If we allow our minds to rewind to the dawn of our collective time on Earth, we might be forgiven for believing that the mass of dirt and water we inhabit is an entirely novel planet. Any sense of certainty or linear stability that we take for granted today was once as fractured and nebulous as our contemporary inability to count, comprehend or catalogue the number of other animals we currently share this “lapis lazuli gem” of a planet with. Certainly, it would look quite unlike the world we share with an unknown number of other species today. Indeed, constant change has been the Earth’s MO.
Today, the destiny of the planet is so compromised that some have suggested adding the offence of ecocide to the list of internationally unforgivable crimes. We stare blindly into a future defined by “human-orchestrated ecological tragedies”. Ever since Australia broke free to become the worlds largest national continent, it has had an infamous history of waging vast campaigns of violence against the animals and the Earth itself.
“The worst of the wildlife wears clothes and can pray”‘A letter,’ La Dispute.
We have ruined and reshaped the Earth so thoroughly that we have created our own geological epoch: the Anthropocene. In an age defined by the destruction we have wrought, entirely unique species continue to wholly and individually disappear in the slow violence of extinction. Others are branded as “alien invaders” simply for daring to strive and survive. When coupled with the rhetoric of war that so often goes hand-in-hand with such ecocidal campaigns, death is inevitable and animals are considered killable.
As I type, I sit bookended by two members of one of the most successful species currently enjoying existence on Earth; Felis catus, the common house cat. As a stalwart of the extended species family, the cat has long been an accepted and acceptable companion animal. Before mewing their way into our homes, the cat signed an interspecies agreement to act as invaluable “vermin” controllers on marauding 17th century colonial ships. Until as late as 1975, the British navy explicitly required so-called “ship’s cats” on all its vessels. Superstitious old sailors even refused service unless a cat was aboard. That’s how they got here in the first place, as well…
Felines have been our friends in one way or another since the advent of agricultural communities in Egypt, approximately 5,000 years ago. Found embedded or engraved in perpetuity on ancient Greek coins. Their appearance in our lives coincided with the burgeoning phenomenon of animal
farming fharming. This indicates that their original purpose – and thereby their primary permission to continue to exist at all – was in their instinctual control of other unwanted animals.
What a word that is. It’s a term that our mouth spits out with our tongue as if we can taste its disgust. Despite recent and ongoing Government propaganda campaigns designed to demonise the cat, many people continue to care about and consider them a part of the family. Yet, we continue to be one of the largest flesh-consuming cultures on the planet. We are responsible for the premature deaths of millions of toddler, teenaged or adolescent animals a year, solely for their flesh, fibres, or bodily fluids. Farmed in enormous warehouses, confined until they are killed for whichever resource they were born to die for, our species behaves in ways that would make Dante and the Devil both blush.
This is the stigmata of speciesism.
Our relationship with animals
Our relationships with other animals are largely determined and defined by their utility (or (ab)use-ability) to us. This is symptomatic of our wider, misguided sense of human supremacy. They are primarily or entirely transactional relationships. Aside from those we differentially classify and forget about as “food”, whom the average Aussie never actually interacts with, this is no more evident than in our interactions with unwanted or unwelcome wildlife. Those routinely referred to as feral(s), pest(s), or any synonym thereof.
In sharp and nosediving order, animals bred and bought for friendship are followed by those born and butchered for food. Their “purpose” correlates with differential and steeply descending levels of legal protection. It is possible under existing Australian law to “euthanise” both, but only one category can be gassed en masse using the same feel-good phraseology. Finally, at the foot of the ladder sits “the feral”. Though no animal is truly free from the shackles of legal ownership, it is those who are seen as neither “friends” nor “food” that face some of the most wicked forms of abuse and violence.
The outcasts & the uncaged
Though we originally learn to arrange animals into categories by distinguishing features, like their number of limbs or the sounds their species makes, such labelling doesn’t veer young minds toward violence. Indeed, it is quite the opposite. Our society seems to honestly and utterly adore other animals. From the toys we receive to the television we screen, animals abound. In an uncanny way, it is the species wider society abhors that our youngsters most adore. From Ratatouille to the Fantastic Mr. Fox, it is the Outsider our kids most often side with. Yet, it has been said that “Australian feral animals lives and die between categories”.
Surely, they inhabit the edges and eke out an existence on the blurry borders of our lives. Whilst we raze and erect eight-lane highways through their habitats, rendering any traditional or established definition of “home” itself under existential threat, they are branded and typecast with terms that actively invite disgust and violence.
These species fit neither the wild, the companion, nor the commodity animal categories. They embody the quintessential outcast. Their resilience makes them pariahs. Their ability to survive seemingly in spite of us makes it possible for animal fharmers to cynically establish themselves as the “benevolent protector” of commodity-category animals kept in various kinds of shackles. It is not uncommon to hear fharmers, fharmers of sheep in particular, claim that their violence is of a kinder kind than that of a hungry, wild animal. This is not an easy debate, as it appears to involve selecting the (temporary) safety of one over the other. In saying this, it is one the animal rights and liberation movement must make.
