Tag Archives: Animal welfare

Good Friday, More Death

Another drought, another witch hunt in the form of dingo persecution. Another program to ‘improve’ the country through slaughter. I think this is called dysfunction: you keep on doing the same violent thing in the hope that somehow the issues you face will go away.

Young dingo in Queensland, Photo: John Murray
Young dingo in Queensland, Photo: John Murray

The Longreach region of western Queensland is rolling out their biggest and most expensive attack on dingoes ever.

According to the ABC report:

“Longreach Mayor Joe Owens says more than 30,000 square kilometres will be covered in a new wild dog baiting campaign, one of the largest in western Queensland’s history…. The $150,000 campaign is due to begin next week, with nearly 30 tonnes of meat being ordered for baiting.”

I expect that the money is coming from the drought relief funds. It is public money, and it is utterly astonishing that there seems to have been no public consultation on this. Discussions with dingo experts would have explained both the causes of the problems and offered some solutions. There are alternatives to the deathwork.

Consultations could also have addressed the matter of conserving endangered species in the area, and the role of dingoes in suppressing invasive species such a foxes and cats. We can expect a massive spurt of pressure on birds and other vulnerable creatures.

The ‘zombie politics’ reaction says if there’s a problem there’s an enemy, and that enemy must be persecuted and made to suffer, and that enemy must die. There are plenty of alternatives. Another way into dealing with problems is to try to understand their causes, try to implement practices that actually address the causes, and become adaptive. Landscapes change, climates change, markets fluctuate and consumer desires shift. Life changes, humans have to adapt. These are basic truths and it is difficult to understand why they are so hard to grasp.

Queensland has been at the forefront of cruelty in recent years, and this new program maintains that position. The other recent mass cruelty event in Queensland was the Charters Towers days of shame when flying-foxes were persecuted, tortured and killed. Noel Castley-Wright has made an excellent short film ‘State of Shame – Queensland’s Legislated Animal Cruelty’ (view here).

Flying-fox, courtesy of Nick Edards
Flying-fox, courtesy of Nick Edards

The big difference between Charters Towers and Longreach is that out on the pastoral properties most of the suffering will be take place out of sight of humans and their cameras. We will never know the full story of all this terrible suffering. We know it will happen, we know the shock and trauma will spread amongst the surviving dingoes, we know the poison will spread to other species who also get into it, we know the cascades of death will accelerate, and we know that these damaged ecosystems will be further degraded, losing ever more resilience. We can predict (and time will tell) that the next drought will be even more damaging.

Let there be no doubt: 1080 causes terrible, painful deaths. If you have ever wondered whether this is true, listen to the people who have witnessed its effects. Emma Townshend interviewed a few of them on her recent ‘Freedom of Species’ program about 1080 (listen here). These are people have seen animals die of 1080, and have resolved not to use it. They are admirable individuals who have confronted the suffering and decided it will not happen on their properties. The same program contains an excellent interview with Arian Wallach. Speaking as both a pastoralist and a scientist, she discusses the beneficial ecological role of dingoes as top predators.

Encountering this terrible persecution on Good Friday caused me to ask what a religious person might think about all of this. I remembered a heart-felt  comment that came to my site during the Charters Towers mass persecution. This is from Sharon Peterson. She describes herself as a Christian and an American.

“I’m a Creationist, so I see man as created by God and given stewardship over the Earth’s animals. That stewardship does not include cruelty, or senseless violence. Animals should be treated ethically and appreciated for their many unique qualities bestowed on them by our Creator. Just as He preserved man during the flood, He preserved every kind of animal. This shows Jews and Christians that God cares for all of His creatures. The Bible says, His eye is on the sparrow, which means He has compassion for even the smallest of His creatures.”

“No matter how we look at this, through humanistic or Biblical lenses, the answer is still the same. Man does not have the right to cruelly, and with great harm and mortality, attack animals.”

And then there are those wonderful words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. At a time when humans’ mass slaughter of animals was becoming very clear and very troubling, he wrote the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1834), with its famous lines:

He prayeth best, who loveth best, All things both great and small; For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.

The only good news on this bleak and sorry Friday was that not all the pastoralists in the Longreach region are taking part in the dingo baiting. Thus far, it seems, the law cannot force people to use poison on their properties. I imagine it takes a lot of guts to resist the majority view on poison, and as the article makes clear, those who refuse are already being set up as scapegoats for when the project fails. There is a lesson here: the ‘good shepherd’ not only takes care of his or her flock, but also protects the others who share in the life of the land.

There is great courage and dignity in refusing to join the deathwork mob. Pastoralists of honour, I salute you!

