Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Attacks, verbal and canid

In recent news, I've seen attacks on two different groups, Wisconsin teachers and their collective bargaining, and Minnesota coyotes and their population spread. In both cases, it's hard to determine the virtue of the attacks. For example, what IS the benefit package for teachers? Has/will collective bargaining damage a fair balanced budget or damage student education? As for coyotes, some Minnesotans want to put a bounty on their head. Even if you accept killing as a management technique,would this be an ecologically sound response, or merely a way for the anti-coyote contingent to vent? Are both battles fights about symbols more than about the practicalities of community/environmental welfare? It makes someone feel vindicated to see an enemy fall. (Even if the enemy can rise again.)
The complaint in Minnesota is that coyotes are bothering and destroying more and more agricultural animals, like beef calves. (Anti hunting, pro animal rights groups tend not to value such arguments because they do not believe in raising and eating animals. The issue of deer eating plant crops is another matter.) But groups that support various forms of animal harvest, like the state's DNR which manages game hunting, do not think a bounty would lead to a significant population reduction and hence solve the "coyote problem." It's also difficult to exactly define damage by coyote. Picked over carcasses don't provide conclusive evidence. And evidence about "pest" animals is often anecdotal: I've heard of several nasty attacks on dogs, and in general it seems coyotes are a threat to outdoor pets.
 In Grundy County, Illinois, you get $15 for a dead coyote. Hunters of quail and pheasant think this will increase the number of birds they can flush and kill--so not a good deal for the pheasants anyway. But a representative of Illinois Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever  objected to the bounty, aiming to show that creating habitat with large inner core and reduced margins would be more effective. A much more disturbing case of coyote/human conflict occurred in Nova Scotia, when a young singer was mauled to death last year: that bounty is now $20.00 (Canadian). Human death by coyote is extremely rare, but all canid predators, including packs of dogs, can be dangerous.
Back to Minnesota, coyotes can be killed as nuisances; Janet McNalley had learned to protect her sheep from wolves with dogs, but the coyotes, those trickster figures, got around the dogs, and she went after the whole pack. For a different view of coyotes and predation, see:
I learned from a novel, Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer, that coyotes, unlike wolves or mountain lions, are both predator and prey.That means they're programmed to breed prolifically, to be on the defense, and to be on the offense. That's a hard combination to beat. Coyotes tend to prove that we humans aren't so smart after all--or we need to be even more inventive in figuring out means of cohabitation. More thinking outside the box, which is something coyotes always seem to do.

Meanwhile, I'm not insisting on a strong correlation between labor unions and coyotes. Coyotes, after all, are not a dying breed.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Water Rats Return!

While the RANDOM ANIMAL is digging herself out of a snowbank, you might be interested in the following story offered by ALL THINGS CONSIDERED: the case of voles vs. minks. Now in The Wind in the Willows, Ratty was a friend of Toad and Mole. But Ratty was apparently NOT of the Rattus family or of the weasel-ly  mustelildae family. Rat was/is a preferred arvicola amphibius. Not a rat, not a weasel, not a mink, but a VOLE. And story book voles are being eaten by American invaders. These escaped, as an animal might in a Kenneth Grahame story, from mink farms. But they have not endeared their wee little selves to Scottish locals. A mink, dead or alive, preferably dead, is their motto. For more on the competition of water mammals, please see Scottish Volunteers Hunt Vicious, Invasive Minks. Are mink kilts in the future?

Coming soon--Teachers' Unions and Coyotes

Thursday, February 17, 2011

More on Why We "Eat Pigs"

The Random Animal has not fallen off the ends of the earth, just off the ends of the world-wide web for a while.

I'm still reading Melanie Joy's Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism. "Carnism" is "the belief system that enables us to eat animals." Joy has introduced the term "carnism" to provide ways to analyze meat production. The structure of the book is explanatory and interpretive rather than narrative. It seems to be designed as a very approachable textbook, with abstractions like "schemas," "psychic numbing" and "ideology" explained. Side-bars further explain some concepts or highlight quotations that subvert status quo assumptions: "The invisible and the nonexistent look very much alike" from Delos. B. McKown.
Some sections are painful reading as they describe the abuses of factory farming. Like Michael Pollan and Jonathan Safran Foer, Joy finds ample evidence of food animals mistreated during their brief lives. It is cheaper, she argues, to raise large numbers, with die-offs of many expected, than to give each animal adequate care. "A typical hog breeding plant," she explains, "employs fifteen people to manage 3,000 sows" (44). According to the USDA, there were 64.3 million hogs in the agricultural system in December 2010 (and that's a drop of 2% from September. In Joy's reckoning, many of these will live surrounded by excrement, noxious gases, and their own dead. A number will NOT be adequately stunned before being killed; a number will not be dead before the butchering begins.
Joy assumes that 98 to 99% of Americans will never encounter hogs, or other farm animals, except as slabs in supermarket packages. This makes denial and avoidance of the slaughter issue easy; these defenses and desired ignorance keep in place a "violent ideology" that supports factory farming. The system keeps the sight of these animals from us: "Most of us, even those who are not 'animal lovers' per se, don't want to cause anyone--human or animal--to suffer, especially if that suffering is intensive and unnecessary. It is for this reason that violent ideologies have a special set of defenses that enable humane people to support inhumane practices and to not even realize what they're doing" (33).

