A Convivial Afternoon of Humane History & Merriment

Next month I will be taking part in a really fun event, an event billed as a “convivial afternoon of humane history and merriment.” This event is hosted by the fabulous National Museum of Animals & Society and will be taking place at the Velaslavasay Panorama in LA.

I will be speaking about the role of visual culture in humane education, with a specific focus on the late 19th- and early 20th- century. In addition to my talk there will be other activities taking place, including temporary exhibits, and crafts. I also hear there will be some yummy vegan snacks at this event.

If you are anywhere near LA I hope you are able to join us for a fun day at this amazing venue!

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Living With Animals Conference

Last month I travelled down to Richmond, Kentucky to participate in the “Living With Animals” conference at EKU. It was a fabulous conference and I was really glad to have been part of it. The only disappointing part was the weather–I had been hoping for a little warm weather and sunshine, but during the conference the weather in Kentucky was pretty much identical to the weather in Southern Ontario: chilly, windy, overcast. I even saw snowflakes in the air one day! The poor spring flowers and blooms seemed a bit shocked!

Weather aside, it was a fabulous trip and a fabulous conference. Huge congrats to the organizers, Robert Mitchell and Julia Schlosser, on the event!

There were so many great papers and keynote addresses that it would be impossible for me to write about them all here, but some that I found to be especially thought-provoking include:

  • Margo DeMello‘s keynote address on using videos and images in animal studies classes
  • Mary Shannon Johnstone‘s presentation on her photographic work, including her incredible project entitled “Landfill Dogs
  • Christina Colvin’s presentation on the practice of pet taxidermy
  • Monica Mattfeld’s presentation on the memorialization of “The Spanish Horse” in 18th century London
  • Brett Mizelle‘s presentation on the culture of butchers and slaughterhouses in the late-19th and early-20th centuries
  • L.A. Watson‘s discussion of the fabulous National Museum of Animals & Society as well as her own artwork which will be featured in an upcoming NMAS exhibition

I presented in the “Teaching With Animals” stream of the conference, and gave a presentation on my class, VISA 3P98: Picturing Animals.” I talked about some of the different themes we cover in this class, as well as the challenges and rewards of teaching “animal studies” in an art department. I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to talk with others who are teaching similar topics in their respective departments, centres, and schools. To that end, I was especially appreciative of the “break out” sessions that were scheduled around different issues to do with teaching. I will admit that the phrase “break out session” usually has me heading for the hills, but in this case it was a very interesting and valuable exchange of ideas and course outlines. I also found the panel discussion on “Teaching With Animals” (moderated by Brett Mizelle and featuring Margo DeMello, Robert Mitchell, Kenneth Shapiro, and Kari Weil) to be very enlightening, particularly around the issue of setting up programs in animal studies at the college and university level.

I have had enough of airports in recent months, so this was a road trip! What an interesting way to see the country. We broke the trip up in to two days, and the first night we stopped in Columbus, OH. We specifically planned our route so that we could check out Hal & Al’s, a fabulously quirky bar that has both an incredible selection of craft brews AND an all-vegan menu. Our plans for stopping there on the way back through were scuttled as we adjusted our travel to avoid Winter Storm Virgil. (since when do we name winter storms?) We did, however, stop in Detroit for a vegan brunch at PJ’s Lager House. It was another funky little bar with fabulous vegan food! We need more of these kinds of places in Canada! Once of the best parts about PJ’s was the resident dog, a beautiful pit-cross named Sugar. She was so friendly and gentle, just walking around saying hello to everyone having brunch. It makes me so angry that a beautiful dog like this would be “illegal” in Ontario.

 

sugar (detroit)

Witnessing Compassion

A number of people have sent me the link to this video of an injured dolphin being supported by a number of other dolphins. She was struggling to swim on her own so a number of other dolphins carried her on their backs, ensuring that she didn’t drown. Eventually she stopped breathing and died, but even after her death a few dolphins continued to stay with her body for several minutes.

While of course we can never know the precise reasons and motivations behind the actions of these dolphins on this particular day, it seems clear that they were working together to do what they could to help their injured friend. Researchers like Marc Bekoff have repeatedly demonstrated that when we witness a scene like this it is very likely that we are witnessing compassionate, caring behaviour among nonhuman animals. There continue to be skeptics, people who believe that these kinds of characteristics only exist in human societies, but, thankfully it seems that these skeptics are fewer in number these days.

I think that visual culture has an important role to play in this dynamic. While we need to be careful to not equate video footage or photographs with “the truth” (in its most simplistic sense), there is tremendous power in giving large numbers of people the opportunity to “bear witness” to something like the scene unfolding in this video.

Picturing Animals

I am delighted to be part of the new online magazine published by Our Hen House. For years I have been a huge fan of the incredibly important work that Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan have done through this site, so it is a tremendous honour to be a columnist for their new magazine.

