Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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.


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.


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:


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



* 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.

June 8, 2007

Your Mommy Kills Animals

Filed under: animal rights,Film — louisproyect @ 5:05 pm

Last night I watched a terrific documentary titled “Your Mommy Kills Animals” that is scheduled for theatrical release on July 20 and will be available on DVD in November. Although I consider myself well-versed in the ideas and activity of the radical movement, director Curtis Johnson uncovers a reality that was hitherto a blur in my mind, namely the animal rights movement. Structured as a debate between opposing sides on the issue, it succeeds both in terms of dispensing information–as any documentary should–as well as telling a highly dramatic story about some unique characters, namely the activists who John Lewis, the FBI’s deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, described as the nation’s top domestic terrorism threat in 2005.

There’s quite a rogue’s gallery in opposition to animal rights. We see Christopher Hitchens holding forth on how the activists become self-righteous absolutists in their desire to crush their enemies. Hearing these words coming out of his mouth was sufficient to get me to bag up all my leather shoes and bring them down to the thrift shop and to swear off chicken and fish (I have already given up red meat because of my blood pressure.) We also see Ron Arnold, the author of “Eco-Terrorism”, making the case against animal rights. Although I am very familiar with Arnold from past debates with his British allies, the ex-Marxists organized around the website Spiked Online, I have never heard him before. Arnold is an odd character. He couches his anti-environmentalist and anti-animal rights arguments in populist rhetoric, but has been exposed as a tool of big timber and mining interests.

But the chief opponent of animal rights heard from is one David Martosko, a truly sleazy character of the sort that has taken money from tobacco companies in the past to argue that smoking is harmless. Martosko works for the Center for Consumer Freedom, one of a number of pro-industry groups set up by Rick Berman, a long-time lobbyist for the food, alcoholic beverage and tobacco industries. The group was created in 1995 as the Guest Choice Network with $600,000 from the Philip Morris tobacco company. Ever since the tobacco companies have been forced to retreat in the face of law suits and exposures, the focus has shifted to new battlegrounds. Apparently, American big business has no patience for unruly protestors who question their right to torture animals in the pursuit of profit.

On the other side of the barricades are people like Kevin Kjonaas, who was among the seven arrested for terrorism in connection with their involvement in Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), a group that has targeted employees, clients and associates of Huntingdon Life Sciences, a British research company that tests chemicals and drugs on thousands of animals each year. Their appearance and their words are sharply at odds with the allegations. Kjonaas is a wispy 29-year-old Catholic-school graduate who speaks in a high-pitched voice and might remind you of the comic Emo Phillips who was popular in the 1980s. As president of the U.S. affiliate of SHAC USA, Kjonaas posted the home addresses and telephone numbers of Huntingdon executives on the group’s website and organized protests in front of their homes. I can certainly understand why somebody who owns a $5 million townhouse in Manhattan would not want to have such people mounting a noisy demonstration on his sidewalk at 2am, but this hardly amounts to terrorism.

As I watched Kjonaas and other animal rights activists risking arrest and pressing their campaign on a no-holds barred basis, I was struck by the contrast to the mainstream antiwar movement in the United States, which has never reached the same level of militancy and that continues to view elected politicians as reachable. For example, when Medea Benjamin led a Code Pink delegation to Hillary Clinton’s office, she stated “We know that you’re a wonderful woman and that deep down, we really think you agree with us.” If Benjamin and her cohorts had 1/100th of the spunk and the anger of the animal rights protestors, maybe the war would have ended some time ago.

Despite his obvious admiration for Kjonaas and his fellow activists, Curtis Johnson is not a mere apologist. He includes interviews with animal rights activists who believe that SHAC type militancy is counterproductive. They argue that forcing Huntington out of the USA and UK has resulted in it setting up shop in places like Pakistan, where there is much less oversight. By presenting both sides of the argument, he forces us to think about the deeper implications of this type of direct action. Johnson also presents the case against PETA and the Humane Society, two groups that are synonymous with animal rights to the average person, including me. Suffice it to say that animal rights radicals view the big, wealthy mainstream groups in more or less the same way that Earth First! views the Sierra Club or the World Resources Institute.

