Coalesences & parrots

Alongside sporadic thoughts, on occasions I am asked what led me to become vegan. I had narrowed it down to a handful of memories which I think planted seeds and laid foundations for later coalescences, intersections. These are memories stretching back to my youth. I consider my first to come from watching the Australian film Storm Boy, released in 1976 (I can’t recall when I first saw the film, though it was quite a few after its release). Storm boy also exposed me to what might be my first recollections of Aboriginal people, and the immense talent of David Gulpilil (a story for another time)… This morning, a pair of King Parrots flew overhead whilst I walked to my office — which brought forth a memory and an associatio:  reflections on society, anthropocentrism and human chauvinism that are also foundational to why I am vegan and see the importance of intersectionality.

I am fortunate to work in a location that has a significant number of open spaces that provide habitat for a range of species. Birds appear to take the most advantage of this, and a number are quite comfortable with the humans that constantly walk by — whether the are in the trees and bushes, or doing their thing on the ground (the birds, that is!). It is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work-workplace, one that I note and value every day — with my reflections on seeing a pair of King Parrots this morning being an indicative example.

In Storm Boy, based on a children’s book (which I have never read: now might be a good time), a young boy comes across some newly hatched Pelican chicks. Hunters have shot their parent(s). The young boy takes care of the three before releasing them. One of the Pelicans, Mr Percival forms a relationship with the boy and returns. Spoiler alert: He is subsequently shot by hunters. Recalling the film now fosters a similar level of profundity to when I first saw it. Before I draw directly links with the film and my experience this morning — the connections to which are coming to light as I write this — two other memories which have directly shaped my everyday existence and becoming vegan are prudent.

Much later than Storm Boy, two distinct events shaped my outlook: French nuclear testing in the Pacific, and the Canadian seal hunt. More specifically, protests agains these. The former was influential given the complete disregard for life that such weapons of mass destruction are founded on, and their central role in a culture of war. The latter was more a gateway to inherent anthropocentrism and human chauvinism for socially constructed human vanity (i.e. fashion): seal pups, at times only days old are killed for their fur.

In many ways, as the examples above are, my journey to becoming vegan is about me. The same can be said of my experience this morning, and the connections I am making now. Whereas it can be argued these are anthropocentric, perhaps partial anthropocentrism is a more appropriate moniker. I like to think that my veganism is not about me, in that it emerges from a concerns for other species. I do not seek credit for being vegan, or promote being so for my own benefit. Rather, I see it as a the right thing to do, as justice. Much in the same way that my opposition to racism, sexism and homophobia is similarly about justice for all. Am I tied up in these, most certainly. It can also be (not too difficulty) argued that I benefit from my everyday practices and activism confronting these.

My experience this morning, in seeing a pair of King Parrots and reflecting on the simple beauty, even nonchalance of their existence, their everyday — it is very likely that I was not even a passing thought of theirs — recalled a memory. This memory was evoked in wanting to share my sighting with someone. It is someone I have talked with about the why and what led me (vegan) question in recent times. The memory is not a good one.

In secondary school in Australia, all students participate (or at least did so when I was one) in a work placement (unpaid) for 1-2 weeks. At the time, I was interested in being a vet (which can be read into). I had arranged to undertake this a local small animal surgery (i.e. companion animals). A few days prior to starting, my school had realised that their was a mixup: myself and another student were misconstrued into being one person. In short, they had inadvertently agreed to both of us, thinking it was one person inquiring. As a result, my placement was transferred to a pet shop with a lot of animals. I was informed that they cared about animals, and I would receive some hands on experience. Little did I or the school know what the latter would come to.

During my time there, a ‘shipment’ of King Parrots arrived and were placed in a number of adjacent cages. These were not small — the shop was in an semi-industrial area and was on the larger side. There were also cages, so limited in size. The birds call fly from one side to the other. Not full flight by any means, though much larger than the cages they would likely have ended up in when purchased.

The following morning, on arriving at work, I was asked to clean these cages out. I can’t recall how many of the birds died overnight — it was either all of the three dozen plus the store had received, or all but two or three. The owner hinted that they had likely died of shock. Irrespective of why, I was horrified.

The value of Other life is what I drew from this. Instrumental, anthropocentric value. Vanity. These birds (I viewed them as majestic, though their lives were of no more value than any of the Other species in the pet shop and beyond) had died on speculation. Their deaths were factored into the retail value. Some losses would occur.