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources:

The ABC Report can be found at:  http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-04-17/longreach-unleashes-150k-wild-dog-baiting-campaign/5396628

In response to some of the comments questioning various aspects of the viability of pastoralism and alternatives to broacacres baiting, I thought it would be good share a link to a site in the usa that focusses on predator-friendly pastoralism and desertification. I think they are working toward something very important. Well worth reading! (view here)

How To Love A “Pest”

I laughed when I read the Canberra Times headline ‘Liberals environment spokeswoman suggests eradication of native bird species’. It turns out that some of the spokeswoman’s constituents are annoyed by the migratory cuckoo known as the common koel (Eudynamys scolopacea), and because they’re annoyed they want something done. She herself referred to the birds as ‘imported pests’, and wanted them managed or eradicated.

Koel, wikimedia commons
Koel, wikimedia commons

Surely not, I thought! It is true that the call of the male koel is loud and insistent, but let’s be honest: homo sapiens is the only animal to have invented the two-stroke engine and used it to acoustically assault the suburbs. Mowers, whipper-snippers, angle-grinders, chain-saws and other DIY tools of destruction and construction out-perform koels all year round.

Actually, I like koels. I didn’t get to hear them arrive in Sydney this year, and I felt deprived. But like or dislike, can anyone seriously entertain the idea that just because something is annoying is ought to be gotten rid of?

The answer, unfortunately, is ‘yes’, as one quickly learns from a visit to the website of the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre (CRC). CRC’s are a government initiative that links industry, universities, stakeholders, and others for the purpose of furthering knowledge and capacity on matters of national concern. The Invasive Animals CRC has as its focus vertebrates that are deemed to be invasive either because they are non-native or because they have become identified as a ‘pest’, or both. There we learn that ‘The Invasive Animals CRC creates new technologies and integrated strategies to reduce the impact of invasive animals on Australia’s economy, environment, and people’. Technologies, when we explore the term, turn out to be a range of methods involving both killing and genetic engineering to reduce or eliminate reproductive capacity.

One of the key terms is ‘pest’. Many thoughtful persons have noted that  once an animal is declared ‘pest’, or ‘vermin’, or even ‘invasive’, something happens within the sensibilities of many humans. As my friend Thom van Dooren discovered in his research on foxes and the penguin colony at Manly in Sydney, those animals deemed not to belong slip into a category of those whose ‘lives are not legitimate lives within the context of contemporary ecologies, and as such … their deaths are not only condoned (as they often are in legislation), but also in an important sense demanded for the sake of any genuine conservation’.

Killing for conservation is certainly problematic, and advocates of compassionate conservation argue that it is inherently wrong. But the problems with ‘pests’ go much deeper. To quote educational materials provided via the CRC website: ‘The word “pest” is used to describe an animal that causes serious damage to a valued resource. Such a pest may be destructive, a nuisance, noisy or simply not wanted.’ From this open-ended definition, decisions are made about which lives matter and which lives don’t.

The Invasive Animals CRC website gives you a link to feral.org.au, and there you really start to learn about the nitty-gritty of decision-making and killing. The PestSmart YouTube Channel offers short tutorials on all manner of killing. You can learn, for example, how to rip up rabbit warrens.

Rabbit Photo: Arian Wallach
Rabbit
Photo: Arian Wallach

What you don’t learn is just how dreadful this method is for the rabbits. My friend Freya Mathews, a leading environmental philosopher, encountered this method when she began investigating ways of removing rabbits from her bio-conservation property. In her words:

‘Ripping involves the mechanical destruction of warrens by large blades attached to a tractor. I had rejected ripping earlier on account of the impact of the heavy ripping vehicles on soil and vegetation, but now that the contractors were more or less insisting, I thought I had better investigate the effect of the procedure on rabbits themselves. To my horror I found that in the course of ripping, rabbits inside the warrens are themselves ripped – they are simply sliced up, with those that are not killed outright being left to die, buried alive with appalling injuries, all conveniently out of sight. I had been willing to kill rabbits for the sake of ecological restoration, but this was way too much – it was torture, brutal beyond imagining. Yet this is one of the standard methods of rabbit management, routinely practised across the country, prescribed in all the government literature and on all the official web sites.’

Other video tutorials show how to set mechanical injectors into bait so that target animals (foxes, dingoes) will be orally injected with 1080 or cyanide. You learn that injectors don’t replace trapping and aerial baiting, they are just one tool among many.

Dingo Photo: Arian Wallach
Dingo
Photo: Arian Wallach

You don’t learn that the World League for Protection of Animals has concluded that 1080 poison (sodium monofluoroacetate), which is banned in almost every country in the world, should also be banned in Australia ‘not only for its cruelty, but also because we simply do not know what might be long term effects of continually pouring substantial amounts of the poison into the environment’. 1080 is one of the main poisons used against dingoes, other canines and foxes, and is also used against rabbits and other herbivores. More specifically: ‘1080 poison is a slow killer. When ingested the animal suffers a prolonged and horrific death. … They may convulse and haemorrhage blood from ears, nose and mouth, respiratory muscles fail and they suffocate.’

