate change. He has been meeting with the kinds of activists and farmers who in past administrations stood on the steps of the USDA holding protest signs.

I wonder if Michael Pollan watched the movie he appeared in, since Monsanto was rightfully pilloried as using its control over genetically modified soybean seeds as a way of maintaining a monopoly over farmers, who once had the right to reuse seeds. (Monsanto patented the seeds and sues any farmer its detectives find in violation.)

In the final analysis, we need a socialist movement, not a food movement. In Marx’s Communist Manifesto, there is a call for overcoming the breach between city and countryside: “Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.” Unless this is accomplished, the conditions for sustainable food production will diminish to the point of no return. It is not too hard to imagine that in a more rational human social environment, animals will be raised in humane conditions and only be turned into produce under the strictest and most humane conditions, which will almost certainly not entail bullets from a high-powered rifle equipped with a scope. Furthermore, by that point in our social evolution, we may have learned that beans cooked properly taste a whole lot better. I’ve had steak and I’ve had Indian dals. And if I had to choose a last meal, it would be a dal.

May 25, 2014

Fishing on the Pole Star

Filed under: animal rights,literature — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

My Facebook friends know that lately I have been posting poems on my timeline. It has been many decades, five at least, that I have read poems—let alone try to write one. After getting radicalized in 1967, my life took a rather prosaic turn.

Most of the poets I like to read are long dead, including Herman Melville who was damned fine even if he is best known for his prose. As might be expected, his poems share the subject matter of his best-known prose:

The Maldives Shark

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw,
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat —
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

Just by coincidence it seems, I got a copy of Paul Pines’s latest book of poems titled “Fishing on the Pole Star” that also has a great poem about sharks:

Screen shot 2014-05-25 at 4.08.58 PM

Like Herman Melville, Paul Pines was not a product of the Iowa Writers Workshop but a life of wanderlust including time spent as a deckhand on merchant ships. In the introduction to “Fishing on the Pole Star”, he explains the book’s origin:

As a boy in Brooklyn I fished for crappies in Prospect Park with my brother Claude, and later bottom-fished on party boats out of Sheepshead Bay and Boston Whalers on Long Island Sound. When I owned a bar and restaurant, several of my staff, including our chef, Nathan Metz, fished out of Montauk for blues and stripers which we brought back to feed our patrons. While living in Belize my buddy Ted Berlin, a peerless hand-line fisherman and free-diver, showed me how to scour coral heads for crab, lobster, conch and snapper. But nothing can convey the mystery and challenge of those weeks at sea tracking the great marlin south through the out-islands of the Bahamas—and to those who opened that world to me, starting with my father, I will be forever grateful.

I never did any salt-water fishing but growing up in upstate NY, there were many days spent fresh-water fishing including on the Neversink River, one of the state’s legendary trout streams a couple of miles from my home.

But the fondest memories were of fishing for pickerel, perch and crappies (we called them sunfish) in Silver Lake in Woodridge, my hometown. My father was about as distant from me as could be imagined. Since I was born in January 1945 when he was off fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he never bonded with me. I suppose even if he had been around, he still would have been a distant figure—that’s the way that Jewish men who lived through the Depression were so often. But when we were on the dock watching the red-and-white float bobbing on the surface, it was like a scene from The Andy Griffith Show, with me playing Opie.

Despite my overall prosaic mindset, there’s something that still touches my mystical inner eye when it comes to water. I don’t think I could ever live very far from the water. When I did so in Kansas City, I was miserable most of the time. Of course that was just as likely a function of belong to a cult that was forcing me to get an entry-level factory job at the age of 33.

When I croak, I will have my wife cremate me and dump the ashes into the Hudson River, for me an especially holy body of water—my Ganges in effect.

It is so easy to take water for granted. But did you ever stop to think about where it came from? When the planet earth was born, there was no water (and no god to create it either.) Although it is only a theory, there’s a good chance that it came from a water-laden comet or meteor crashing into our planet was responsible.

The other thing that intrigues me is our connection to the fish itself. While we are obviously far removed from them on the evolutionary ladder, they are our great-grandfathers and grandmothers. Despite our terror of the shark, they are in some ways our closest relatives since they are at the top of the aquatic food chain just as we are at the top of the entire food chain. Unlike us, the shark poses no danger to the survival of the planet, however. In a very real sense, the shark in “Jaws” was a lot less scary than BP or Exxon-Mobil.

I recommend the website of Thomas Peschak, a National Geographic photographer, conservationist, and author of “Sharks and People”.  Peschak has a few videos there, including one of the Manta Rays on a feeding frenzy in the Maldives, the same place that Melville’s poem was set in.

I have no idea how the world will end, whether with a bang or a whimper but I’d hold out hope that the sharks and other swimming creatures will survive our wickedness and give evolution a chance to start all over. Those beasts at least know how to participate in the great circle of being, unlike our own sharks on Wall Street who will certainly destroy us given the chance.

Paul’s very fine new book can be ordered from the publisher’s website. Not only are the words great, the accompanying seascape collages by Wayne Atherton are priceless. Paul dedicated the book to his late brother Claude who was a good friend of mine during the halcyon days before the Vietnam War. The book is a fitting tribute to Claude as well as a major contribution to the poetry canon by a true original. Waste no time. Buy the book and get spiritually elevated.

September 23, 2011

The Whale

Filed under: animal rights,Film — louisproyect @ 7:24 pm

I weighed the pros and cons carefully before deciding to review “The Whale”, a documentary that opens today at Cinema Village in New York. The publicist’s email described it as “Set on the rugged western coast of Vancouver Island and narrated by Ryan Reynolds, THE WHALE describes what happens when Luna, a baby orca, gets separated from his family and unexpectedly starts making contact with people along a scenic fjord called Nootka Sound.”

This sounded an awful lot like the sentimental movies about human-whale (or dolphin) bonding that had little interest for me, starting with “Free Willy”, a movie I confess never having seen. (Just by coincidence, a movie titled “Dolphin Tale” opens today as well, a fiction film based on the true story of a dolphin that after suffering an injury to its tail in a crab net was nursed back to health by a sympathetic marine biologist.)

