15 August 2020

Living and Learning the Life of a Captive Animal – In a Zoo or in Any Cage

Chimp sitting in a cage
Jo-Anne McArthur / Born Free Foundation

In an article posted Aug. 14 on Sentient Media, journalist Christina Russo tells how a life-changing trauma in her life has deepened her already sympathetic insight into the suffering of animals trapped in the prisons humans force them to live in. Her account reminded me of comparisons and contrasts I draw in The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale, between the death-in-life of animals in “entertainment” and on industrialized farms. Karen Davis, United Poultry Concerns

I Was a Journalist Who Reported on Captive Animals
—Then I Became One

By Christina M. Russo

“Extinction Through Incarceration”
From The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale:
A Case for Comparing Atrocities
By Karen Davis

At the heart of the zoo’s paradoxical status is a sort of double-alienation. On the one hand the zoo is a sort of prison – a space of confinement and a site of enforced marginalization like the penitentiary or the concentration camp. And on the other it cannot subvert the awful reality that the animals, from whatever vantage point they are viewed, are “rendered absolutely marginal.” It demonstrates, as John Berger is at pains to point out, a basic ecological fact of loss and exclusion – the disappearance and extinction of animals – through an act of incarceration. ‑ Michael Watts, “The Age of the Chicken”

In “Why Look at Animals,” John Berger presents the environment of the zoo as a paradigm of false anthropomorphism at its worst. “The space, which modern, institutionalized animals inhabit,” Berger writes, “is artificial.”

In some cages the light is equally artificial. In all cases the environment is illusory. Nothing surrounds [the animals] except their own lethargy or hyperactivity. They have nothing to act upon – except, briefly, supplied food and – very occasionally – a supplied mate. (Hence their perennial actions become marginal actions without an object.) Lastly, their dependence and isolation have so conditioned their responses that they treat any event which takes place around them -–usually it is in front of them, where the public is – as marginal. (Hence their assumption of an otherwise exclusively human attitude – indifference.) . . . At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically. They have been immunized to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention.

Berger says that animals in the zoo “disappoint” the public, especially the children, who want to know, “Where is he? Why doesn’t he move? Is he dead?” Animals on factory farms and in laboratories differ from animals in the zoo in that they are not intended to be viewed, yet all of these animals share the fate of being prevented from being seen in their own right. Animals on display are the objects of blind, and blinding, encounters between a human audience and the animals’ human-imposed personas. Animals who break out of their phony images are punished – further punished, that is, since the condition of spectacular captivity (captivity for the sake of spectacle) is, of itself, the fundamental punishment – by being beaten, starved, isolated, sold, killed, or all of the above. Zoo animals, so-called, are imprisoned in a world that expresses elements in human nature that no normal nonhuman animal would voluntarily consent to enter and live in.

Likewise, animals on factory farms are imprisoned in a world which their psyches did not emanate and which they accordingly do not understand. Forcing our psychic pattern on animals who fit the pattern only by being “stretched” or “amputated” to conform is the very essence of the genocidal assault on nonhuman animal identity, in addition to the direct extermination of millions of animals every day by humans. As Roberta Kalechofsky writes in Animal Suffering and the Holocaust, the animal is trapped in the “symbolism of another group. The animal’s life and destiny are under the control of the symbolic signs of others.”

Factory-farmed animals are imprisoned in total confinement buildings within global systems of confinement, and are thus separated from the natural world in which they evolved. They are imprisoned in alien bodies genetically manipulated for food traits alone, bodies that in many cases have been surgically altered as well, creating a disfigured appearance – they are debeaked, detoed, dehorned, ear-cropped, tail-docked, castrated, and (in the case of piglets) dentally mutilated – and always without painkillers.

Factory-farmed animals are imprisoned in a belittling concept of who they are. Nor is their predicament new so much as a further turn of the screw that, with genetic engineering and other refinements of unrestrained scientific violence to animals firmly in place, continues to turn. In The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age, Harriet Ritvo shows how animals became surrogates for nineteenth-century agendas, in particular Britain’s imperial enterprise in which “material animals” and “rhetorical animals” embodied the most powerful possible symbol of human possession and control:

As material animals were at the complete disposal of human beings, so rhetorical animals offered unusual opportunities for manipulation; their positions in the physical world and in the universe of discourse were mutually reinforcing. Their ubiquity made animals particularly available to the Victorians, either in the flesh or as something to talk about. They figured prominently in the experience even of city dwellers. The streets were full of cabhorses and carthorses; flocks of sheep and herds of cattle were driven to market once or twice a week; many urbanites raised pigs and chickens in crowded tenements, or bred a variety of pets, from pigeons to rabbits to fighting dogs.

Although these creatures might be strong in the muscular sense, they were also manifestly powerless, as were bulls in rural fields, lions in menageries, and even the dangerous game stalked by hunters on the African plains or in the Indian hills. And in the rhetorical sphere they were less potent still. If the power of discourse lies in its inevitable restructuring and re-creation of reality, the ability of human beings to offer counterinterpretations places inevitable limits on the exercise of that power. Animals, however, never talk back.

The many separate animal-related discourses of nineteenth-century England constituted a single larger unit, which both discussed and exemplified a central theme of domination and exploitation. Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate

Available online:
The Holocaust and the Henmaid’s Tale:
A Case for Comparing Atrocities

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