Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ag-Gag and Cruelty

Here's looking at you, kid.
Foodie Mark Bittman has written several New York Times columns that advocate for animals. The most recent, "Who Protects the Animals?" addresses the "rights" of livestock owners to privacy, the public "right" to know how animals are treated, and the "rights" of those who expose cruelty. A video was released of cows  being killed with pick-axes; new and proposed laws would make releasing such unauthorized videos illegal. Bittman reminds us: "Remember the four Iowa factory farmers who pleaded guilty in 2009 to sexually abusing and beating pigs, and the abuses of downed cattle exposed by the Humane Society of the United States in 2008 at the Hallmark slaughterhouse in California, which led to the country’s biggest ever recall of meat." Investigative videos were crucial to the last case.
So, is an "Ag-Gag" law a First Amendment issue, a cruelty issue, a harassment of farmers or of filmers, a regulation issue? I grew up on a farm and know that few know what the life is really like and lump all "farmers" together. I also NEVER witnessed anything like these videos document. A photographer I know wanted to photograph a neighbor's farm animals for art's sake, but the farmer was reluctant because he thought any photo could be twisted to show "cruelty." An argument could be made that frequent unannounced inspections could protect farmer and animals. But a Big Question for our time--how can regulation be affordable, efficient, AND respect the rights of all? (Maybe the Question is--can it get by the lobbyists?) In the arty photographer's case, there was nothing to expose. If only that were always true at modern mega-farms. Unless someone like Bittman secures our attention, the "undercover" work on mistreated animals is an issue known to few, so such laws often pass under the radar. For more views on the topic, see environmentalist Tom Laskawy's column and the New York Times editorial, "Hiding the Truth About Factory Farms."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Vindication of Signs and the Soft Side of Trotsky

Yes, on Easter Sunday I passed the Moose Warning sign and one duly appeared, standing in the middle of an exceedingly wet wetland, a leggy she, contemplating the universe of Being Moose. No photographic record exists because there are rules which don't appear on signs. As in "no-bird-identification-while-accelerating" and "no-wildlife-photography-in-single-lane-construction-zones."

Maybe an Easter Moose is more likely in that area than an Easter Bunny. It seems that the native New England cottontail is extinct in Vermont and endangered in Maine and New Hampshire. Wily Coyote (much more successful in life than in cartoons) has done in a number, and the cottontail's shrubby habitat has been eaten away by deer and development. Deer, which for the last decades of the 20th century, spread like an ungulate weed, have decreased in numbers over the past two harsh winters--nature's cruel control. It may seem incredible to the Mr. McGregors of us, yearning for the perfect rabbit-proof fence, that it is time to work on protecting the cottontail, not carrots.
Maybe Mr. McGregor's beard suggests the snowy whiteness of Karl Marx's facial forest. Which brings me to a book I'm reading, Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna: A Novel. (It's not about animals per se, though howler monkeys provide a dominant trope for the book.) Marx is not a character, but an adapter of his ideas, Leon Trotsky--"Lev"--appears during his exile in Mexico. While the novel draws on historical accounts in the portrayal of characters such as Trotsky, his lover-host Frida Kahlo, and rival-host Frida's husband Diego Rivera, it is narrated by fictional Harrison Shepherd. Shepherd or H.S., estranged from his American father and largely ignored by his mother who tries to succeed through seduction, chronicles the 1930s through the 1950s in diary entries and letters.
Kingsolver's prose is often enchanting--her mouth piece H.S. lives to write--but the first half of the book does lack structure, and H.S.'s role as passive observer affects the telling of tales. As a teen and young man, H.S. works as cook and scribe in the Kahlo Rivera household--Frida is vividly described in her bright clothes and jewelry as a fierce Aztecka queen.

When exiled Trotsky shows up, who had been Lenin's right-hand revolutionary until his comrade's death you know something is going to happen.

It seems Trotsky and the guy who SHOULD have been his BFF, Josef Stalin, have had a falling out, and Stalin takes lines like "I'm so mad I could kill you" literally. The novel's Trotsky does make a few pained references to the brutalities of the Russian Revolution, but generally is shown as idealistic intellect and grieving father--his children have been executed. Yet his hopes continue, and he's portrayed as dedicated to the Working Man, and to the cactus plants he collects and the chickens he feeds. He seems like an extremely intense Nice Guy. Stalin, however, there's no redeeming him.
 More on the fate of Kingsolver's Lacuna later, and more on animals.