On the plus side, the film got thumbs up from Ric O’Barry, the star of “The Cove”, a documentary about the Japanese slaughter of dolphins that I considered one of the best of 2009. Beyond that, I was curious to see what the film might have to say about human-animal communication in light of the movies I wrote about recently dealing with the dysfunctional relationships between man and chimp. Just last Monday the New York Times reported on an experiment that sounds just like the one in “Project Nim”:

OFF THE BAHAMAS — In a remote patch of turquoise sea, Denise L. Herzing splashes into the water with a pod of 15 Atlantic spotted dolphins. For the next 45 minutes, she engages the curious creatures in a game of keep-away, using a piece of Sargassum seaweed like a dog’s chew toy.

Dr. Herzing is no tourist cavorting with marine mammals. As the world’s leading authority on the species, she has been studying the dolphins for 25 years as part of the Wild Dolphin Project, the longest-running underwater study of its kind.

“I’m kind of an old-school naturalist,” she said. “I really believe in immersing yourself in the environment of the animal.”

Immerse herself she has. Based in Jupiter, Fla., she has tracked three generations of dolphins in this area. She knows every animal by name, along with individual personalities and life histories. She has captured much of their lives on video, which she is using to build a growing database.

And next year Dr. Herzing plans to begin a new phase of her research, something she says has been a lifetime goal: real-time two-way communication, in which dolphins take the initiative to interact with humans.

Up to now, dolphins have shown themselves to be adept at responding to human prompts, with food as a reward for performing a task. “It’s rare that we ask dolphins to seek something from us,” Dr. Herzing said.

But if she is right, the dolphins will seek to communicate with humans, and the reward will be social interaction itself, with dolphins and humans perhaps developing a crude vocabulary for objects and actions.

Other scientists are excited by the project. “‘Mind-blowing’ doesn’t do justice to the possibilities out there,” said Adam Pack, a cetacean researcher at the University of Hawaii at Hilo and an occasional collaborator with Dr. Herzing. “You’ve got crystal-clear warm water, no land in sight and an interest by this community of dolphins of engaging with humans.”

If anything, the scientists in “The Whale” have just the opposite intention of those experimenters. Their goal is to reduce human-orca (also called killer whales) interaction to a minimum since the experience has been that such interaction is always at the expense of the dolphin or whale (they are the same species actually) since they have no idea of the threat a boat propeller poses.

We meet the orca named Luna in “The Whale” when he is only two years old and has been accidentally separated from his family in Nootka Sound on the remote west coast of Vancouver Island in Canada. This is likened by the film’s creators to a child getting lost in a supermarket in one of the few concessions to anthropomorphism in this engrossing film.

The orca is an intensely social animal and in such instances one that is separated (called a “transient” by marine biologists) is known to seek out companionship from human beings. In Nootka Sound Luna got into the habit of approaching boats and ships and behaving like what can only be described as a puppy. In scene after scene, we see the huge mammal approaching a boat and to be petted or played with. It also played games, like balancing driftwood on his head.

Seeing the risk of such interaction, scientists and government employees working in the sound decided that it would be necessary to steer the public away from Luna even if it left the animal forlorn and bewildered—in other words, in the same emotional state as Nim Chimpsky who was abandoned to a shelter by Columbia University psychologist Herb Terrace. Or, for that matter, Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”.

Not everybody was willing to accept this quarantine, especially the Indians who lived on Nootka Sound and regarded Luna as a kindred spirit and very possibly the reincarnation of a recently deceased elder.

Ultimately it is the lack of pat solutions that makes “The Whale” so compelling. Unlike “Free Willy” or “Dolphin Tale”, there is no happy ending tied together with a red ribbon. Despite its sweetness (occasionally veering off into sentimentality), the film is a struggle to come to terms with what now appears insoluble, namely the clash between commercial development and the animal kingdom. Luna’s story is only a subset of the larger story about the looming extinction of whales. This is a particularly intelligent species that has only inhabited the planet for 50 million years. By comparison, we are interlopers.

If you’ve seen “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, you’ll remember the scene in which Caesar is stunned to see another captive—an orangutan—using sign language from behind the bars of his nearby cage. Where did you learn that, Caesar asks? The orangutan—named Maurice—replies “In the circus”. With Caesar leading the revolt, Caesar and all the other captive simians gain their liberation. No longer would they be held captive in medical laboratories or circuses just for the benefit of homo sapiens.

In reality, the revolt of the orca and the orangutan has been ongoing. In Jason Hribal’s excellent “Fear of the Animal Planet: the Hidden History of Animal Resistance“, there’s a chapter titled “Monkey’s Gone Wild” that sounds like a scene out of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. We learn of Ken, an orangutan held captive at the San Diego Zoo who when young would unscrew every nut he could find in his nursery and then remove the bolts. After he grew up, he was transferred to the Heart of the Zoo exhibit where he was caught throwing rocks at a television crew that was filming the neighboring gorillas. When he ran out of rocks, he started throwing his own shit!

In the next chapter titled “Slippery When Wet: Sea Mammals Dream of Freedom”, Hribal reports on the rebellions of the apes’ equally intelligent cousins. In a Counterpunch article that predated his book, Hribal reported:

Two weeks ago, an orca named Kasatka intentionally grabbed and pulled her trainer underwater twice-nearly killing him in the process. Kasatka is a performer for Sea World Adventure Park, San Diego. She is one of seven orca entertainers at the Southern California park. With operations in five other US locations, Sea World and Busch Gardens are owned by the Anheuser-Busch corporation. Indeed, as Susan Davis demonstrated in her Spectacular Nature (1997), these flagship zoological parks are corporate enterprises: for-profit businesses.

According to a park official, the Sea World orcas perform as many as 8 times per a day, 365 days a year. The Kasatka attack happened during the final daily show. As for the performances themselves, they are finely choreographed and composed of several acts. Each is highly complex in its routines and challenging in its stunts. These shows require skill, patience, labor, and hours of weekly practice. The orcas are, in every sense, performers and entertainers.