At the time, I did not directly link the exploitation of Other animals to relations of capital. It did plant seeds for my later emergent understandings. In reflecting now, based on the recollections emergent through my sight of pair of King Parrots merely doing their thing this morning, this experience — a horrible one — was also foundational for my becoming vegan. Intertwined with class, the essential nature of intersectionality in an analysis of social relations within and across species was also central.

In future recountings of the why and what, this, far from pleasant, experience will likely be included…

Image credit: Male King parrot (Alisterus scapularis) feeding on the seeds of Coastal Wattle (Acacia longifolia), October 31, 2009. Photo: Doug Beckers (CC BY-SA 2.0).

when not a radical proposition…

I recently went to/participated in two (activist/academic and academic) conferences, and had some interesting conversations early on at the first of these reflecting on the state of activism around the animal question.

There was a pre-conference public lecture/pre-book launch for the former which had a recurring theme that a focus on the ‘production’ of animals as commodities was far more important-interesting than on consumption practices.

This theme came up in a conversation I had the today (during the first day of the activist/academic conference), with someone I respect who does quite a bit of grounded work for other animals. The conversation floated around, and interrogated our perception that there is an increasing mainstream-vegan emphasis on consumptive practices. In particular, Melbourne (where the conferences were being held) is becoming seen as/has become a vegan food mecca. Even further, it is expensive, boutique vegan foodstuffs like $27 sandwiches, that are being talked-raved about.

In all the talk about consumptive practices, what people are consuming, there is an apparent obviousness to the exclusivity of such items. One outcome is the perpetuation of an image of veganism as a bourgeois, mostly white thing. Another, is consumption being about identity. How people want to be seen, and how they can consume themselves into this image — an identity that is available to a select few, based on their disposable income.

This begs the question: how is this any different form other capitalist-consumptive practices?

Isn’t a critique of the use of animals supposed to be a radical proposition? Are such questions no rooted in a foundational and intersectional critique of the multiplicities of oppression?

choice, intent, and feeding companion animals

A recent post on ‘One Green Plant‘ by Leslie Irvine, a scoiologist at the University of Colorado, outlines three options for companion (nonhuman) animals, specifically related to what we feed them. Irvine provides her rationalisations to the ‘difficult position’ in the context of ‘ethical veganism’ (for me there is one form of veganism, and coming up with labels such as ethical is as problematic that for vegetarianism — see the redicularity of the term ‘pescatarian’ for example. To create a demarcation here, anyone who is not an ‘ethical vegan’ is not a vegan: they adopt a plant-based diet). Three ‘options’ are outlined: feeding companion animals a vegan diet; not having companion animals; the status quo (with some rationalistions).

Irvine provides some empirical support for explicit and implied arguments. With the vegan ‘option’, she correctly outlines that whereas dogs can thrive on a vegan diet, there are very clear and potentially serious challenges (life threatening) for cats. What is most problematic here (amongst other rationalisations) is the argument often put forward by carnists and others seeking to defend their ‘choice’, or at least make them feel better about their actions: ‘a plant-based diet requires killing’. What is referred to here are other animals that are referred to as ‘collateral damage’. I am not for a second debating that agriculture kills other animals. Every action we take causes harm and suffering: to human and nonhuman animals. The vast majority of purchases we make perpetuate exploitation and suffering on many levels, be this sweatshop labor, environmental destruction, class, the objectification of women (and bodies more generally) and the perpetuation of consumer capitalism (to start with). They key issue here, which is not addressed in any way by Irvine is intent.

We can seek to minimise our impacts in an ethically consistent manner, or we can seek to rationalise choices that make us feel better. To me, that is at the core of Irvine’s piece — how she can rationalise her ‘choices’ so she can feel better about her actions.

Amidst the politics of bad choices, which is where were are situated today, we can easily become stifled in seeking to make a good choice when there are none. With regards to the food we feed companion (nonhuman) animals, there is no good choice. It is still unclear that there is a healthy option for vegan diets for cats. Irvine claims it is also not clear for all dogs. Lets accept these claims. If we feed cats and dogs other animals, we are explicitly supporting industries that exploit and kill other animals (for profit). We are making a choice between which lives we see as more valuable: a cat, dog or other animal we have direct exposure too (an animal we may love) and animals we do not know. What is at the core of this are our own experiences. It is about us.

