It seemed like good news when I heard evolutionary biologist Professor Maciej Henneberg of Adelaide University explain how he and his research team came to a radical conclusion about intelligent life on earth. When it comes to intelligence, he said, the human species is not the pinnacle of evolution, but actually is one animal amongst many. Humans, he is saying, are not smarter – they’re different. As Dr Henneberg puts it, human are smarter in some ways, but dumber in others. He discussed some of the uses of intelligence of other animals – the dog’s sense of smell, the koala’s ability to jump vertically from one branch to another, the wolves’ body language.
Dr Henneberg’s findings are particularly significant because they are developed through evolutionary biology. They confirm in a fascinating way the work now being done by ethologists on animal empathy, morality, and many other qualities that once were thought to belong strictly to humans. As is well known, the quest for that which makes ‘man’ different from and superior to all other animals is a central preoccupation in western thought. And yet, language, tools, imagination, and much more: all these great indicators of a vast gulf between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are becoming indefensible in the face of contemporary science and philosophy.
It seemed like good news last Friday night when I heard the radio interview, and it is good news, except when one’s mind turns toward what is happening in the rural city of Charters Towers in North Queensland. Here the war against flying-foxes is full-on. It is marked by an intensity of cruelty that does no credit either to those who are organising and conducting it, or to all of those who are standing by and letting it happen. In a recent post I wrote about the proposal to drive the flying-foxes out of town at this time when they are acutely vulnerable. In spite of petitions, and immense outreach around the world thanks also to a beautiful video, the terror is now happening. It is not happy to know that these animals are intelligent, and that they are suffering.
This is the time of year when the babies are too heavy to be carried by their mothers. They are left back in camp in a crèche tree while their mothers go out at night to find food. The babies are still dependent on their mother’s milk, and when the mothers come back before dawn they reunite, each with her own baby, for a day feeding, grooming, nuzzling, chirrking, and socialising.
These animals, like us, are intelligent. They have emotions, they feel pain and anguish, fear, terror, and panic. Mothers are dedicated to their babies; the young are dependent on their mothers. Generation upon generation of flying-foxes over the last fifty million years or so have worked to raise the young, and to keep the flying-fox way of life alive in the world.
By any human standard, flying-foxes in a maternity camp should not be tormented. By any human standard, cruelty to animals is not acceptable behaviour. Somehow, these basic standards of social life are not operative in Charters Towers. Somehow, those with official responsibility for protection of animals are not doing their job.
A number of committed activists have gone to Charters Towers to try to assist wounded flying-foxes, to bear witness to the event, and to hold in place a human stand that says: this is not acceptable, and this is not full measure of humanity. Here are a few quotes from various facebook pages.
Noel Castley-Wright reports from Charters Towers: We have just witnessed the most vile act of cruelty. They were shooting Mums and babies with paintball guns, hosing with fireman hoses, two helicopters flying below 100ft over urban area, mum and babies down (refused to stop), birdfrite, fireworks, smoke, horns and babies left panic stricken in trees. When mums come to get them tomorrow, it starts all over again. This continues for two weeks. Babies will die a slow horrible death.
Adele Foster wrote: I travelled 7hrs to get here. CHARTERS BLOODY TOWERS. It has been the most horrific day. You can’t even begin to imagine the noises, the screaming, the cheering of local rednecks. I will be back again tomorrow morning at 4am when it all starts again. Part of me doesn’t want to go back but I have to film & document the audacity again. I feel emotionally drained. It’s too dark now & have returned to the motel. Left screaming babies high in the trees, some mothers have returned & been reunited with their bubs. Other bubs not so lucky. This dispersal will continue for up to two weeks. I can’t stay here that long. The babies cannot fly, they will die in the starved hang position waiting for their mums who will not be able to return. Eventually they will fall dead to the ground. Shame on you Charters Towers. Our Queensland State Govt has allowed this to happen. Qld beautiful one day, Government sanctioned animal cruelty the next.
Adele, again: ‘Paint ball guns, smoke, water hoses, birdfrite, sirens & helicopters. RSPCA is this not enough to stop the dispersal, where were you today?? … The Department of Environment and Heritage Protection were present & did nothing except watch as this all took place.’