Yet much more is happening at these zoos and aquariums than just production and profit, more than just performers, spectacle, and captive audiences. For Kasatka’s action on that day was not a unique incident. It was the third such public act of violence involving herself. In 1999, she attempted to bite this same trainer during a show. He only escaped with all his limbs fully intact by quickly jumping out of the pool. After this event, Kasatka was sent, as stated by a park spokesman, “back for some additional training and behavior modification”-for in 1993, there was a similar bite-attempt. In fact, two years earlier, her father, a performer at Sealand of the Pacific in Canada, killed his trainer during a show. Resistance at zoological institutions occurs far more often than most people know.

Hribal concludes his article with the following observation:

In order to see the world from Kasatka’s perspective, three facts need to be considered. First, there are no recorded incidences of orcas “in the wild” attacking humans unprovoked. This is an institutional problem. Second, Kasatka and other performers have a long history of attacking trainers. Resistance in zoos and aquariums, in truth, is anything but unusual. Third, the zoological institutions themselves have to negotiate with their entertainers to extract labor and profit. Indeed, animal performers have agency, and zoos have always (privately, at least) acknowledged this. Therefore, the next time you hear about an orca attack, don’t dismiss it from above: “Animals will be animals.” But instead, look from below: “These creatures resist work, and can occasionally land a counterpunch or two of their own.”

This is in accord with what I read in an email from the publicists for “The Whale” just two days ago:

Statement by Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm,

directors of THE WHALE, about the dangers to humans of orcas in captivity:

(Documentary is narrated by Ryan Reynolds, due in theaters in NY on Sept 23

and LA and additional markets on Sept 30, http://prodigypublicrelations.us2.list-manage2.com/track/click?u=bb410deada8b6b607f204f67f&id=6d92694251&e=82c2bc3c32)

“The OSHA hearings on trainer safety at SeaWorld have sparked a discussion about the effects of captivity on orcas and the dangers they pose to humans in those situations.

Our film, The Whale, shows the gentleness and apparent friendliness of a wild orca toward humans. We think that this kind of non-aggressive behavior toward people can only be expected in non-captive situations. We believe that captive orcas will inevitably show occasional and unpredictable violence toward the humans who maintain their captivity.

Having spent two years directly observing a single wild orca on the coast of British Columbia during the making of The Whale, we believe strongly that captivity must be torture for any orca and will continue to generate unexpected dangerous and occasionally deadly interactions between orcas and humans.

The amount of ocean space used daily by the orca we watched, whom humans nicknamed Luna, was vast. He would often travel 50 nautical miles or more in a single day, and he used an area of several square miles in size as a home base for fishing and daily living. He explored that area extensively every day.

In addition, we listened to him with an underwater microphone frequently, and heard him making almost continuous sounds, from calls and whistles to frequent echolocation clicks and buzzing. In a concrete tank orcas must find those sounds ineffective and bothersome.

Our observations of Luna make it clear that orcas are highly intelligent and adaptable animals, therefore we can imagine that they could learn to cope in some ways with the constraints of captivity, in the same way that humans learn to survive in inhuman conditions such as solitary confinement. However, some humans cope better than others in those conditions and almost none are free from terrible adverse reactions to those situations.

To us it is certain that orcas must be under extremely high levels of continuous stress when confined in enclosures that look big to us but must seem tiny to them. It is amazing that there aren’t daily incidents of harm to people who participate in keeping these animals under such unnatural constraints. We can only guess that the reasons such incidents are not more frequent is that orcas are highly cooperative animals by nature and that they try to be cooperative even with the beings that imprison them.

Imprisonment of humans inevitably results in psychological problems and in regular outbursts of violence as humans lose control in their frustrations at incarceration. Orcas are not humans, but they share certain brain structures and emotional responses that somewhat resemble those of humans.

Therefore it seems inevitable that holding orcas in captivity will always result in a certain amount of dangerous and sometimes deadly interactions with the humans who work with them. That the orcas manage to control their frustrations as well as they do only makes the times they don’t less easy to predict and more likely to be dangerous, because these events will always be unexpected. The only predictable thing is that these terrible events will happen.

In the wild, orcas are stunningly unthreatening to humans. But we believe, after spending two years watching a wild orca live in freedom, that in captivity, orcas will always be dangerous in unpredictable ways.”

August 16, 2011

Project Nim; Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Filed under: animal rights,Film — louisproyect @ 6:55 pm

By coincidence, two of the more interesting films of late have been about human beings mistreating their closest relative, the chimpanzee. More specifically, they deal with the betrayal of animals that have been raised as members of a human family in the hope of developing their ability to use language or master other intellectual abilities defined as unique to homo sapiens.

“Project Nim” is a documentary now playing at the Angelica Theater in New York that describes the experiment conducted by Columbia psychology professor Herb Terrace in the early 70s to determine whether the chimp called Nim Chimpsky (after Noam Chomsky) could be taught to use sign language. After integrating the chimp into a family of wealthy hippies on the Upper West Side, the animal is progressively removed from human relationships as the experiment wears on until finally cast aside. The level of grief that the animal suffered as a result of the abandonment is hard to determine, but we as human beings can only feel a sense of anger at Herb Terrace for caring so little about the animal’s feelings.

In “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, the chimpanzee, called Caesar, is the subject of an experiment with a genetically engineered retrovirus that can cure Alzheimer’s. As is the case today, chimpanzees are used in clinical trials since they are so closely related to homo sapiens physically. When Caesar—still a wild animal even with advanced cognitive skills—attacks the neighbor of the scientist who is raising him as part of his, the animal control authorities remand him to a prison-like primate compound. Caesar’s fight to liberate himself and the other abused members of the compound deeply stirring, evoking some of the best prison break movies of all time.