This is very confronting, and I have addressed aspects of this in previous posts. What we have here, alongside and deeply intertwined with being about us, is a moral conundrum. To restate a question I preciously posed, “how can I [we] justify killing one animal to keep another alive?” Putting it quite simply and bluntly, this is a decision we are making. This is not about what certain animals eat ‘in the wild’ or naturally. It is about us making a choice, our intentional actions, that cause harm. Here we can see and expand on the conundrum much further. Whatever ‘choice’ we make has consequences that are quite unpalatable. We kill other animals to feed companion animals we have a connection with, or we feed companion animals a diet that is either potentially or quiet likely to cause physical harm and death. Amidst the politics of bad choices, we do need to make one. For me, the issue here — and the key issue left (strategically?) nonconisdered by Irvine is intent. We can make arguments about how many (human and nonhuman) animals are harmed and killed by our lifestyles (some more intentionally than others). Accidental deaths, as much as we can make the argument (and we should strive to continue to reduce our impacts on other animals, ecosystems and the planet more broadly—a cornerstone of veganism), are not intentional. Feeding one animal to another, as outlined by Irvine, is intentional. To be reflexive here, deciding not to is also intentional. In either scenario and situation, an animal will die. On a purely utilitarian level, how many tens, hundreds, thousand(?) of other animals are we intentionally killing to keep one companion animal alive?

Is keeping a companion animal alive merely to help us feel better, with it being easier to kill other animals we do not have a connection with? To be (much?) more controversial here (and the issue is much bigger than this), PETA is widely criticised for is high rate of euthanasia of nonhuman animals at its shelters. Could we not see this as saving lives along the lines that other, unknown and unexperienced by us, animals are not being killed to keep them alive??

There is more to the option 1 (feeding companion animals a vegan diet) outlined by Irvine: farming methods kill other animals, and changes in methods are impractical as they are ‘needed’ to feed the worlds population. Whereas articles are cited, even referring to a TIME article (with a broken link) which claims that less animals would be killed with different forms of animal agriculture than if the world went vegan. The very limited scope and specific focus of the TIME piece is taken well out of context by Irvine. Referencing aside, again the issue here is intent. How many people intend to cause harm to another person every time they purchase cheaper clothing (i.e. Sweatshop labour)? How many people intend to oppress women every time they buy a magazine or product that appropriates a women’s body and perpetuates the beauty myth? To surmise, farming, as well as existing in contemporary society, is ‘bloodless’, yet should we not try to reduce our impacts. To do otherwise is a very slippery slope in which almost all actions can be rationalised-justified.

Option 2 is to not have companion animals. This is an ideal that we should be aiming towards. Yes there will continue to be nonhuman animals in shelters as long as they are seen as property, bred and sold at the whim of socially constructed human desires. Aside form continuing to work towards the end of the animal industrial complex, what we do here is the key. Making arguments to justify the killing on one animal for the benefit of the other actively undermines any critique of carnism. Rather it perpetuates the status quo irrespective of intent. Irvine’s reference to companion animals living ‘out their natural lives’ is also a stretch. The specific reference is to her (‘my’) companion animals, providing another clear implication that this is about her, and what is comfortable for her (as it is for many). We need to move beyond this…

Option 3 is the status quo, based on rationalisations mobilised for the previous options and reference to an ethical paradigm as ‘a process’. In much the same way that learning about racism, sexism, homophobia, ableness and other forms exploitation is a process, we cannot use this to justify continuing to privilege one at the expense of the other. By way of example, PETA’s sexist advertising is not a consistent (nor appropriate) approach for seeking to end the exploitation of nonhuman animals.

The reflexive ‘Some might call my attitude “excuse-itarianism”’, reference to ‘choice’, and ‘living with contradiction’ are all centred on making ourselves feel better, rather than grappling with the moral conundrum in a consistent way. What is clear here is that we privilege the animals we know at the (ultimate) expense of others. We can openly state that we will take the contradiction and surround such a statement with as many rationalisations as we like. In the end, the root here is a combination of feeling better and strategically ignoring that which we are unable to respond to. I am not saying this is easy, and I have given a number of years reflection to this challenge. At its core, this is (and should not be) about us and how we feel. It is not about deciding between one individual and another, it is potentially between one and hundreds, potentially thousands.

Yes, our existence causes harm to nonhuman animals. What is key here is intent. Intentionally harming is not consistent with progressive ideals across the board. As many ways as privileging one over others can be rationalised, the crux of the issue is, once again, human chauvinism — of us choosing who lives and dies. What Irvine seeks to justify (and many many do, often without anywhere near the level of reflection provided by Irvine) is her ‘choice’. Yes, neither ‘choice’ is a good one. Yet the choice she makes is cannot by justified from the simple utilitarian level through to seeking to be ethically and morally consistent. This is something we all need to reflexively interrogate.