Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Let's Share the Planet - Please

I've never understood why, for a country where the so-called majority religion
professes to worship the cow, we're so cruel to the rest of our
animals. Every morning, we emerge religiously from the temple and
stick a bunch of grass in front of a dewy-eyed animal, toss a couple
of coins at the woman who owns the cow and move on. If we're in a bad
mood, we pretend to pick up a stone to throw at the stray dog that
walks beside us. If we're in a really bad mood, we throw the stone, or
kick the animal. For the starving kitten on the roadside, of course,
we have no time at all.

Sitting in our cars at the traffic signal, we honk so hard when the
light changes that the tangawalla in front of us whips his poor pony
out of its wits. When the poor animal gets too old and is tied to a
pole on the seashore and left to die, we wonder briefly whether to
ring the SPCA, then decide that it's too much trouble to look for the
number. If the animal falls on the road, we wait impatiently for the
corpse to be lugged to the pavement and out of our sight.

In a country where grandfathers have raped their five-year old
grand-daughters, we want to shoot stray dogs - simply because they
exist. We won't fund shelters, we won't help to sterilise them, we
won't volunteer to clean out their kennels - heck, we won't even buy a
t-shirt to support voluntary animal welfare efforts - but we want to
shoot stray dogs.

And we teach our children all this too. We take them to the circus and
clap when the bears are led in. We watch from a distance and laugh
when the monkey-man makes his monkey perform on the street. We take
our kids to the zoo and show them how to throw pebbles at the chimps
and make annoying sounds at the big cats. Oh, and if, being children,
they want to play with someone's pet dog, even a puppy, we
hyperventilate neurotically and make them wash their hands about
twenty-five times. And if our children, being better people than us,
insist on having a puppy as a pet, we finally give in to their
demands: but when we realize that puppies need care, too, we decide
that it's all too much of a pain and we throw the little creature out
of a moving car. Instead of teaching our children to share the planet,
we teach them to fear animals and hate them. Life, we teach them, is
really all ha ha hee hee: cricket, movies, and nabobbing. And when
we're too old for all that? Then we go on picnics to the forest and
shoot the deer.


Sunday, June 19, 2005

450 species can't be wrong

From the Seattle Times:
"From whales to buffalo to Caspian terns, a profusion of animals exhibit behavior that in humans would be called gay.
In his book "Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity," Seattle biologist Bruce Bagemihl estimates 450 species display some form of homosexuality, which can include same-sex courtship, displays of affection, sexual activity, long-term pairings and parenting.

To paraphrase the old Cole Porter song has it, birds do it, bees do it, bonobos on their knees do it...

Thorny problem for white peacocks

Madurai's rare white peacocks are under threat as their habitat disappears to make way for a teak plantation:
A report says:
"But peacock lovers like Pandiyarajan are also concerned about the future of these rare birds as temple authorities in Thiruparangundrum have begun clearing the dense growth of wild shrubs and trees in the area for commercial plantations.
However, temple authorities say thorns in the wild shrubs could hurt the birds and raising commercial plantations is for their good.
"Those trees had thorns and we do not want the birds to get hurt. That is why we removed them. We have teak plantations and want to add another 5,000 teak trees," said Padmanaban, Subramaniaswamy temple.
But it may take close to two years for the trees to grow in the area. And with no place to hide, the rare birds have become easy targets for poachers and hounds.