Friday, April 22, 2011

In the Land of the Moose Warning

No the Random Animal has not encountered a moose, but is in Maine where the yellow highway signs do not bother with mere deer (though a few were visible) but showcase big antlers. On some roads, it's wishful thinking, but in the Western Mountains and mid-state lakes, the big animals appear at dusk. This week, they are probably staying out of the high winds as winter, shrunken to solitary snow banks and ice driven to the lake's shadows, resists its complete surrender to the season of mud.
   It's Earth Day, and while I go off grid to attend to family matters, here are some links concerning animals and the environment. First, the Audubon Society has updates on oil and habitat in the Gulf. There's still a good deal of political, legal, and environmental work to be done. Second, Alexandra Morton, whom I heard over Maine Public Radio, talks at length about the importance of saving wild salmon. She talks about how salmon "farming" in pens increases disease and sea lice infestations and damages ecosystems. She takes a concept that may seem stale--absentee corporations and shareholders are not "invested" in long term local health--and makes it fresh and viable.
To come, lessons from a trip to Seattle: Pig-farming in Hong Kong, along with new and improved pig manure, what dogs do for the homeless, and the political side of some Hindus restrictions on cow slaughter.

And, a spring image from Pike St. Market in Seattle--

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Cycle of Song and Wash

This morning began with Tom Turkey casually promenading by my dining room window. This is the first I'd seen of turkeys so near the house. He upset a freshly arrived Phoebe, the first I've seen this season, who began his raspy call and wagged his tail at the no-hurry turkey.
The day's other highlight was the arrival of a new front-loader washing machine--its predecessor had died a wracked and clanky death. The new machine required scarcely any water--an environmental boon for all animals--and supposedly runs on about $11.00 of electricity a year. Before it finished its premier wash cycle, I stepped outside and caught the call and response of two chickadees. One sang a dotted quarter note and dropped a third to two eighth notes. The responder, it seemed, repeated the ditty a third lower. And so they called, back and forth.
Inside the washer completed its cycle and signaled with a tune that sounded like a bit of Franz Schubert's "The Trout." I can't endorse brands of washing machine. But I can endorse Schubert...even if he died of syphilis.
Julius Schmid, Schubertiade

The trout escaped in all the water not consumed by the washing machine.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Spring Fever and the Dogs of War

Crows are carrying straw and twigs off to make nests, house finches are settling in, and robins are singing their territorial ditty, joined by spring peepers.
     Spring seems the appropriate time to pick up David Abrams’ Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (2010), a. poetic exploration of how humans can open their senses to the world that envelops them. For Abrams, physical, philosophical, and intellectual consciousness merge. There is no dualism: body and mind are integrated. He had previously written about “phenomenology” or the nature of human awareness in The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World.  The earlier book read like a sensitive-guy-does-science; Becoming Animal aspires to an even more transcendent fusion of material and spirit.

                But it is not for me to immediately continue down Abrams’ all-feeling path. My senses rebelled at some invader and at the heavy rains and wetness that is suddenly sweeping Minnesota from barren dormancy to a humid impersonation of mid-summer. I can’t smell, hear very well, or see very well in Sinus Hell. (Where do allergies fit into a divine or evolutionary scheme?) And my mind, if not my body, smashed into a deadline for a conference paper on dogs and geography.