“Project Nim” relies heavily on archival film and video footage taken by Herb Terrace and his assistants over the years. After selecting the infant Nim for his experiment, Terrace recruits Stephanie LaFarge, a former graduate student and lover, to raise him in her Upper West Side brownstone as if he were her own child. LaFarge, who is a quintessential early 70s Earth Mother, does not need persuading. She jumps right in and even breast feeds the chimp. Her husband, an independently wealthy poet, is initially okay with the project but begins to turn sour after Nim begins to develop a proprietary interest in his wife. I have never been that impressed with Freud’s Oedipal Complex theory but the film came close to convincing me.

It is just as well with Terrace that the LaFarge family was becoming another case of what Tolstoy described in the opening of “Anna Karenina”: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” He had decided that a more clinical environment for his experiment was necessary and relocated Nim to a sterile-looking room on the Columbia campus that drained the animal of all his motivation.

Happily for all concerned, the school was so impressed with the progress of the experiment that was garnering good publicity in the major media that it offered Terrace the use of Delafield, a 21 room mansion in the Bronx that had formerly been used by the school’s president. With its extensive grounds, Nim was able to run free for the first time in his life. Terrace recruited lab assistants to develop the chimp’s sign language skills who became as attached to their pupil as Stephanie LaFarge. Unfortunately, as the chimp became an adolescent and more aggressive, the hazards of looking after him increased. One day, without any warning, he took a bite out of a young trainer’s cheek that left a gaping hole. She was probably fortunate that her entire face was not ripped off, as was the case with a highly publicized story from two years ago in Connecticut.

After Terrace decides that such dangers prevent further experimentation, he turns Nim over to the same kind of compound that Caesar ends up in. While it is doubtful that the handlers in the documentary ever meted out the kind of sadistic treatment that is depicted in the fictional film, the real damage was psychological. An animal that has been raised as if he was a human being is simply not prepared for the isolation and boredom of caged confinement. One does not have to believe that a primate can ever learn language to be persuaded that a cage is not a proper place for a chimpanzee or any other animal for that matter.

Caesar is played by Andy Serkis, the same actor who played the Gollum in the Ring movie and even more relevantly King Kong in the 2005 remake. As the master of the accursed outsider role, Serkis is second to none. One can only imagine what he would do with a meaty role like Caliban in “The Tempest”. As Will Rodman, the scientist who raises him, James Franco is simply terrible. This rapidly rising actor, who is regarded as something of an intellectual based on his admission into a PhD program at Yale. My suggestion to him, if he ever stumbles across this review on Rotten Tomatoes, is to switch over completely to academia. He couldn’t be worse at parsing poetry than he is at reading his lines.

Caesar’s introduction to primate compound life is traumatic. He no longer sits around the pleasant dining table with Will Rodman and his sweet-natured father who is battling Alzheimer’s (John Lithgow), but is forced to eat the slops that the sadistic keeper (Tom Felton) puts into his cage each day, accompanied by taunts. Exercise is taken in the courtyard that is like a prison’s. Like prisoners, the frustrated and stressed out chimpanzees take out their hostility on each other.

There is only animal that is on his intellectual level, a wise and elderly Orangutan who warns Caesar through sign language not to sass the keeper, since he is violently vindictive. A shocked Caesar asks the Orangutan where he learned to sign. The reply: I was in the circus once. Nothing wittier has ever been seen in the Planet of the Apes franchise.

When Caesar learns that a more powerful version of the retrovirus has been developed, he breaks out of the compound and steals a batch that he brings back to the compound to turn loose on his comrades. Once they are able to reason like homo sapiens and communicate with each other, they organize a break and descend on San Francisco, eventually having a showdown with the cops on the Golden Gate Bridge. Summer films do not come much better than this.

Assuming that many of my readers have a basic Marxist education, you will not be surprised that Friedrich Engels had some interesting things to say about our primate relatives in “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man”:

Comparison with animals proves that this explanation of the origin of language from and in the process of labour is the only correct one. The little that even the most highly-developed animals need to communicate to each other does not require articulate speech. In its natural state, no animal feels handicapped by its inability to speak or to understand human speech. It is quite different when it has been tamed by man. The dog and the horse, by association with man, have developed such a good ear for articulate speech that they easily learn to understand any language within their range of concept. Moreover they have acquired the capacity for feelings such as affection for man, gratitude, etc., which were previously foreign to them. Anyone who has had much to do with such animals will hardly be able to escape the conviction that in many cases they now feel their inability to speak as a defect, although, unfortunately, it is one that can no longer be remedied because their vocal organs are too specialised in a definite direction. However, where vocal organs exist, within certain limits even this inability disappears. The buccal organs of birds are as different from those of man as they can be, yet birds are the only animals that can learn to speak; and it is the bird with the most hideous voice, the parrot, that speaks best of all. Let no one object that the parrot does not understand what it says. It is true that for the sheer pleasure of talking and associating with human beings, the parrot will chatter for hours at a stretch, continually repeating its whole vocabulary. But within the limits of its range of concepts it can also learn to understand what it is saying. Teach a parrot swear words in such a way that it gets an idea of their meaning (one of the great amusements of sailors returning from the tropics); tease it and you will soon discover that it knows how to use its swear words just as correctly as a Berlin costermonger. The same is true of begging for tidbits.

While “Project Nim” might have left the audience with the impression that Herb Terrace’s experiment was in the spirit of similar ones conducted with the chimpanzee Washoe or the gorilla Koko, the opposite is true. Terrace was actually skeptical of claims that primates could be taught to use language and sought to prove that with controlled experiments.

If Engels remarked that parrots will use swear words to get a tidbit, Terrace’s conclusion was not that far apart. He came to believe that Nim used the word “banana” in many different contexts, but only after learning that a banana would be the reward if he signed correctly. In other words, what you were seeing was simply a variation on Pavlov’s dogs or the Skinnerian psychology that Terrace subscribed to. Having a conditioned response to an environmental stimulus might produce results that look like intelligence but appearances can be fooling.