As this group noted in an earlier publication, ‘aside from the physical pain endured over the many hours before death, the terror, fear and anxiety felt by these animals is unimaginable.’

Along with these and many more kill-focussed tutorials, feral.org offers educational materials for primary and secondary school teachers. You can download a PowerPoint for use in teaching children in years five and six. According to the site: ‘Pest Tales provides primary school teachers with a complete and up to date resource which highlights pest animal species in Australia, their impact and current ways of managing the damage they inflict on the environment, economy and people.’

I worked my way through the slides with mounting horror. The first question for the children to consider is: what is a pest? The first set of answers includes labels and photos: feral (photos of cat, goat, etc), exotic/introduced (cane toad, etc), invasive (fox, rabbits, horses), and pest (magpie, flying-foxes and possum). The definition of pest is ‘an animal detrimental to humans or human interests’, and the explanation of detriment is that ‘a pest is a matter of opinion’. If anyone was wondering where and how children learn human-centrism, this PowerPoint is a great resource. Within the parameters, human-centrism is unavoidable – if a pest is an animal detrimental to humans (actually, to be more objective, to some humans), then humans are the ones who  decide the animal is a pest.

It becomes clear just how impoverished this vision of animals and ecosystems really is when we stop to  consider the fact that there is no real engagement with population dynamics and Australian ecosystems.

Rabbits, wikimedia commons
Rabbits, wikimedia commons

It is difficult to imagine a more shallow approach to matters of life and death than to sidestep ethics and ecosystems, and portray complex issues as if they were opinions.

Another slide labelled ‘Run Rabbit Run’ lists all the methods that have been used to try to eradicate rabbits: poison baiting (ground and aerial), trapping, fencing, shooting, ferreting, hunting, snaring, scaring, release of predators such as foxes, fumigating warrens, ripping warrens, blasting warrens with explosives, disease – myxomatosis, disease – rabbit haemorrhagic disease, introduction of fleas to increase spread of disease. Please remember that this list of horrors  is being taught to young children.

Since none of these methods has actually been successful, and since no alternatives are offered, the future looks likely to be as steeped in suffering as has  the past. And what the children don’t learn is that the one predator that would have a good chance of keeping rabbits in check – the dingo – is itself considered a pest.

These websites and their ‘information’ offer evidence of the widespread, bureaucratised, tax-payer funded, university-based, industry-supported, socially sanctioned pursuit of killing as a way of inhabiting the land. The fact that the manufacturer of 1080, Animal Control Technologies (Australia) Pty Ltd, is a participant in the CRC is known as industry collaboration, and is therefore not seen as collusion. The killing is cloaked in the language of managerial efficiency, but the iconography tells the other story – of vilification, persecution, and justification.

Sign posted at Paroo-Darling National Park
Sign posted at Paroo-Darling National Park

At the end of the day there can be no doubt: frequently what passes for a job well done is actually another act of the most terrible cruelty in an on-going saga of death.

I keep coming back to the normalisation of all this death work, and to the mind-set that takes it for granted that if a non-human animal is annoying, ‘something’ should be done. To return to the koels in Canberra: the Liberals environmental spokeswomen was subjected to a fair bit of ridicule, but if we look at the issue from the viewpoints presented by the Invasive Animals CRC and its related websites, right was on her side. People were annoyed. The koels were doing it. They were, therefore,  pests (at least to some people). And as pests, they were a problem to be managed or eradicated.

An alternative to this mind-set is readily available.

It is not at all difficult to love the migratory koels. There comes a time when winter is on the way out, but spring hasn’t quite arrived. There are big winds, and often they are cold. In Sydney it feels like we will never warm up. And then – riding those huge winds, the koels arrive.

When I hear that call my heart lifts. A YouTube clip captures it nicely, and I love knowing that the name koel is onomatopoetic. This bird is readily identifiable and it tells a great story: the big air and ocean currents that govern the weather are shifting.

Approaching rain, outback Australia
Approaching rain, outback Australia

I remember the call from the Northern Territory which is where I first heard it. There, koels are also called rain birds, or storm birds, and they arrive in advance of the wet season. Their great travel path brings them from southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea and Australia where they breed and spend the summer before flying back in the autumn. The effort it takes to fly those great distances, coming with one set of winds and leaving when the winds shift again, shows us the absolute grace of nomadic mobility. The birds fit beautifully into the large circulations of life on earth.