So I turned to tales of Dogs at War. I’ve just finished From Baghdad, With Love: A Marine, the War, and a Dog Named Lava by Lt. Col. Jay Kopelman with Melinda Roth.  You can skip to the tale’s end by following the link to a CBS News video featuring Kopelman and Lava.;photovideo

In essence, the story begins in Fallujah, Iraq, late 2004, after the U.S. Marines have retaken the city. It was in Fallujah the preceding spring that four Blackwater contractors had been dragged from their vehicles to be killed, torched, and displayed. Kopelman is focused on his Marine mission—find and eradicate the enemy—foremost and is training the “pro” U.S. Iraqi soldiers who don’t comprehend his screamed orders and who receive regular death threats from insurgents. After a night of  shock-and-awe bombing, a day of being fired at by snipers and avoiding bombs,  Kopelman and his Lava Dog platoon are investigating mysterious sounds in a house: “a sudden flash of something rolls toward me out of nowhere, shooting so much adrenaline into my wiring that I jump back and slam into a wall. A ball of fur not much bigger than a grenade skids across the floor [. . .] Like I’m tired and wired and anything quick coming at me jerked at my nerves, so I peel back off the wall and reach for my rifle even though I can see it’s only a puppy.” Shooting the starved puppy isn’t “worth the ammunition” though Kopelman expects euthanasia is in the animal’s future. In a war zone, pets are forbidden: all resources and concentration must be dedicated to survival.
                Despite, or maybe because of the training meant to keep Kopelman an efficient killing machine, the pup now named Lava is somehow fed (MREs or Meals Ready to Eat—an unappetizing update on Tang) and dewormed with tobacco. And he develops the habit of sneaking into Kopelman’s sleeping back to snore on the Marine’s feet.
                Keeping Lava, and keeping him save, becomes its own mission, an innocent life to save.  But From Baghdad, With Love is more complex than a sunny moment of puppy love in a grim war. Kopelman  speaks of his fellow Marines with loyalty and pride and identifies with his warrior role. However, his view of his Marine self, like his affection for Lava, does not stand without doubts and questions.  Kopelman, without discussing politics, makes it clear that he thinks the war a mess. He also wonders if his dedication to Lava is a saving grace or a neurotic distraction indicating the toll of war, and any distraction could easily push him and his group into harm’s way.  Kopelman had been in active duty before 2001, gone back to civilian life, only to find that “it never felt normal. It was like There has to be more than this. What’s the point? What are the objectives? What in the hell are the rules?” After 9/11, Kopelman returned to active duty and was deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom: “My third deployment in two years swept me into Camp Fallujah, where I trained the Iraqi special Forces who are now out here on the streets of this godforsaken ghost town watching stray dogs eat their dead countrymen.” Even more disturbing than confusion of a war where the occupied, terrified of insurgents and of Americans, seem far from free, is the Marine’s initial reaction: “But it feels normal. Despite the bombs and the insurgents and the rubble, it feels like I belong here. And how screwed up is that?” (37)
                That last passage refers to one type of dog mentioned in the book: strays who eat the corpses. In a country where resources have vanished before bombs and corruption, these dogs may carry parasites, diseases, even rabies. Even Americans who did not share the Arab attitude that dogs are generally “unclean” would have trouble sympathizing with these animals which were often shot. Also, insurgents sometimes attached bombs to stray dogs, donkeys, and cows, and tried to direct them to Americans. In one case the “mule” to be detonated was an unsuspecting teenager with Down’s Syndrome.
Several other dog-types appear. There are fighting-duty dogs, devoted to their Marine handler, but often euthanized at the end of active service because they may attack anyone—a sibling or delivery person—who makes an unexpected gesture.  Becoming more common (and better prepared for retirement) were bomb sniffers trained to be “passive responders” to threats. I’ve seen such a dog on duty (there may be more on him in the future), and these dogs have a Marine-type drive to keep hunting for dangerous materials, but when such materials are found they sit like a stone. The concept is that this gives the handler a clear, safe signal that matter has been found and the dog will not disturb it.
                Lava was not so well behaved and his “rooing” at noises was potentially dangerous for the forbidden pup and for the Marines. So Operation get Lava to the States begins, which provides the book’s drama and suspense. Just as Lava seems about to escape, Kopelman hears about abuses at the Abu Ghraib and the use of dogs to terrify prisoners.  The stress of war took different groups in different directions—in one case illegal emotionally loaded abuse, in the other the illegal over-weighted rescue of one puppy.  With Lava, outsiders helped provide moral clarity and a plan.
Among the many unexpected events and realizations of Kopelman’s tale:
Although relationships between Marines and Iraqis, even the cooperative ones, generally rested on fear and chaos more than trust, all the bodies of the dead the Marines found—U.S., Ally, Insurgent—were treated with respect.
An NPR reporter (yes, the network that some think commie-pinko-liberal ), and a woman reporter at that, Ann Garrels, receives for her bravery and her reporting and her efforts to help Lava enormous respect from the Marines.
Lava’s rescue depended on Iraqi help, and the dog would not have gotten the necessary exit papers without one young Iraqi taking enormous risks. Any help provided an American could mean death, but he found dog biscuits in rubble and help-who-knows where  It was not easy getting a dog safely across the border, but as this young man noted, it was much more doable than getting an Iraqi like himself out.
                Kopelman, in an indirect response to his helper’s realization, ends the book, “Why wasn’t my time spent helping people instead of a puppy? I don’t know, and I don’t care, but at least I saved something.”