Nim Chimsky’s namesake, the cognitive science professor at MIT and long-time opponent of U.S. foreign policy, is almost as dismissive of theories that primates use language as he is of excuses made for wars in places like Indochina. In an email exchange with Matt Aames Cucchiaro that can be found on the Noam Chomsky website, Chomsky describes such experiments as a waste of time:

CUCCHIARO: It seems that even after the numerous studies conducted in the 1970s — and well beyond — had clearly failed, the notion of chimps possibly learning language still persists. What do you think when researchers to this day, such as Susan Rumbaugh (ape trainer), claim that Bonobo chimps can draw signs and refer to it as language similar to humans’ ability?

CHOMSKY: It’s all totally meaningless, so I don’t participate in the debate. Humans can be taught to do a fair imitation of the complex bee communication system. That is not of the slightest interest to bee scientists, who are rational, and understand something about science: they are interested in the nature of bees, and it is of no interest if some other organism can be trained to partially mimic some superficial aspects of the waggle dance. And one could of course not get a grant to teach grad students to behave like imperfect bees. When we turn to the study of humans, for some reason irrationality commonly prevails — possibly a reflection of old-fashioned dualism — and it is considered significant that apes (or birds, which tend to do much better) can be trained to mimic some superficial aspects of human language. But the same rational criteria should hold as in the case of bees and graduate students. Possibly training graduate students to mimic the waggle dance could teach us something about human capacity, though it’s unlikely. Similarly, it’s possible that training apes to do things with signs can teach us something about the cognitive capacities of apes. That’s the way the matter is approached by serious scientists, like Anne and David Premack. Others prefer to fool themselves.

Perhaps a better goal would be to get human beings to act like human beings. Back around 1974 or so, when I was living in Houston and active in the Trotskyist movement, I got to know some of the more colorful characters in my Montrose neighborhood, a blend of gays, hippies, radicals and old-time eccentrics. One of these eccentrics was famous (infamous, to be more exact) for keeping an adult gorilla in a cage abutting his living-room that provided huge amusement for the hosts when they had unsuspecting guests like me.

You would be ushered into the living room and told to stand near the bars of the cage. Upon a signal given by his masters, the gorilla would charge from the far end of the cage toward the bars at a frightening pace and hurl himself against the bars. Your natural inclination would be to recoil in fright.

I didn’t say anything at the time, but wished I had. As someone who was a deep admirer of Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey, field scientists who had lived among the chimpanzees and gorillas respectively, the thought of keeping such proud and intelligent animals in a dank hole such as that one strikes me now as just what you would expect from such a benighted state as Texas. If it were up to me as Minister of the Interior of a Socialist America, I’d close down not just the ownership of such inappropriate household pets but zoos in general. What the world needs is fewer prisons and zoos and more human and animal development on a healthier and liberated basis.

The beautiful and gentle Orangutan is facing extinction in East Asia because the rainforest is being turned into palm oil plantations. The idea that such an animal can become extinct in order to make more cooking oil is in and of itself enough to condemn capitalism as a social system.

Last Friday the Washington Post reported on moves to end laboratory tests involving chimpanzees, a practice that of course is implicitly condemned in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. It quotes Jane Goodall:

They arranged for Goodall — for decades the world’s most prominent chimp advocate — to speak from Britain.

“From their point of view, it’s like torture,” Goodall said of chimpanzees kept captive for developing new medicines. “They are in prison and have done nothing wrong.”

A short time later, Eugene Schiff, a hepatitis researcher at the University of Miami, said, “I’ve never worked with chimps, but just listening to Jane Goodall, I got a guilt trip.”

Humanity, it seems, is on a collective guilt trip. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is a blockbuster. And in April, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) reintroduced the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, which would ban “invasive research” on great apes in the United States.

“We wouldn’t be having this meeting if ethics wasn’t an issue,” Frans de Waal told the IOM committee. The Emory University researcher, whose pioneering studies with captive chimpanzees have revealed their human-like empathy, continued, “We don’t have this kind of meeting about rats.”

The irony of course is that with the continually escalating commercial attacks on the rainforest and the ocean, the only creatures left alive after 50 years or so will be those that have learned to live alongside human society: the crows, pigeons, squirrels and rats. That is a prospect that is even gloomier than the original Planet of the Apes that ends with the discovery that the human race has made itself extinct in the sometime distant past.

UPDATE:

Stumbled across this on Counterpunch:

The Story of Ken Allen and Kumang

Orangutans, Resistance and the Zoo

While bread and circuses might work on the human species, orangutans require a different combination of incentives. Their control lies in bananas and sex. Orangutans are almost helpless to such things. It’s instinct, don’t you know. Surely, if San Diego Zoo officials could just discover the correct instinctual cocktail, they could solve their orangutan problem before it got any worse. All they needed was a lot of bananas, some willing female participants, and time.

Efforts on this project began in earnest in the summer of 1985. The new Heart of the Zoo exhibit had opened three years earlier, and day to day operations could not have been going better. But then that darn Ken Allen started acting up. Ken was born in February of 1971 to San Diego’s Maggie and Bob. He was, officially speaking, a Bornean orangutan – although he never stepped foot on the island nor knew anything about arboreal culture. It might be more correct to classify him as a zoo orangutan. Institutional life was the only one that Ken ever experienced. The zoo is where he was born, and the zoo is where he died of lymphoma in 2000. In between, Ken had to deal with captivity on a daily basis. Interestingly, the San Diego Zoo understood from the very beginning that he was going to be more difficult to handle than the facility’s previous orangutans.

In his nursery, Ken would unscrew every nut that he could find and remove the bolts. Keepers would no sooner put them back when he would be at it again. Nor could he ever be kept in his room. One of his favorite schemes, a trainer described, was to “grab someone’s hand who was waving at him, and swing himself up.” Good luck trying to catch the little red ape after that. Yet, for the zoo, his later life would represent a much greater challenge. In fact, when Ken was first moved into the Heart of the Zoo exhibit, he was caught throwing rocks at a television crew that was filming the neighboring gorillas. When he ran out of rocks, Ken threw his own shit. The crew scattered. In an ironic twist, there would be a similar problem at the zoo several years down the road. Large glass windows had been installed in the exhibit, and the orangutans took to pitching rocks at them. San Diego officials, thinking quickly, instituted an exchange program. One non-thrown stone would get you a banana. But the orangutans were not interested and kept trying to break the windows. The park finally had to bring in a contractor to dig up the entire ground floor of the exhibit in order to remove all of the rocks, as each shattered window cost the zoo $900 to replace. What happened next? The orangutans began to tear the ceramic insulators off of the wall and threw them instead. Evidently, these animals really wanted out.