I agree with my Aboriginal teachers – these birds bring good news. And the fact is, they leave. They have to leave if they are to come back again with more news. This is what they do – every year. The departure and the return are the rhythms of nomadic mobility, and in this time of rapid environmental change there is consolation in the fact that the winds and currents, and thus the koels, continue to live out their patterns and connections.

Blessed are those who arrive with good news, and blessed too is their departure.  May we all learn to say both ‘welcome’ and ‘fare thee well’.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Lethal Heat: Lament for the Dead

They were young and beautiful, and they were dying. Some fell out of the trees, some crawled down and died on the ground. Some left this life still gripping the branch. Babies clung to dead mothers, and struggling mothers held dead babies.

The heat was relentless and the suffering went on and on as death worked its way through 100,000 or more flying-foxes in SE Queensland and Northern New South Wales. It may be the greatest mammalian mass death event to be caused by the new regime of extreme heat. It is probably also the first of many. Who will live and who will die becomes a question of temperature, refuge, and assistance. Much cannot be prevented.

Carers are working their hearts out. Support is needed in every area. Anguish is everywhere, and so too is commitment.

Behind this mass death is a history of persecution and on-going conquest. It is a history of loss of forests, refuge areas, blossoms and nectar, and of ever more urbanisation and conflict. Flying-foxes are these great pollinators, the night-workers of the Australian bush. Ranged against them is a desire amongst many humans to take over the world by relentlessly grasping or destroying the lives of others.

Courtesy of Nick Edards
Courtesy of Nick Edards

There was a time when flying-foxes regularly flew their great long trips across forests and escarpments, and returned home again because the way was known, and home was there. In some places life is like this still.

I remember stories the Aboriginal people told me about how flying-foxes are mates with the Rainbow Serpent. How they come and go in a pulse that is equally the pulse of the rainy time. They come bringing blessings because they call up rain, and when they depart they take their blessings elsewhere. They are kin – ‘one red blood’ in the words of David Gulpilil.

Now there is the haunting of mass death – it is possible that their blessings may indeed leave this earth forever. It is not only lives that are extinguished, but also the blessings of those lives. It may be that the earth is bleeding out now, and we are witnessing yet another aorta falling open.

We don’t have respectful methods for dealing with all these dead bodies. The image of wheelie-bins filled with dead flying-foxes shows a necessary pragmatism in the face of a huge problem, but is also deeply disturbing. Where will the bodies be taken? Will they be buried? Who will mark the grave-sites? Who will sing them home?

We lack appropriate mourning rituals for all this death. In truth, I wonder if we are capable of taking in the magnitude of the suffering. And yet in the weeks to come we will need to develop ways to honour the dead, to mourn their passing, to cherish the survivors, and to praise the carers.

For tonight, a candle is burning here in Sydney and I am dreaming of a flying-fox paradise. There the forests are unfelled, blossoming is sequential, flying-foxes travel and stop, eat and move on to their hearts’ content. They depart, and when they return, home is still there. Every branch and blossom welcomes them, and paradise is not a dream, but the real world of co-evolved life.

DSC02290

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 Postscript:

A report from a mass death event in NSW last year enables us to gain a visual sense of encounter:

Resources:

http://www.smh.com.au/environment/weather/highly-significant-heatwave-smashes-australian-records-20140106-30dx5.html

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-08/hundred-thousand-dead-bats-after-qld-heatwave-rspca-says/5190644

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLDXF5lSd5Dz6ZBxDOWNASc8bjI_8DLgLt

http://www.bats.org.au/

https://www.academia.edu/4539615/Multi-species_Knots_of_Ethical_Time  (an article on flying-foxes and rain)

 

 

Thoughts of Peace on Christmas Eve

It is still light here in Sydney at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve. The neighbourhood is quiet, although I’d have to say that our street excels in the ‘bright lights of Christmas’ extravaganza. We may be quiet, but we are not subdued.

Thoughts are tumbling around me tonight as I imagine the kids next door struggling to go to sleep in anticipation of Santa Claus, and at the same time to imagine  baby flying-foxes who are orphaned and starving, their mothers dead or bereft of crèche and safety. Such thoughts are like pebbles in a pond, and there is no end to the sadness arising in response to living beings who tonight are in distress and despair. Terrible things are happening all over the world, and this is not a single-species story.

And yet – one of the great moral and spiritual leaders of the world, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, never seems to despair. And if he does not give up, then surely none of us can claim a right to give up. Keeping faith with life on earth demands that we keep on keeping  on.

Recently I learned that the Dalai Lama visited Bob Irwin in Kingaroy, Queensland. Bob is the father of Steve Irwin, the wildlife icon of Australia. Bob loves Australian native animals, and is vigorously opposed to killing them. His bottom line is quite plain: we need to put the well-being of animals on a par with human well-being and find ways to achieve both. It is no easy task, but isn’t this exciting! The Dalai Lama’s Buddhist compassion comes together with the Aussie battler who fights on behalf of animals to offer a powerful statement  of compassionate conservation in defence of the defenceless.