So far I find Joy most convincing on linking "carnism" to factory farming. If, as a culture, we saw the living death of these animals, we would stop. I have been and now live, however, among the 1 to 2% of Americans who do encounter animals--these are also areas where deer and bird hunting are common. True, many do not like to kill or "clean" animals themselves; but especially on the few small farms that exist, they can "see" the animal and accept its death. (I'm not far from the glass abattoir Michael Pollan describes in The Omnivore's Dilemma.) And so far, Joy does not account for the origins of meat-eating or the practices of less industrialized cultures. I have a relative who's witnessed the slaughter of goats for a Namibian feast and the slaughter of about 40 free-range Iowan chickens.

The factory farm system needs exposing, but human willingness to eat flesh did nor arise from a hidden system. Meanwhile, I'll continue reading about the impact of meat culture on Homo sapiens.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Of Swans and The Superbowl

I know two things about the superbowl--that more guacamole is consumed that Sunday than any other time of year, an it's famous for its commercials. (All right, I DO know as an uppermidwesterner that this year the Vikings blew it but the Green Bay Packers are in it--go Cheeseheads!) Apparently three of the most popular recent commercials involved animals: the Budweiser Clydesdales, an orca, and farm animals. The Orca one turns on a hangover plot, with three guys and their buddy the orca in an SUV, trying to figure out how to get the whale in the water. Hint: it involves traction and tires. The animtronic farm animals seemed to be involved in some half time ritual, when a shorn lamb runs through as a streaker. I guess you had to be there. I would have thought girls in nearly nothing would have been top commercial contenders, but there still a surprise in animals being human, particularly humans stuck in adolescence. Go naked lamb!
I doubt the super bowl does anything to actually advance the situation of animals, but animals do benefit from some unlikely circumstances. Trumpeter swans have rebounded in Minnesota, and a nuclear power plant has contributed to that turn of events. As a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports, the discharge of warm water from the plant keeps the Mississippi river channel open. The windfall for birders is populations of swans, eagles, and other waterfall staying through winter. It helps that "the Swan Lady of Monticello" feeds them--about a ton of corn a day for thousands of swans.
 Maybe it's just to help a species that had been hunted to the point of extinction. I do know some wildlife biologists, however, who are suspicious about feeding any wild animals and talk about upsetting the "trophic" order: who eats whom and what where. They prefer a viable ecology in which animals find food the old-fashioned way, on their own. The swan lady's helpful husband admits,
"If I don't come down, they start walking up in the yard," he said. Conditioning animals to expect food can be endearing, sort of like having an orca in the back seat. It can become problematic if the "wrong" animals show up at the trough--animals overpopulating the area, as deer do in many places, or predators like black bears. The debate of which animals to favor, to protect, to help, or to hinder is a complicated, often emotional one.
So the swans will probably get their ton of grain for Super Bowl Sunday. Should there be betting on how many tons of guacamole are consumed?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Why watch some birds but eat others?

I’m reading Melanie Joy’s Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, which sounds a good deal like Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. Both Joy and Herzog claim psychology as their primary disciple, and both explore the physio-cultural reasons people respond to animals as they do. Both were probably polishing manuscripts about the same time for 2010 releases. But their subtitles point to diverging emphases: Herzog’s Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals versus Joy’s An Introduction to Carnism—The Belief System That Enables Us to Eat Some Animals and Not Others. Herzog begins his book with a profile of a lapsed vegan who seems to need raw meat to satisfy nutritional needs. Joy begins with a dinner party, describing the enticing smells of a roast: the hostess then announces that the entrĂ©e is Golden Retriever.
            The dinner party is an imagined scenario, a shocking announcement of Joy’s agenda: to expose and question cultural assumptions about eating animals. In the introductory chapters, she calls attention to a shift between empathy and apathy. She argues that people must employ various defenses so they can distance themselves from, and virtually erase through “psychic numbing,” the slaughter and preparation of animals for food.  Similar numbing enables people to survive traumatic experiences—abuse, war, natural disasters. In Joy’s view, “psychic numbing” is “maladaptive, or destructive, when it is used to enable violence, even if that violence is as far away as the factories in which animals are turned into meat” (19). While Herzog indirectly defends the eating of meat, Joy is out to challenge the cultural constructions that cast “carnism” as the norm.  More on how she proceeds with this argument in future blogs. . .