The film focuses on current day struggles, but does provide a brief background on where the movement comes from. It seems to have gotten started in Great Britain as part of a general movement against capitalist abuses, including child labor, slavery and the poor laws. William Wilberforce, who many of you might be familiar with through my review of “Amazing Grace”, was one of the first animal rights activists and founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Given the obvious moral inspiration of the movement, it might find itself marching to the tune of a different drummer than the Marxist movement that I have been identified with for the past 40 years. Marxism has a tendency to think in terms of objective historical forces and the need to focus on human needs, so the notion of struggling on behalf of laboratory animals being used for critical scientific research might not fit in that well with its agenda. That being said, there are a number of activists in the film that think along the same lines. It is not so much that they oppose animal testing, but the wanton cruelty that attends it.

If it was up to the pseudo-Marxists who morphed into Spiked Online to come up with arguments for exploiting animals as well as nature without regard to moral dimensions or environmental sustainability, there were always other Marxists who saw things in more holistic terms. My good friend Paul Buhle wrote about one of them in the March 1999 edition of Capitalism, Nature and Socialism:

Planetary liberation/animal rights

It may surprise or even annoy CNS readers to learn that perhaps the most popular and successful attack on U.S. corporate farming during the 1990s was launched by Animal Rights leader Henry Spira, notoriously against McDonald’s and Perdue. It should surprise them less that Spira, a Trotskyist of decades standing, had come to environmental causes toward the end of a long career of political activism.

This story demands some extended telling, and Peter Singer’s Ethics Into Action (1998),1 published within weeks of Spira’s death, gives us all the details we could want. Born to Belgian Jews in 1927, refugees first to Panama and then New York, Spira grew up the son of an increasingly successful and oppressive businessman. At 16, he could no longer take the quarreling and left home. (Decades later, both his father and younger sister committed suicide.) As a teen in the early 1940s, he first connected with Hashomir Hatzair, a socialist-zionist organization, then moved on to the Socialist Workers Party. He remained with the SWP for almost 20 years, never feeling disciplined enough to attend meetings but glad to be situated on the Left and sometimes with a newspaper eager to publish his journalism.

Spira later expressed surprise at his own evolution, but many preBoomer Marxists turning to ecology will find the curve of Spiro’s career suspiciously similar to their own. Passing through the Merchant Marine, then drummed out of the Army for “subversive and disloyal activities” (the Workers Defense League helped him win an Honorable Discharge), Spira went to work on an assembly line at a GM plant in New Jersey, moved on to join the research staff at Bellevue Hospital, and then shipped out again. In between jobs, he got a B.A. at Brooklyn College and wrote occasionally for the SWP’s weekly Militant. (He also acquired an FBI file of considerable heft.) As a reporter, he found himself on the scene in Montgomery, as the famed Bus Boycott took shape. Over the next decade, he wrote, raised money for, and often took part in the southern civil rights struggles. He also went to Cuba and broadcast the news about the young revolution. Closer to home, he played a key role in the reform campaign to clean up the National Maritime Union.

By the middle 1960s, Spira’s blue-collar life was over, and we might say that the working class ceased to be his main concern. His excomrades (he also left the Socialist Workers Party about this time) might bemoan the abandonment of orthodox Marxism, and the slippery slope to follow. But Spira was actually moving toward new shores. He taught in New York City schools for seven years, literature and writing to mostly black and Hispanic youngsters. At the age of 45, he also started thinking in a different way about animals.