A day later she wrote: ‘This is so cruel & inhumane. The bats are going but then they are turning round & coming back. Their babies screaming in the trees. The locals are cheering. WTAF!!’
On Tueday morning she said she was leaving: ‘We heading out, some the bats have gone to Centenary Park. They are now smoking them out too. They are spraying them with water in people’s back yards. The bats are dispersed all over town. There is nothing more we can do’
It is often said that it is important to present both sides of an issue like this. I don’t agree. That many people in Charters Towers don’t want to live in proximity to flying-foxes is self-evident, but beyond the obvious there are two significant reasons why such a suggestion is wrong. The first is that the pro-cruelty camp represents itself extremely well already. Google Charters Towers and flying-foxes and you’ll find newspaper articles vilifying the animals. You’ll find politicians ranting against the animals. You’ll find all manner of claims, abuse, belligerence, and hatred. I believe it is wrong to further disseminate incitements to cruelty.
The second reason why the idea of ‘both sides’ is wrong is that it suggests that the issue can be boiled down to just two sides. This is way too narrow. There are many, many sides to this story. Let me offer a few in an effort to ensure that the complexity of life on earth not get reduced to any simple formula of ‘both sides’. Here are eleven more sides:
1) The people in Charters Towers who oppose this action, but are not able to convince their fellow townspeople of the wrongness of what they are doing, and seem not to have much of a voice.
2) Carers all over Australia who are concerned about the well-being of flying-foxes, many of whom may end up caring for or fostering wounded animals. Along with them, all the people who care, who support them financially and emotionally, and who work publicly and privately against such cruelty.
3) Aboriginal people for whom flying-foxes are their Dreaming, or totemic, kin. Attacks on flying-foxes are attacks on them too. I can’t help but think that the use of the term ‘dispersal’ tells quite a significant sub-surface story. In earlier times, the term meant ‘massacre’ and was used to describe settler Australian actions against Aboriginal people.
4) The flying-foxes themselves. They want to live, to raise their young, to depart and return in their own way.
5) Koalas – they live on eucalyptus leaves, and rely on forests and woodland for their lives. Flying-foxes pollinate the trees and disperse the seeds. A lovely poster advocating care and protection of koalas has the slogan: ‘No Tree, No Me’.
Another lovely poster advocating care and protection of flying-foxes turns this slogan around: ‘No Me, No Tree’.
6) Along with koalas, all the other forest dwellers.
7) The forests themselves, and the great savannah woodlands of North Australia. They are co—evolved with flying-foxes, and depend on their pollination.
8) The air we breathe. Air is 21% oxygen. Oxygen is produced copiously by forests and woodlands, which is why forests such as the Daintree are called ‘the lungs of the earth’.
9) RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), Animal Ethics advocates, the Humane Society, and other bodies whose commitment is to the prevention of cruelty to animals.
10) The Department of Environment, and all those who are meant to enforce protection of native animals.
11) Bystanders – when public cruelty is carried out, there is a responsibility on the part of the public to protest that cruelty. Are we doing enough?
In a situation like this, there really are no ‘innocent bystanders’. Except, perhaps, for the children. I am haunted by thoughts of the children in Charters Towers. Do they wake up with the sounds of helicopters and think about all the suffering babies over there in the park? Do their nightmares include flying-foxes being chased into the backyard and subjected to water torture? Do they wonder why the adults are doing all this? Or are they learning lessons now that will shape them for years to come? Lessons about how to ignore, or even enjoy, the suffering of others?
What of the older children? Do they go to school and learn about ‘the environment’? Do they read To Kill a Mockingbird and learn about the principles of standing up for what is right even when it is difficult and unpopular to do so?
What about their teachers, their pastors or priests, their guidance counsellors and mentors? What are they teaching the children?
What will anyone, human and flying-fox, become through this reign of terror?
To go back evolutionary biology, it is clear that we humans are different from the others. If it is not tools, intelligence, consciousness or communication, perhaps it is this: Man is the only animal to systematically promote hatred and cruelty. Man is the only animal to organise the suffering of others (animals and also humans) on a massive scale. Man is the only animal that cheers in the face of the despair of others.
Perhaps worst of all: in spite of our capacity for intelligence, conscience, empathy and compassion, we keep doing these terrible things over and over and over. Man is the only animal that refuses to learn.
©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)