(clip)

May 28, 2009

Offshore; Food, Inc.

Filed under: animal rights,Ecology,economics,farming,Film — louisproyect @ 6:31 pm

“Offshore” might not be the first movie about Indian call center workers—“Slumdog Millionaire” has that distinction—but surely this dark comedy is the first produced by Indians that deals with the cultural and economic dislocations, not to speak of the outright racism, when they get these jobs as a result of outsourcing.

As a joint Indian-U.S. production, the movie tries to tell both sides of a story that is all the more topical given the current economic downturn. It begins with a visit of Voxx call center executive Ajay Tiwari (Sid Makkar) to the offices of Fairfax Furniture in Detroit in order to line up a deal to relocate their call center to Mumbai where it will be staffed by Indians.

But before the move can be consummated, it will be necessary for a cadre of Voxx workers to be trained at Fairfax headquarters where they will be on a forced march to learn the model line in two months. Voxx had proposed a nine month preparatory period but the Fairfax bosses were anxious to cut costs as soon as possible.

The three Indian workers are given the cold shoulder in the company cafeteria and are convenient scapegoats for the long-time employees who are on their way out. Even worse, the company trainer makes their daily sessions a hell on earth demanding instant answers to obscure questions about how to assemble a coffee table, etc. The Indians are models of perseverance and good will but come close to breaking on a daily basis.

Director/writer Diane Cheklich explained her motivation in making such a movie:

Almost everyone these days has been personally touched by outsourcing, whether as a customer calling into a call center for service or as a worker who has lost their job to an offshore company. The concept resonates with people on both sides of the ocean.

While I found the movie altogether compelling, it did leave me with a somewhat deflated feeling since the drama was posed in terms of “cowboys versus Indians” as the film-makers describe it. In an epoch of an almost Hobbesian struggle of workers of one ethnicity against another for the right to be exploited by a Fairfax or a General Motors for that matter, the audience, well at least this member of the audience, would hope for a resolution that favored all the workers against the bosses who set them against each other. “Offshore”, perhaps acknowledging current realities, does not offer such a pat resolution. “Offshore” opens tomorrow at the Imaginasian Theater in New York. A trailer can be seen at the official website: http://www.offshorethemovie.com/

****

“Food, Inc.” is a powerful indictment of corporate farming that opens at the Film Forum in New York on June 12th. Inspired by the writings of Eric Schosser (“Fast Food Nation”) and Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”), who provide a kind of tag-team running commentary throughout the documentary directed by Robert Kenner, it is the definitive statement on how America produces crappy food to the detriment of the people who eat it, the animals who are treated cruelly in farms and slaughterhouses, and the largely immigrant workforce that labors in unsafe and low wage conditions. The only benefactors it would appear are the men who run Monsanto, Purdue, Smithfield and a small group of other huge multinationals that only see food as the ultimate commodity. When they look at a tomato, they don’t see something to eat but something to turn into a dollar no matter the consequences to society.

While I have been paying close attention to these issues for well over a decade, I was surprised to learn that I only knew half the story. It is far worse than I imagined, especially when you are dealing with camera images rather than words on a page. I was shocked to see what chickens raised in factory conditions look like. The film’s producer went to dozens of large-scale chicken farmers who were under contract to Purdue or Tyson to get permission to film inside a chicken coop (a warehouse would describe it better) but were thwarted each time, only finally to get Carole Morison—a Purdue supplier—to allow them inside even if it meant the end of her business. She was disgusted by what was taking place and wanted to get it off of her chest.

She had already put up screened windows so her chickens could see daylight over the objections of Purdue, but had no control over how the animals were raised. The chickens had been bred to have larger breasts and mature twice as fast as normal with the intention of supplying the supermarkets with a more cost-effective product. What this does not take into account is the inability of a hen to walk properly with the extra weight on top placed on spindly underdeveloped legs. As a consequence, the sheds were filled with crippled hens crawling about the floor, often close to death or already dead. The floor of the warehouse was littered with these casualties to the profit nexus and their feces. No wonder Purdue and Tyson didn’t want you to see how your food looked before it came to the meat bins at your local supermarket.

Despite the grizzly aspect of factory farming that is depicted throughout the film in a kind of homage to Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, the branding for these commodities tries to evoke a long-lost period when farming was a far more local and organic mode of production. The pictures on the labels for well-known food products make you think you have been transported to Dorothy’s farm in the Wizard of Oz when the reality behind the label is much more like Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”. In one particularly grotesque scene, we are in the control room of a mega-corporation where a bank of computers oversees the production of ground beef at various far-flung farms under its control. The key to success, the owners tell us, is that the beef is sterilized with chemicals in order to prevent e-coli disease. Apparently this is exactly what Burger King et al are looking for since they anticipate that more than 90 percent of all fast food burger patties will be produced this way in a few years.

Unfortunately, Barbara Kowalcyk, one of the interviewees, was not fortunate enough to have had one of these chemically treated hamburgers served to Kevin, her 2 ½ year old son, on a vacation some years ago. The meat carried e-coli bacteria that killed him after several days of agony in a hospital bed. Now she campaigns to see “Kevin’s Law” passed in order to close down any plants that have repeated violations of contaminated meat. Surprise, surprise. Washington has not seen fit to pass the bill.