More on recovering life and spring later. . .

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Spooked Horses, Hester Prynne, and Richard Burton

A girl's fantasy
Today the "random" trumps the "animal." I saw two movies this April fools weekend--one the new version of Jane Eyre.  The actress who plays Jane, Mia Wasikowska, was Alice in Tim Burton's homage to Lewis Carroll-Johnny Depp, and perhaps inspired the Eyre remake with the ethereal potential of her features. The role of Rochester goes to Michael Fassbender. This is perhaps the first costume drama that Colin Firth has escaped, because you see Colin Firth and you see, you know the scene in the BBC Pride and Prejudice when. . .

Anyway, the not-so-plain Jane first encounters Rochester when she "bewitches" his horse in mysterious woods. To cut to the chase, intense, inscrutable, seemingly fickle Rochester soon confesses that he wants Jane's "soul." O.K. a woman probably wrote that line. We know which one. True, when Rochester possessed women's bodies by acts of innuendo, he ended up with a child that may or may not have been his and a madwoman in the attic. Maybe time to try for the soul.
I did realize in watching this movie (spoiler alert only if you never had an English course and never used Cliff's Notes) that Jane is the Anti-Bertha. Rochester had already tried dark, voluptuous, nonverbal, violent, hirsute. So why not go for repressed, overwrought, anemic?
Richard Burton once played Rochester, and he seemed crazed enough to think he believes a line like "I want your soul" when you know he can't stop there or anywhere. Poor lost Liz Taylor--as a child she had a bit part in a different Jane movie. If only the Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf Taylor could play mad Bertha and a just-past National Velvet Liz play Jane (standing behind a lot of tall chairs to hide her figure). It would be interesting to see Burton/Rochester negotiate upstairs/downstairs Liz-Martha/Liz-Jane. Upstairs Liz would win that one.
Jaundiced Jane AKA C. B.
This new Jane version acquitted itself quite well, after some unnecessary messing with the chronology, though it took a leap of faith to get from about 10 words of dialogue to passion. Then, if you look around those moors, THERE'S NOTHING ELSE GOING ON. IT'S DARK IT'S DREARY. THE WELL WATER RUNS THROUGH THE GRAVEYARD. Maybe because it's been a long winter in Minnesota, the bleak scenery made me want to shout, "TURN ON A LIGHT! VITAMIN D! MEET PEOPLE! GO TO SAN DIEGO!"
California Girls were on my mind because I also saw via DVD this weekend Easy A. Those California girls are reading, or watching the Demi Moore non-version of, The Scarlet Letter. An orange blossom replaces the rose bush by the prison door, and students want a fallen reputation. It's has a skewed wit and treats oversexed teenagers with  irony, while still keeping them oversexed. But any movie in which Stanley Tucci gets to say totally nonfiltered lines is worth some time. Stanley Tucci as Rochester would spook the horse. He might make an interesting Jane.
Happy Belated April Fool's Day

Monday, April 4, 2011

Cathedrals, Poisons, and the Sacrifice of Dogs

Spring is reluctantly dragging its way into the upper Midwest. Harrier hawks have arrived to catch the rodents flooded out by the all-saturating snowmelt. The cardinals and sparrows that toughed out the winter are brightening in song. It will still be a long month, though, before most warblers make their way to the 45th parallel.
Spring proves that the "temperate zone" is a misleading name for the middle states. I traveled southeast to Pittsburgh to be greeted by snow, rain, sun, snow, all in one day, while the Twin Cities, its street corners still obscured by blackened snow hills, basked in 50 degree (felt like 70 I'm told) sunshine. The Pitt hills, black beneath with coal, did see sun long enough to highlight the University's "Cathedral of Learning." It's reassuring to think that once learning seemed worthy of a cathedral, and inside the fan-gothic ceiling rises from the labors of students and ipads and touchscreens.