On the eve of the birth of the ‘Prince of Peace’, I take heart.

Dalai Lama and Bob Irwin with words about flying-foxes. Posted with the permission of Bob Irwin.
Dalai Lama and Bob Irwin with words about flying-foxes.
Posted with the permission of Bob Irwin.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

Violence Against the Defenceless

Flying-fox Courtesy of Nick Edards
Flying-fox
Courtesy of Nick Edards

The term ‘warfare’ is regularly used to describe human action against the natural world. I too have spoken of the war against nature and the war against flying-foxes. And yet, I haven’t felt fully comfortable with this language.

Nature (in general), and flying-foxes (in particular), have never mounted a war against humans. The violence in this ‘war’ is all one-sided. And, too, the violence is radically disproportionate. What humans have done to flying-foxes in Charters Towers, both now and in the past, bears no correlation to what flying-foxes have done or ever could do to humans. Reports indicate that the people who organised the Charters Towers violence have stopped. Apparently, they are ‘happy’ with the results. Can it really be that all this suffering and on-going injury, including starvation, all this totally unnecessary death, constitutes warfare and is something to be happy about?

A new book called Horrorism is helping me think again about the problem of using the language and imagery of warfare to describe human-animal or human-nature violence. Written by the Italian scholar Adriana Cavarero, and subtitled ‘Naming Contemporary Violence’, this wonderful book shows that there are huge problems in using the language of warfare to describe forms of violence that are directed primarily against the helpless. Her examples all concern violence perpetrated by humans against humans, but the general direction of her analysis works extremely well with human violence against animals.

Horrorism Adriana Cavarero
Horrorism
Adriana Cavarero

Here is the key point: ‘violence against the helpless is becoming global in ever more ferocious forms, [and] language … tends to mask it.’ The masking language draws on images of warfare. But there are huge differences. In war armed combatants face each other knowing they are aiming to kill each other, and knowing they may be killed. Speaking for myself, I respect the armed forces, and I respect the fact that some wars (not all) are necessary.

It is clear that a great deal of contemporary violence does not live up to the model of the warrior. Violence against the helpless, violence for the sake of making life utterly miserable and uncertain for those against whom it is directed – this is not warfare. This is something that should be named as a hideous phenomenon in its own right. Horror, Cavarero explains, describes actions that ‘dismember and disfigure the body, the social relations, the uniqueness of that way of life’. In Charters Towers the use of weapons of harm was thoroughly engaged in damaging bodies, minds, and social relations. The attack on the maternity camp targeted defenceless young and nursing mothers, and thus was an attack not only on this generation but on future generations as well. In the mode of violence against the future it clearly aimed to violate the standards that have been set for conservation of native species (i.e., ensuring their continuity).

Is horror new? Not at all, Cavarero says, and yet something is changing. In part it is the scale of violence, in part it is the organised and sanctioned targeting of those who are helpless, and in part it is the wanton revelling in ruining the person, their bodily dignity, their life and future. In Cavarero’s words ‘a certain model of horror is indispensable for understanding our present’ time.

Cavarero discusses the totalitarian principle that ‘everything is permitted’ in the use of force against the defenceless. Here in Australia we have had legislation that prohibits cruelty to animals and the purpose has been very clear. Not everything was permitted in the use of violence against animals. But when Queensland made the legislative decision that the anti-cruelty legislation would not apply to flying-foxes, it opened the way for an apparently bottomless pit of cruel and vicious action. Yes, there had to be a permit to ‘disperse’ flying-foxes, and yes, the actions were meant to comply with the permit, but in the absence of any outside regulation, and with the tacit approval Local Councils for whom ‘everything is permitted’, cruelty becomes a matter of local choice.

Many of us wondered where the RSPCA was in all of this. A recent statement offers a bit of clarity. In a nutshell, if cruelty is allowed, then the only legal questions are procedural: was the action carried out in the manner in which it had been stated it would be carried out? This legal pit of violence was anticipated by many thoughtful people, as I discuss in my post on Zombie Politics. And yet, many of us really had not fully grasped the depths to which humans will sink, given the opportunity. The RSPCA asks to be notified in cases of ‘blatant cruelty’. What was the Charters Towers action if not horrific, and certainly blatant, cruelty?

It is clear in Cavarero’s analysis that the language of warfare puts a layer of conventionality over actions that are essentially crimes. Let us not forget: actions that would legally have been crimes if the legislation had not been changed are still the same actions. Nothing has changed except that people are now carrying out violence that previously the courts, the legislature, and all humane people had understood to be criminal. In the language of horrorism, people are savaging the bodies of those who have no means of defending themselves against this wounding.