My column is called “Picturing Animals,” and focuses on the ways in which art and visual culture can be an important part of animal advocacy efforts.  In this column I will be writing about how activists use imagery today, but will also be considering examples of art and visual culture used by activists in previous eras as I think it is important to draw connections between the history of animal advocacy and what is being done today.

I am very excited about the opportunity to write this column–I had been wanting to do more writing that blends activism and academic work, so this is a perfect fit. I’m also really happy to be part of the Our Hen House team. Jasmin and Mariann bring an “indefatigably positive” spirit to the work they do, and I find this tremendously encouraging. Activism can be a tough, lonely, and discouraging road (heck, so can academia!), and it is so easy to get burnt out. However, without fail, every single time I listen to an Our Hen House podcast or hear these two talented women speak I feel inspired to do more, to work harder to help make a difference for animals.

Be Kind

I was honoured to be asked to curate an online exhibit on the subject of “Humane Education” for the National Museum of Animals & Society (NMAS) this year. After several months of research and preparation, the exhibit is now live. I enjoyed working on this project, thrilled to have had the opportunity to bring this story to a broader audience. So many people helped make this exhibit a reality, and I’m so grateful for all of their kindness, hard work, and generosity.

The NMAS is a wonderful museum dedicated to preserving the history of human-animal relationships, a history that has until very recently been woefully neglected by curators, historians, and academics. This is an important history, and the work that the NMAS is doing is so valuable. If you have any artefacts relating to the history of human-animal relationships or advocacy campaigns from previous eras that you would like to donate to the museum, they would love to hear from you!

“Do Not Refuse To Look At These Pictures”

The news about the abuse uncovered on an Ohio Dairy Farm by Mercy for Animals has hit the global media. The horrific film footage showing cows and calves being beaten, stabbed and kicked is stomach-turning.

I wish this were an isolated incident, but as anyone who has tried to learn more about where our food comes from knows all too well, abuse of animals in factory farm settings is not uncommon.

There is no doubt that this is difficult stuff to read about, look at, and discuss, but we need to know about it. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me “oh, I can’t look at that stuff. I can’t hear about animal abuse or look too hard into where my food comes from.” These are often well-educated, intelligent people who I love and respect. And yet on this point I must respectfully disagree. If you care about your health, the health of your family, about animals or the fate of our planet nothing could be more important than knowing these sorts of “dirty little secrets” that the factory farming industry would rather we didn’t know.

I’m not saying we should all make a bowl of popcorn and sit down with the family to watch the Ohio dairy farm footage on the big screen TV. And yet, as Ed Burtynsky pointed out during an interview on CBC’s The Current yesterday, imagery is often what brings much needed attention to an issue. Burtynsky was not talking about the Ohio Dairy Farm case but, rather, about another horrific story, the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The point, however, is valid in both instances.

As someone who teaches about and conducts research on visual culture, this point is one that I have spent a lot of time thinking about. Right now I’m doing a lot of work on 19th century animal welfare activism and, in particular, the use of imagery in that movement. The great 19th century reformer Frances Power Cobbe began one of her illustrated anti-vivisection pamphlets with the words: “Do Not Refuse to Look at These Pictures.” She went on to discuss why it was so important for people to see with their own eyes the ways in which animals were treated behind closed doors in medical laboratories. Cobbe recognized that most people would not be granted access to these labs (just as we aren’t easily granted access to factory farm complexes) and, as such, she strongly believed in the power of visual culture to convey this difficult information to a broader public.

Things haven’t changed that much since Cobbe’s day and here I’d like to repeat her plea — “do not refuse to look at these pictures.” We can not keep ignoring what is going on.

Animal Body Worlds

Gunther von Hagens has launched another sensational exhibition, Body Worlds of Animals. Like the original Body Worlds, this exhibition uses plastination to preserve and exhibit dead bodies. Unlike the original exhibition, however, these bodies belonged to nonhuman animals before they became part of this exhibit. (Although I do recall a horse being included in the original Body Worlds, however, the focus there was most decidedly on human anatomy.)

There are, apparently, a wide range of animal bodies included in this exhibition. According to The Telegraph, several of these animal bodies were donated to the exhibition by the Neunkirchen Zoo. Through this donation we are encouraged to keep gazing upon these animals for our own entertainment, education, and enlightenment, even after their death. Unlike the dead humans in the original Body Worlds, these animals did not (could not?) give consent for their bodies to be used in this manner any more than they gave their consent to have been put on display in the zoo in the first place.

On the website for this exhibition Dr. von Hagens states that: “The more the individual thinks about the fragility of his or her body, the more respectful he or she will become toward other people and animals. BODY WORLDS of ANIMALS makes a valuable contribution to animal welfare and to increased appreciation of endangered species. The exhibition strongly supports the educational mission of the zoo and animal welfare organizations.”