Although I strongly urge my readers to see this movie, I do feel obligated to offer some criticisms that get to the heart of my differences with Schlosser and Pollan, no matter how much I applaud their work. A significant part of the movie is devoted to an examination of Stonyfield yogurt, a product that is always in my refrigerator especially since yogurt is a staple of the Turkish dishes I enjoy preparing. The CEO of Stonyfield is one Gary Hirshberg who is seen conferring with Walmart representatives who were about to introduce his products to their vile stores. Hirshfield justifies dealing with Walmart because he believes that there is no alternative to capitalism, even though he doesn’t quite use those words. If we are going to make wholesome food grown in conditions respectful to the environment and to animals, you need retailers like Walmart to make the organic sector grow.

The press notes for “Food, Inc.” quotes Walmart on this score:

“Actually, it’s a pretty easy decision to try to support things like organics or whatever it might be based on what the consumer wants. We see that and we react to it. If it’s clear that the customer wants it, it’s really easy to get behind it and to push forward and try to make that happen.”

— Tony Airosa, chief dairy purchaser for the nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, which recently began carrying organically-produced food in its store. Wal-Mart has since stopped carrying milk containing growth hormone.

In my view, it is utopian to think that the factory food system will be transformed incrementally in this fashion. The Monsantos, Purdues, Tysons and Smithfields of this world are not going to be displaced by organic farming for the simple reason that they were produced by the forces of production that have taken a century to mature. American society is under enormous pressure to compete with other capitalist powers in an epoch of stagnating profits. As such, factory farming is geared to the economic imperatives of a nation that is being forced to attack the living standards of workers and farmers alike.

If any evidence of the bankruptcy of the system is needed, as well as its talent for self-deception, you can start with the White House itself—a symbol of American corporate power and its strategy for continued world domination.

When Michelle Obama planted an organic garden on the White House lawn, Michael Pollan hailed the move in the Huffington Post:

Perhaps the most encouraging action so far has come from the East Wing, where Michelle Obama has been speaking out about the importance of real, fresh food, home cooking and gardening. By planting an organic garden on the White House lawn, she launched a thousand victory gardens (vegetables seed is suddenly in short supply), gave conniptions to the pesticide industry (which wrote urging her to use some of their “crop protection products” whether she needed them or not), and at a stroke raised the profile and prestige of real food in America.

He also was encouraged by Obama’s appointments:

Tom Vilsack has sounded a welcome new note at the Department of Agriculture, where he has appointed a proven reformer — Kathleen Merrigan — as his deputy, and emphasized his commitment to sustainability, local food systems (including urban agriculture); putting nutrition at the heart of the department’s nutrition programs (not as obvious as it might sound), and enlisting farmers in the fight against climate change. He has been meeting with the kinds of activists and farmers who in past administrations stood on the steps of the USDA holding protest signs.

I wonder if Michael Pollan watched the movie he appeared in, since Monsanto was rightfully pilloried as using its control over genetically modified soybean seeds as a way of maintaining a monopoly over farmers, who once had the right to reuse seeds. (Monsanto patented the seeds and sues any farmer its detectives find in violation.)

This is what the Organic Consumers Association has to say about Tom Vilsack:

TAKE ACTION TO STOP VILSACK’S CONFIRMATION

* Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack’s support of genetically engineered pharmaceutical crops, especially pharmaceutical corn:

http://www.gene.ch/genet/2002/Oct/msg00057.html

http://www.organicconsumers.org/gefood/drugsincorn102302.cfm

* The biggest biotechnology industry group, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, named Vilsack Governor of the Year. He was also the founder and former chair of the Governor’s Biotechnology Partnership.

* When Vilsack created the Iowa Values Fund, his first poster child of economic development potential was Trans Ova and their pursuit of cloning dairy cows.

* Vilsack was the origin of the seed pre-emption bill in 2005, which many people here in Iowa fought because it took away local government’s possibility of ever having a regulation on seeds- where GE would be grown, having GE-free buffers, banning pharma corn locally, etc. Representative Sandy Greiner, the Republican sponsor of the bill, bragged on the House Floor that Vilsack put her up to it right after his state of the state address.

* Vilsack has a glowing reputation as being a shill for agribusiness biotech giants like Monsanto. Sustainable ag advocated across the country were spreading the word of Vilsack’s history as he was attempting to appeal to voters in his presidential bid. An activist from the west coast even made this youtube animation about Vilsack.

The airplane in this animation is a referral to the controversy that Vilsack often traveled in Monsanto’s jet.

Despite these criticisms, I strongly recommend “Food, Inc.” that opens at the Film Forum in New York on June 12th.

Official website: http://www.foodincmovie.com/

December 27, 2007

Escaped tigers

Filed under: animal rights,Ecology — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

San Francisco Lion House

Guantanamo human house

Until the assassination of Benazir Bhutto occurred, the cable news networks were consumed with the news of a tiger escaping from its cage in the San Francisco zoo and killing one man and wounding two others. Today’s NY Times reported:

Now considered a crime scene, the San Francisco Zoo was closed to visitors on Wednesday as police investigators swept the grounds searching for evidence to explain how a Siberian tiger escaped its open-air grotto on Tuesday, killing one young man and seriously injuring two others.

Investigators are seeking witnesses and intend to interview the survivors, two brothers ages 19 and 23, who were in shock but in stable condition after surgery to clean wounds from “deep claw and tooth attacks,” said a doctor at a news conference at San Francisco General Hospital. The identity of the brothers has not been released.

The tiger, a 300-pound female Siberian named Tatiana who attacked a zookeeper last December, was shot to death by the police after the zoo’s 5 p.m. closing on Tuesday, after it somehow jumped barriers around the Lion House habitat and killed Carlos Sousa Jr., 17, of San Jose.

The police said they were trying to determine whether the tiger escaped because of negligence or equipment failure or whether it was somehow provoked to jump the 18-foot wall around the grotto.

So far commentators are quite worked up over the question of a tiger jumping 18 feet into the air, since that would tend to render zoos around the country as possible breeding grounds for repeat terrorist attacks by suicide felines. Just picture a pissed-off tiger jumping over the head of a full-grown giraffe and you get a sense of the worries felt among zoo management circles. It must be equal to what the CIA felt after 9/11.