I was laboring not so much with the elevation of ideals as with a more sensational read, The Poisoner's Handbook by Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer, Deborah Blum. The subtitle explains Blum's nonfiction narrative mission: "Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York." Blum, at a talk I heard, says she intends to draw the reader in with a seductive first paragraph. Here's how the Handbook begins: "Until the early nineteenth century few tools existed to detect a toxic substance in a corpse. . . . As a result, murder flourished. It became so common in eliminating perceived difficulties, such as a wealthy parent who stayed alive too long, that the French nicknamed the metallic element arsenic poudre de succession, the inheritance powder."

With macabre detail, Blum tells of scientists Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler who spent personal fortunes and logged in long hours to make forensic science an essential reliable force in securing justice. A number of the cases echoed Sherlock Holmes scenarios or inspired writers like James M. Cain of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. There are also tales of accidental poisonings, like those of the "Radium Girls" who painted luminous, radioactive dials on watches: studies of their decline and deaths led to breakthroughs in understanding radiation's dangers.
What I hadn't expected to find was the significant and sad role dogs played in the new science. In one case, cats and dogs that had been found dead were placed in chambers filled with carbon monoxide to test the theory that a corpse does not absorb the gas, which blew apart one man's explanations of how his wife died by a leak rather than, say, strangulation.  In other tests, the animals suffered as the scientists measured the escalating impact of different substances: "Two dogs received measured doses of potassium cyanide through a stomach tube; the others were forced to inhale hydrogen cyanide" by being strapped down with a cone over their muzzles." Dogs were also used to determine the levels of chloroform in the brain that produced a light stupor, unconsciousness, or death. In a case when a young woman died on an abortion table, the doctors claimed accidental bleeding as cause of death, not their use of chloroform. The forensics department was suspicious but "wanted the results to be inarguable." So dogs were tested to determine the lethal level. Another test seems more harmless: some dogs were habituated to alcohol, others not, and then both sets were administered alcohol to see the impact: "At half a cup, the chronic drinker [dog] was unfazed, as 'playful as ever.' His companion, though, developed a slightly staggering walk and then sat down and refused to move." Double the alcohol and all dogs failed sobriety. To get exact measurements of alcohol levels, the dogs were killed and their organs analyzed.
The scientists featured advanced lab techniques and knowledge about chemical uses and dangers--their learning served health and justice.  However, scientific evidence can only go so far in creating moral clarity out of hearsay, hidden motives, ignorance, need, and competing interests. Blum avoids passing direct judgment but presents evidence that speaks and outspoken scientists. Charles Norris repeatedly denounced Prohibition as a colossal failure that made drinking sexier, more potent in alcoholic content (bathtub gin have a much greater kick than beer or wine), and more dangerous. "Choose your poison" could be a literal statement during the Depression, when bootlegged hooch frequently contained dirt-cheap toxic methyl (rather than potable ethyl) alcohol and other potentially lethal ingredients added by unscrupulous bootleggers or by law-agents trying to discourage drinking.  This didn't turn so many from drink as it drove them to the gutter or morgue.
TV show forensics often present exact answers provided by a minuscule slide sample, with no worry about financial or ethical costs. Blum chronicles all kinds of costs: the murders and accidents that created the need and evidence; the masses of body parts pulverized, steamed, distilled; the criminal results of desperation; and the stress on victims, police, doctors and scientists who often lacked financial and social support. Blum does not editorialize on the use of dogs, presented as part of the scientific method of the time. Whatever you think of animals and scientific testing, we can all hope that the methods of the 1920s and 30s prepared the way for much less dangerous and invasive forms of investigation that does not cause suffering to sentient beings--an issue that must be continually reviewed. And we can recognize the important sacrifice of animals.