The argument, it appears, is that this exhibition makes viewers realize the “fragility” of their bodies and, in turn, this leads to a heightened sense of appreciation of other species. This is a pretty tenuous link, one that echoes numerous arguments that have been made in favour of public zoos and animal theme parks throughout their history. According to this line of thinking, seeing animals in captivity or as “performers” somehow will make humans better appreciate nonhuman animals. The abundance of animal cruelty cases, the extinction (or near-extinction) of species and the destruction of habitats seems to be evidence to the contrary. Further, the notion that continued exploitation of animal bodies somehow supports animal welfare initiatives is very troubling.

PS: Is the giraffe on the Body Worlds of Animals website blinking!?? How many different kinds of creepy is that? Compare this to the stoic-looking splash screen for the original Body Worlds, with its visual nod to the very serious business of science and technology. A dead, blinking giraffe? Really?!?

Animal Cams

I watched a lioness and her 4 cubs while I ate my breakfast this morning. No, I didn’t relocate to a new country, nor am I on an African safari vacation. I was watching a live feed of a webcam pointing at some lions who live in a zoo in Norway. While I am admittedly addicted to watching the camera (the sight of the sleeping lioness and her cute little cubs is strangely soothing), there are some interesting issues at play here that leave me feeling somewhat unsettled.

I’ve been fascinated by “animal cams” for ages. I remember visiting a website a number of years ago that had a camera pointed at a watering hole somewhere in Africa. I don’t remember ever seeing any animals stroll across the camera’s path, but the anticipation that it might happen was quite exciting indeed. Then along came the “Panda Cam” at the San Diego Zoo. I spent hours on this site, watching little Hua Mei grow up. I would have the page minimized while I was working on my grad school assignments and would check in from time to time as a reward for getting work done. (The obnoxious movie preview for “Kung Fu Panda” is a recent addition to the site. I’m sure if I had to listen to that while I was writing my dissertation I would have lost interest in the site very quickly!!)

A few years later I became addicted to the “Eagle Eye Cam” set up on Hornby Island. This was a camera trained on a pair of nesting bald eagles. I was one of many of people watching this camera on a regular basis — there were somewhere in the ballpark of 17 million hits to this website — and I remember this profound sense of mourning when it became apparent that the egg we had been watching for days was not going to hatch. This puzzled me. I lived nowhere near Hornby Island, and these were birds I would have no direct awareness of if it were not for the web cam. There are eggs that don’t hatch and other forms of “animal death” happening on a daily basis, but the difference is that that we often don’t witness these events. (Although, perhaps this will change with the proliferation of Animal Webcams in recent years)

What I began wondering about, then, was the potential for awareness and education through the webcam format. Are these just voyeuristic spectacles for entertainment, or is there another dimension? Was my sadness over the unhatched egg directly related to that specific pair of birds and that specific egg, or did it have more to do with broader issues of life, death and survival on planet earth in our current age? Was I, perhaps, sad because I personally had unfulfilled expectations, that I’d spent so many hours on this site anticipating witnessing the hatching of an egg when I could have been doing other activities such as cleaning my house, preparing for class, writing conference papers or spending time with family and friends. Maybe my time would have been better spent by seeking out a 3-dimensional animal experience closer to home? What did I gain from the “Eagle Eye Cam” viewing experience?

What is it about the process of witnessing that makes members of other species seem somehow more “knowable” to us? What can we learn about these animals by looking at them on our laptop screens? And what are we to make of the inter-species power dynamics that are most certainly at play here? While the animals being viewed sometimes appear to look directly at the camera or otherwise register momentarily awareness of the recording device, most of the animal cams are set up to be as unobtrusive and hidden as possible. If the cameras were pointed towards human subjects who were unaware that their every move were being broadcast on the internet this would be unacceptable, so how have we convinced ourselves that this is ethically acceptable? There is, however, an undeniable attraction to having the opportunity to look so closely at animals we typically do not encounter on a day-to-day basis, one that I think goes beyond just mere curiosity.

As I wrap up this post I’ve got my domesticated house cat sprawled on my desk (she continually thwarts my efforts to write!) and am taking a peek at the lioness bathing her wee cubs. I am amused by the similarity in behaviours and mannerisms between the two type of cats. As I watch the baby lions wobble around, I’m wondering about how quickly they will grow and what growing up in captivity will mean for them. Has the webcam made me think about lions in a way that I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t looking at this website? Absolutely! I rarely think about lions on a daily basis. (It isn’t that I’m not interested in them, it is just that I don’t really encounter them much in the Niagara region!) But is this necessary and, if so, what are the benefits of this kind of visual encounter?

I’m afraid that at this point I’ve got more questions than answers, but it is something I’ll continue to mull over.