Is the Charters Towers event over? Not for flying-foxes. Not for the survivors who may yet die of starvation or shock, not for those who come back next year, and perhaps not for the survivors who have gone to other towns in Queensland. Further actions are planned. The story of persecution is just beginning. This means that the need for action is not over either. Websites and Facebook pages are helping people to stay in touch with what is happening. A few of my favourites include Don’t Shoot Bats, Bat Conservation and Rescue, and Bob Irwin’s site.

I will close with some words from Louise Saunders, of Bat Conservation and Rescue:

The use of water cannons to hose bats from the trees at Charters Towers’ cruel and sadistic dispersal. An observer said a mother and her baby were hit with the full force and thrown to the ground. This is barbaric treatment to a gentle innocent and important keystone mammal. With non flying and dependent young many mothers tried to carry away their babies but the young are too big to carry far if at all. Nursing mothers so stressed from the cruel onslaught will lose their milk in the next week or so, as seen when maternity colonies are disturbed. Their babies die slowly and in agony. PLEASE if you have not written to confirm your disgust please we need your voice. Email the EHP Director General – jon.black@ehp.qld.gov.au and the EHP environment minister Andrew Powell – Environment@ministerial.qld.gov.au THEY WILL BE LEGISLATING FOR MORE TORTURE TO BATS IN THE NEW YEAR -KILLING ENTIRE COLONIES BY UNIMAGINABLE MEANS. PLEASE HELP OUR BATS. WRITE ASAP Thanks

© Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

Man Is The Only Animal That ….

Flying-fox, courtesy of Nick Edards
Flying-fox, courtesy of Nick Edards

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.

Helicoppter in Charters Towers, Photo: Adele Foster
Helicoppter in Charters Towers, Photo: Adele Foster

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.

Flying-fox Mum and Bub. Courtesy of Nick Edards.
Flying-fox Mum and Bub. Courtesy of Nick Edards.

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’

Injured flying-fox, Tolga Bat Hospital.
Injured flying-fox, Tolga Bat Hospital.

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’.

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?

environment

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)

 

On the Torture of Small Animals

Until yesterday it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder about the effects of water cannons and helicopters on small and vulnerable creatures. The Queensland town of Charters Towers is proposing to assault flying-foxes using these and other methods. The starting date is December 2, so time is of the essence. A petition is now circulating to prevent this assault. It  is addressed to the Charters Towers Regional Council: ‘Reconsider using water cannons, smoke, sirens and helicopters to disperse the black flying-fox colony in Lissner Park after requesting a Damage Mitigation Permit.’

The petition is organised by Barbara Brindley of Wynnum, Queensland. She writes: ‘All flying-fox camps are full of mothers and babies at this time of the year and whilst many babies are still being carried by their mothers, the majority are too big for mothers to fly with and will be left in the crèche trees at the mercy of the water cannons. Water cannons break bones and helicopters create down drafts that smash bodies and wings.’ Most of us recoil at the thought of all the suffering involved in such actions, and it is important to know that many people in Charters Towers also recoil – at the very least from the prospect of carrying out the assault while the young are still unable to fend for themselves.

Grey-headed flying-fox mother with baby. Courtesy of Nick Edards
Grey-headed flying-fox mother with baby.
Courtesy of Nick Edards

As I wrote in my post on ‘Zombie Politics’ (29-8-13), ‘ persecution, vilification and harm are part of today’s public discourse and public policy’. Recent legislative changes are promoting opportunities to inflict suffering on flying-foxes. Queensland has reinstated shooting, and has had to exempt flying-foxes from the Animal Care and Protection Act in order to do so. The state is also proposing to give local councils greater freedom to assault flying-foxes without ethics oversight.

It could be argued that Charters Towers is just carrying on a well-established Australian tradition. For over a century Whitefella settlers tried their hardest to exterminate flying foxes. With government approval, they shot, poisoned, gassed, burnt, and electrocuted flying foxes. They cut down their maternity camps, created a great variety of forms of harassment to drive them away, paid a bounty for the corpses, and bombed them. They even brought an expert from Great Britain to advise on how to accomplish the extermination.

Times change, and flying-foxes are now protected as native species. There are four species in mainland Australia. Two are officially listed as threatened, one seems to be doing okay, and the data are insufficient to make a definitive assessment of the fourth. Flying-foxes by preference are nomadic. They love to live in large groups, and they follow the blossoming and fruiting of their favourite trees and shrubs. Or, that is what they did prior to the extermination of some 95% of Australia’s east coast indigenous forests. Now they live as best they can on what remains, and they feed on crops when they can get at them. In addition, they move to cities and towns where food and water are likely to be more consistently available than in the devastated bush. And it is exactly in these urban areas that they are likely to be regarded as a nuisance to human health and safety, and thus to be targeted for ‘dispersal’. But of course it is also in these areas where people have the opportunity to learn to appreciate the wonder of flying-foxes.