The NY Times refers to a “Lion House Habitat,” but how in the world could a zoo replicate the real habitat of a tiger? According to http://www.bigcatrescue.org:

Indian tigers generally have a range of 8-60 square miles, based on availability of prey. Sumatran tigers have a range of about 150 square miles. Due to the severity of the climate and lack of prey, the Siberian tiger can require a range of 400 square miles. Tigers have lost more than 40% of their habitat in the past decade.

With the loss of habitat, you will naturally see a decline of this species–a fate that all animals at the top of the food chain are now facing with the large-scale “development” taking place in rain forests everywhere. Indeed, there are more tigers in captivity today than there are in the wild.

As might be expected, zoos emerged at the very time that Western colonialism had begun to descend on the natural habitats of whales, tigers, lions, elephants, rhinoceroses, gorillas and other such masterpieces of the natural world. John Bellamy Foster identified the scope of the problem in the April 1998 Monthly Review:

The main reason that the ecology of the entire planet—as we know it—is now threatened with “irretrievable mutilation” has to do with the rapidly rising rate at which human beings are transforming the earth, on a scale that is now truly planetary in character, rivaling the basic biogeochemical processes of the planet. A few facts are worth noting. Somewhere between a third and a half of the land surface of the earth has been transformed by human action; the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has increased by some 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution; humanity now fixes more atmospheric nitrogen than all natural terrestrial sources combined; more than half of the fresh water sources are now put to use by human beings; 22 percent of marine fisheries are being overexploited (or have already been depleted), while 44 percent are at their limit of exploitation; one-quarter of the Earth’s bird species have been driven into extinction by human activities; rates of species extinction are now 100 to 1000 times those that existed prior to the human domination of the earth.

At the rate things are going, the only animals living outside of zoos toward the 21st century will be those that have evolved to live off the detritus left by homo sapiens: crows, pigeons, rats, mice, seagulls, coyotes, raccoons, etc. Our descendants will be able to visit zoos and see caged tigers, lions and gorillas driven to the same distraction as the San Francisco escapee but only there. By the late 21st century, all of Africa and Asia should have been turned into industrial parks churning out goods for Walmart–that is unless humanity puts an end to private production based on profit.

Zoos are the quintessential symbol of “civilization.” When mankind built cities out of the surplus product afforded by agricultural innovation, it found itself increasingly removed from the natural world. To amuse themselves and their subjects, the Monarchs of such cities brought back exotic creatures from lands they had conquered and put them on display in “menageries”. For the French Kings of the 17th century, carrying on in a tradition that went back to the Roman Empire, the menagerie was an “establishment of luxury and curiosity,” according to the “Methodical Encyclopaedia” of 1782.

After the French Revolution, there was a strong reaction against all forms of monarchic privilege, including the menagerie. In keeping with the national aspirations of the bourgeois revolution, the menagerie was abolished in favor of a zoological garden, which was accessible to the entire population and designed to foster scientific exploration. Founded in Paris in 1794, the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes was the first zoological garden and became the model for zoos everywhere.

The zoological garden was the natural outgrowth of botanical gardens, which were stocked with plants gathered up by scientists accompanying sea voyages by the big European powers in pursuit of territorial conquest. If you’ve seen the movie “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” you will recall how the ship’s surgeon Dr. Stephen Maturin was anxious to bring back new plants with him to London for further study. This was part and parcel of Empire-building.

Soon animals would be brought back in the same spirit, either dead or alive. To take just one grizzly example, the Earl of Derby’s Museum (the forerunner to the Liverpool Museum destroyed by an incendiary bomb during WWII) contained some 25,000 specimens.

Transporting living specimens back to the Mother Country involved the same kinds of cruelties associated with the slave trade, another staple of the rise of colonialism. You can find this system documented in “Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West” by Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, a book that does for the animal trade that people like Kenneth M. Stampp and Herbert Aptheker did for trade in human beings. Baratay and Hardouin-Fugier write:

African wildlife was generally classified as a ‘colonial commodity’ and, like all other ‘commercial resources’, was exploited without much care and at terrible expense, for the animals at least. Carl Hagenback told of a caravan’s progress as, laden with animals, it crossed the burning deserts of the Sudan at night over the course of several weeks. A hippopotamus, wrapped in a stretcher made of hide, was carried by two dromedaries and the water for his bath by two others. Goats followed: they suckled the younger creatures, and were then killed by the big cats. J.V. Domalain described such practices in twentieth-century Laos as quite usual: wounded cats were not given anything to drink and then abandoned to the sun, their gangrenous legs tied together. Hagenback related that a sea elephant, weighing 1,410 kilos, sent from the Cape of Georgia to Stellingen, held out for 40 days without a bath or food. This was at a time when travel was very stressful. In 1810, according to Fréderic Cuvier, it took three months to get from Borneo to Spain, then two more to get to Paris across the snow-covered Pyrenees. In 1824, an Indian elephant would travel for six months to reach Paris; in 1850, five months; in 1870, 62 days. It would often arrive exhausted with sea-sickness. In 1928, the month’s journey from Cameroon or Madagascar to the zoo at Lyon was still long enough for animals to arrive emaciated and wounded.

The ‘packaging for this material’, according to the term used by Lyon’s zoo in 1934, was the sabot, a small cage reinforced only at the front, as animals did not try to escape from the back. Tossed about without protection for their claws, big cats tore themselves to ribbons and bled to death or put their own eyes out. The movements of the great circuses taught many lessons, and ships began to specialize in the transport of wild animals. Around 1923, the Congo’s riverboat services and several others were offering the attractive price of 50 francs per cubic metre. A surcharge for large animals cost one first-class ticket, for reasons of food: for an Indian elephant, two thousand kilos of hay, twelve hundred of bananas, five hundred of sugar-cane and four hundred of green cabbage had to be taken on board. Aboard ship, gorillas were given food that had been poorly preserved in refrigerators of inadequate size, and the water was unsuited to the aquariums. Delivery of animals by air began in 1948, the zoos of Copenhagen and Antwerp being pioneers in this area.

No wonder that tiger jumped 12 and 1/2  feet into the air and killed the first human being it could get its claws on.

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