The P word

Uma had an interesting post about PETA a while back, that got me wondering why PETA is so widely seen as the bogeyman of the animal rights movement. (Out of the last four stories I browsed about zoos, three mentioned PETA in deeply negative terms.)
I think this is an important point to address, because it throws an illuminating light on common perceptions of both PETA and the animal rights movement. PETA is often identified only by its celebrity-studded no-meat ads, often in terms of some disapproval: aren't they wasting money that could have funded shelters, hospitals and better care programmes for animals?
It often surprises me is how little people know about the rest of PETA's work. It supports and runs animal shelters. It lobbies big companies in order to improve conditions for animals on factory farms. It's been at the forefront of the gathering demand to stop laboratory experiments on animals and other abuses. And the organisation can come out with positions that are very nuanced, as with Ingrid Newkirk's explanation of why PETA might encourage a ban on the breeding of pit bulls and reluctantly endorse the "automatic destruction" policy that many shelters have towards pit bulls. Anyone who thinks that PETA is lacking in subtlety should read her letter. It's a lament for the tragedy of a dog created by human beings as the ultimate weapon, subjected to constant abuse by most of its owners, and it's a recognition of the terrible paradox that animal lovers are faced with in the case of pit bulls: "we can only stop killing pits if we create new ones".
I like the fact that PETA saw earlier than many NGOs the importance of grabbing mainstream attention: you won't run animal rights stories because they're unsexy, but you'll run a go-veggie feature because it features stars in the buff, no problem, here's one star to go. Part of PETA's job is to get people who might not otherwise think about animal rights to consider the subject; if they do that because they're confronted with some model wearing a cabbage leaf or two on a billboard, that's okay by me.
What I don't like about PETA is simple: I hate the hectoring tone, I hate the stridency, I dislike being at the receiving end of a lecture, and I wish they'd use their website to answer issues of this sort, where two of their employees have been arrested on animal-cruelty charges. [It's frustrating that PETA doesn't use its website to either explain what happened, or to correct misconceptions. To take a small example, the story mentions a website called Peta Kills Animals, and also mentions that the website is aided by the Center for Consumer Freedom. What it doesn't mention is that CCF is not quite as disinterested a body as it appears to be: it represents the interests of the food and restaurant business (Wiki has a list of 1998 members of its advisory panel, which includes several members of the meat supplying and processing industry--you can hardly imagine that they'd be paid-up PETA supporters!)]
Now here's the larger point about the animal rights movement: like so many other 21st century rights movements, this is not a neat army of the faithful going out to march for a specific mission. It's a loose coalition of people at different levels of awareness, commitment, fanaticism, caring and knowledge, held together only by the fact that they care about what happens to animals. PETA is one of the many organisations that works on behalf of animals; the fact that PETA inspires so much fear and loathing is also a tribute to the way in which it's managed to catch the public eye. You don't have to support or even agree with PETA in order to be part of the animal rights movement. But you do have to acknowledge the fact that the history of the animal rights movement in this century would have been radically different without PETA. It's because they scream so loudly that someone like me has the luxury of keeping the conversation pleasant.

Outside the cage

Do I like zoos? It depends. I haven't been on the other side of the bars, so how would I know what it feels like from the perspective of the inmates? But this story is moderately heartening.
From The Financial Express:
"From being mere amusement park where wild animals can be shown to children, zoos in India are fast turning into institutes where not only endangered species are saved but various research works are also being carried out.
The Central Zoo Authority (CZA) has come up with a novel initiative to improve the management of zoos and give them a new look, besides converting them into wildlife research centres.

As I said in a previous post, I'm not a big fan of zoos, especially the kind that don't protect the animals from animals like us. But as long as you still have zoos, it's worth fighting for better conditions for the animals who have to live there.
In The Chicago Tribune, Charles Madigan sums up the love-hate relationship many of us have with zoos:
"Of course, I have a conflict of interest because I have been in love with the zoo for 26 years. When we moved to Chicago from Moscow in 1979, Lincoln Park Zoo was where my little boys and their mother went to escape apartment living and city noise. I can't go there today without seeing all three of my sons as infants, scrambling around the pathways and staring, absolutely fixated, at the chimps and big cats.
They knew the now-departed Otto when the lowland gorilla was Chicago's biggest celebrity.
That being said, I still don't like the idea of zoos, particularly for large animals. Elephants need vast spaces for roaming. Big cats do indeed need red meat that comes from a kill, not from a kitchen. Wild birds have to fly."

Passing the buck

Pataudi turns himself in, just as the media focus shifts to hunting:
From The Kolkata Telegraph:
"It is difficult to accept that a person of Pataudi’s intelligence and educational background (he went to Winchester, the famous British public school, and to Balliol College, Oxford) is ignorant of the many prohibitions on hunting that exist in India. But he chose to flout the law. Shikar has a long tradition associated with the princes of India. In the past, when there were no restrictions on hunting, princes and rajas shot wild animals indiscriminately and thus decimated India’s rich wild life heritage. Pataudi, it would appear, is committed to continuing this tradition. The only problem with this commitment is that it runs counter to the laws of the land."

Outlook devoted its cover story to the scandal of shikar:
"It is the rich who hunt for pleasure. And for this category in the social ladder, the country's laws are at best non-existent; at worst, a nuisance that can be tackled with money and a phone call to a cocktail party acquaintance. And so ingrained is this blood lust that when Outlook contacted Maneka Gandhi to comment on the Pataudi episode, her first reaction was to try to dissuade us from doing this story as it might inadvertently glamourise hunting. We compiled a list of all the areas around the country where the wildlife laws are being broken with impunity every night, and the various modus operandi of the illegal hunter, but have decided not to publish this information, because it could get some people to head for their jeeps to seek out new prey."