Reading Peter Singer (the Australian environmentalist and author of Animal Liberation, likewise the author of the biography) helped set Spira in motion, but unlike Singer he wasn’t mainly a theorist. He wanted to do something, and although he didn’t know it yet, Spira had a genius for publicity. As the New York Times recalled in its obit, Singer had two great victories: compelling the American Museum of Natural History to end its expensive and pointless (as well as cruel) mutilation of cats so as to theorize the sexual affects of castration; and compelling Revlon to abandon the “Draize Test,” measuring potential irritation of cosmetic products by flooding rabbits’ eyes with the stuff.

These may not seem anything like victories for the environment; the planet in general and the bird population in particular would be better off with a lot fewer cats about. Neither are rabbits endangered (and some of the habitats invaded by them are in pretty rough shape). But to look at the issues in that way obscures Spira’s basic mentality and his trajectory as well.

A moment’s reflection on the old anti-vivisectionist movement and its U.S. counterparts provides necessary background. Dedicated to oppose cruelty to animals, the Victorian (especially British) middle class movement contained another impulse analogous to that of the old labor movement: to place restraints upon the recklessness of capitalism and raise large philosophical questions about the assumptions of endlessly expansive consumerism as the goal (or rationalization) of society. British socialist Henry S. Salt coined the term “Animals’ Rights” with his 1892 book of the same name, and American radicals from Edward Bellamy and Jack London to Upton Sinclair and the Nearings (Scott and Helen) put their own stamp on the radical edge of the movement. Such radicals, and Auduboners at the turn of the century who successfully ended the ubiquitous annual American bird shooting contests, had no illusions about power. They hardly expected to win more than a limited victory here and there; but they were determined to be heard.

Spira’s own anti-systemic impulse (his Animal Rights International paid him $15,000 per year and he usually had only one part-time assistant) and sense of proportion turned him against the emerging giant of the movement, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. When PETA began acting like a bureaucracy and when other animal rights advocates turned counter-productively violent, he put his energies elsewhere. “Chicken Heaven” was his next target, and there he found common cause with serious environmentalists.

The character of agribusiness poultry and livestock production is no mystery, but the old advertisers’ impulses to portray “contented cows” has been progressively mocked by the factory-like raising conditions, the use of massive chemical doses, above all, for environmentalists, the increasingly toxic effluents in surrounding soil and waterways. Just a decade ago, Spira organized a full-page New York Times ad defying TV huckster Frank Perdue to prove that his fryers lived in “chicken heaven” and (in contrast to consumers’ own lives) “your kids never had it so good.” The appointment of Perdue to the Regents of University of Maryland’s College Park campus offered Spira more grist for his mill; but scandals about the contamination of chickens overtook Spira’s effort. (He did the best he could to raise consciousness further: the next ads featured a chicken in a giant condom above the headline, “There’s no such thing as a safe chicken.”)

Spira continued pretty much this way until his death, in September of 1998. Probably no one else would have had the initiative to shame the Helen Keller International (!) into canceling its “Shoot for Sight” event in 1995, intended on bringing down some thousand wild ducks and pheasants “for a good cause.” Other activists went after Big Mac, but Spira went to the stockholders by becoming one himself. Greenpeace Londoners Helen Steel and Dave Morris personally launched the “McLibel” campaign that gave the corporation a global bad name (even if it formally won a suit against the two). But these efforts also led to the International Coalition for Farm Animals, the Humane Society-type organization so far most devoted to tackling the conditions of production that make cruelty inevitable. The Center for a Liveable Future, ironically Spira’s last project, had (and has) the most potential for serious and socialistic education.

Singer, who runs for office on the Green ticket in his home district of Victoria, Australia, provides a most useful afterward based upon Spira’s own practical experience. Ten key strategic and tactical points include “Avoid bureaucracy,” and “Don’t assume that only legislation or legal action can solve the problem.” As a socialist, he knew better. But Spira had learned, over a lifetime of political experience, how to set targets, how to rally a constituency without the help of any political apparatus to speak of, and how to cross over from pet-linked sentimentalism to the large issues. These are lessons we all need to absorb, and we can thank Spira for adapting Marxist traditions to the new era.


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