The issue with categorising animals
Such cut and dry categories can permit and promote a sharp increase in socially acceptable suffering. This is amply shown in the resulting sprees of violence visited upon them. That spates of cat killings follow sensational media reports focusing on their disputed impact on native wildlife should not entirely surprise us. In the mouths and on the hands of humans seeking to inscribe their dominion over other species, the concept of any animal being truly native is yielded like a rhetorical – yet all too real – weapon. In misguided attempts at patriot vigilantism, Aussies have proven themselves all too eager to take the bait themselves. As a proponent of the “invasion biology” discipline says, “I take pride in being botanically patriotic”. That this pathology lends itself to value (and devalue) species differentially is clear. Such patriotism actively invites an us vs. them psychology.
By referring to the concept of belonging or membership (e.g., ‘native’ vs. ‘introduced’), killing can become coded as humane and suffering can be gauged according to whether or not it is unreasonable, unnecessary or unjustifiable. Indeed, State legislation ostensibly drafted to protect animals from harm only does so on these strict, yet incalculable, preconditions. All States and Territories define animal cruelty in similar terms. It is or it isn’t, depending primarily on the species being spoken of. And usually, it isn’t. In fact, active codes, laws and standards combined provide exemptions (read: excuses) for acts of wicked and wanton cruelty.
Protection versus legalised suffering
The fact that unnecessary suffering even exists as a concept, let alone as a key tenet of our animal welfare jurisprudence or veterinary science, ought to further alarm rather than relieve us of moral concern. It implies that there is some degree of necessary suffering. This ignores the fact that it is not possible to kindly kill any animal who does not want to die. The ambiguity of such a phrase stems from who does the defining. That is, “suffering can be judged to be unnecessary relative to two quite distinct points of view”. That it can be seen as both objective (scientific) and subjective (personal) reveals the different ways in which we treat animals other than ourselves. We would not, for example, consider suffering and scientific in the same breath unless the subject was another kind of animal. Such an experiment would be headline news.
This makes the welfare we speak of inclusive of animals, but for all the wrong reasons.
To some extent, each and all of the human hands that lend to or perpetuate the creation and destruction of farmed animals are culpable in crimes against these animals. These crimes are hidden when we permit the use, the exploitation, the killing and the eating of other animals provided they are treated humanely. That these actions often occur in rural areas by people with few employment alternatives ought to be alarming. That they precede increased crime rates ought to appal us. That turnover rates are enormous shouldn’t surprise us in the slightest. As they say, Ralph Waldo Emerson once said:
You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.
Historians have seriously questioned whether the first notorious serial murderer, Jack the Ripper, was a butcher invites uncomfortable questions about our propensity for violence. Yet, slaughterhouses are “socially invisible” for one very valid reason: we do not want to know.
It seems we forget that the animals fharmers are “protecting” from the “pests” are introduced species as well. Those considered valuable for their milk (fluids) and/or meat (flesh), are repeatedly bred and kept confined. It is only once they escape and thrive on their own that they are labelled a destructive “pest”. That’s when we add the word “feral” in front of goats, pigs, sheep, and any other newly unwanted wild animal.
Across all categories, the primary difference is the ways in which we dress up and excuse our lies. Animals who do not either provide us with companionship or resources are either seen in uncanny awe from a distance (think sperm whales or African elephants), or they are killed without compunction on the basis that they offer us nothing by way of entertainment or edibility.
In Australia, some native species receive compassion because of their “awe” factor, such as Koalas. Others, such as dingoes and possums, have been pushed into the “pest” category.
“Introduced” and “pests”
For their alleged crime(s), those deemed to fall outside the genetic postcode of “native” – or those who have simply survived and thrived despite us – are routinely slaughtered by government-sanctioned kill squads. The titles of such programs alone send shivers up the spine of an honest animal lover. For example, the now-defunct and renamed Australian wool industry-led ‘Kill More Dogs Initiative’. Of all terrestrial species currently considered wastable, killable, or ideologically cullable, the overwhelming majority were originally let loose on our shores. Why? For the sole purpose of providing plundering colonial European hunters with a more familiar species to indiscriminately kill.
Of those introduced for this purpose, the European red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is a key example. In fact, foxes are known to have been imported and supplied to hunt clubs in Australia as early as 1835. The Melbourne Hunt Club “set some free in 1854”. Today, they are condemned and killed as “relentless predators”. Now considered to be running amok in “plague proportions”, foxes, cats, and canines are routinely scalped for cash from participating Councils. Their lifeless bodies are hung from trees as sick warnings or as morbid kill-counts. Though the desperate few continue to ride horseback over the unforgiving Australian outback in traditional bright red English fox-hunting regalia, the weapon of choice has largely shifted from the shotgun-sight to the chemical.
The legal fight against “pests” came with the establishment of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIRO) in 1926. Thus, the euphemistic “control” of various species became inescapably tied to animal agribusiness. Although this happens globally, Australia is guilty of conducting one of the most shameful, unnecessary, and deadly toxic wars in modern memory.
So long as we continue to place animals in categories, animals will continue to suffer. It is time to break down these categories and see animals as sentient beings with a right to live.