Fly-out in Sydney. Courtesy of Tim Pearson
Fly-out in Sydney.
Courtesy of Tim Pearson

I could go on to write about how flying-foxes are keystone species that pollinate what is left of the Myrtaceous woodlands with which they are co-evolved. This would be a story of how their lives matter to other species. I could write in detail about their vulnerability to extinction, about the fact that each mother gives birth only to one baby per year, so that with their relatively short life-spans, flying-fox populations are inherently vulnerable. This would be the story of inter-generational nurturance and continuity. And I could write about the long struggle in the western world to enact anti-cruelty legislation: a story of the recognition that it is not good for humans to deliberately cause suffering in other creatures. These points are all relevant, but there is more.

It may seem that philosophy and water cannons are far apart, but as we live our lives we take stands that reflect our philosophies of life and death. Underlying much of the hype against flying foxes is an old, demonstrably untrue, but almost magical mantra that says that humans are entitled to an unencumbered place in the sun. An ugly self-righteous human is displayed in a lot of this discourse as it revolves around the proposition that anything that impinges on humans and their projects, on their comfort, and indeed on their desire to take up all the space under the sun, will have to be eliminated.

This question of who can be tolerated and who will have to be eliminated goes to the heart of ethics in the contemporary world. As Hannah Arendt explains, the great crime of genocide lies in large part in the underlying decision to refuse to share the earth with specific other humans. In this time of man-made mass extinctions, the refusal to share the earth with other species is becoming visible as an ethically and ecologically disastrous failure on the part of humanity.

The Charters Towers assault is an opportunity to take a stand for a world in which our fellow creatures are not made the subject of vilification and hatred, and are not tortured and brutally killed. Such a stand calls for the exercise of human intelligence and good will in developing arts of co-existence.

There are good instrumental reasons for protecting the lives of flying foxes: because the forests need them; because we don’t know all there is to know, and therefore do not know and cannot know what we would be destroying if we were to destroy them. But side by side with all the reasonable and instrumental reasons for sustaining the lives of flying foxes, there are these other issues: we can and should protect them because they too belong here, because they are beautiful, because life is richer with them than it could ever be without them, because we humans have the capacity to love other animals and in these days of habitat loss and numerous other threats, flying foxes need our love. And indeed, we could protect them because in killing them we are in danger of losing ourselves. We need to be able to love others, to protect them, to live with them, and to experience the awe of their ways of life. How we manage to share our place in the sun defines not just where we are, but who we are.

Wounded flying-fox in care at the Tolga Bat Hospital.
Wounded flying-fox in care at the Tolga Bat Hospital.

In the midst of this impending torment, suffering, vilification, and human shamefulness, I want also to remember the joy of life. An earlier post on ‘Flying-foxes in Outback Australia’ (24-8-13) told the story of my trip to see a truly fantastic flying-fox fly-out. Hundreds of thousands of them were camped in the mangroves near the Aboriginal community of Port Keats in the Northern Territory, and when they lifted off at dusk it was incomparable spectacle. My home-video is now available, and even though it shows only a fraction of the fly-out, it gives a sense of this awesome event.

nick 2

What can a person do today for flying-foxes?

~~~       The petition is on-line: sign and circulate to everyone you know; add a comment.

~~~      Check out the people who are active in defence of flying-foxes; consider making a donation or adopting (financially) a flying-fox in care:

-~~~       The Tolga Bat Hospital, Atherton, Queensland

-~~~       Bat Conservation and Rescue, Queensland, Inc.

~~~        Spread the word: the stands we take really do matter.

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

Zombie Politics and the Lives of Animals

Spectacled flying fox, Tolga Bat Hospital
Spectacled flying fox, Tolga Bat Hospital

Virtues are easily lost, the cynics tell us, but vices linger remorselessly. Indeed, vice-like habits can take on a life of their own and play significant social roles. Recent events have turned my thoughts toward habits of hatred, fear-mongering and persecution that are entrenched within the harsh histories of western nations. Persecution, vilification and harm are part of today’s public discourse and public policy. They have a long history, and are foundational to what the historian R. I. Moore calls a ‘persecuting society’.

Moore developed this term through his research into Medieval European history. He concluded that around the year 1100 western Europe ‘became a persecuting society, and … has remained one.’ He was very clear: it was not just that persecutions happened, it was that they were deliberate and central to society. In Medieval times it was lepers and heretics who were persecuted; later it was witches and freemasons; throughout it all there were eruptions of persecution of Jews, and from time to time ‘sodomites’ were targeted. Persecution was based on stirring up hatred and fear, and was achieved ‘through established governmental, judicial and social institutions’.

Some scholars have objected to Moore’s idea on the grounds that surely all societies persecute those they deem to be outsiders. That may or may not be true, but Moore’s idea was that in western Europe persecution became part of the actual fabric of society. European societies became modern states through deliberate use of persecution. Their culture of persecution was flexible and transportable, and in general they took these zombie politics with them to their colonies.

The fact that there is political mileage to be gained from stirring up hatred is a stand-out feature of contemporary Australian politics. Terrible questions arise. Are we so in thrall to our vice of persecution that we cannot imagine a society that is not held together through vilification and exclusion? Are our politics so impoverished that the best way to mobilise large numbers of votes is through fear and its companion persecution?

When we think about society, politics, and the rhetoric of inclusion/exclusion, it seems obvious that we are talking about human beings. So it may come as a surprise to realise that the analysis works equally well in relation to the persecution of animals.

Flying-foxes are having a hard time of it in many urban, suburban and rural areas at the moment. In the language of those who want to get rid of them, they are ‘pests’. A pest, it turns out, is a creature who may be vilified, persecuted and killed without compunction, perhaps even with a sense of righteousness. According to educational materials provided on the feral.org website: ‘The word “pest” is used to describe an animal that causes serious damage to a valued resource. Such a pest may be destructive, a nuisance, noisy or simply not wanted.’ Pests are creatures you can feel good about getting rid of, although of course not everyone does feel good. Not surprisingly, pests make good political capital when the objective is fear-mongering and persecution.

Let us be clear: the vast majority of people who live in proximity to flying-foxes are managing co-existence just fine. There are good ways to get along with our fellow creatures, and it is totally possible to enjoy the fact that we in Australia live amongst some of the most unusual and beautiful animals on earth. As the journalist James Woodford wrote of flying-foxes (also known as giant fruit bats): ‘watching bats silhouetted against the stars is one of the greatest, but little known, pleasures of life’.

And yet, in Queensland at the moment, the government is preparing to unleash a new round of violence against flying-foxes under legislation that will come into force in 2013. The legislation is outlined in a discussion paper titled ‘A new approach to managing flying-fox roosts’. The plan is not exactly ‘new’ since it reinstates largely uncontrolled opportunities for violence that were the norm decades ago. Local councils will be authorised to undertake ‘dispersals’ where, when and how they choose, and for whatever reasons they choose. This differs from current practice. At the moment local councils or other groups must apply for permission, and the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection has oversight of the process. The new plan includes a code of practice that is meant to ‘minimise’ suffering and death, and adherence to that minimal code will be self-assessed. Even this is not enough for the most vociferous purveyors of hatred. Bob Katter, leader of Katter’s Australian Party, has repeatedly expressed the view that individuals have the right to shoot anything that enters their backyard, including flying-foxes. At the very least, Katter proclaims: ‘It is the policy of the Australian Party that they will be removed from all population centres – full stop’.

A submission by a group of twelve of Queensland-based NGO’s dedicated to wildlife conservation points out that while there are indeed ‘genuine problems with urban camps’, these problems ‘are outweighed by perceived, imagined or concocted problems, often promoted by irresponsible fear-mongering….’ They go on to assert the basic truth that ‘concoctions or imaginings are not a proper basis for good public policy’. The submission is well worth reading, as it addresses the points that are central to the hatred campaign.

The corrosive effects of all this hatred, and the thought of all the suffering that flying-foxes will be subjected to once this legislation takes effect, were weighing me down, and as I thought of toxic zombies I began thinking about antidotes. That was when I remembered Jenny McLean’s back yard. The Tolga Bat Hospital is located in the north Queensland heartland of anti-flying-fox politics. In need of sustenance for my spirit, I went for a visit.

Jenny Maclean, a dedicated carer and advocate, founded the Tolga Bat Hospital and visitor centre. Her back yard includes a large enclosure where individuals of all four Australian Pteropus species live. They have arrived through misfortune, and are not able to be released back into the bush, but their injuries do not detract from the quality of life. So there are flying-foxes who have been rescued from barbed wire, but whose broken bones mean they will never fly again. Some have come in with electrical burns, others were injured in cyclone Larry. Still others have been rescued from cages where they were living lives of misery, and a few have been rescued from dogs and cats.

The Hospital was actually founded in response to a recurring disastrous local situation. The main species of flying fox in this region is the endangered spectacled flying-fox (Pteropus conspicillatus). They are pollinators and seed dispersers for the world heritage rainforest located in this region, as well as for other ecological communities. In this part of the Atherton Tablelands, they forage on the berries of Solanum mauritianum (a weed from South America) in October, November and December of each year. Their foraging brings them close to the ground and they are then prey to paralysis ticks. They have not developed resistance to the ticks, and so they become paralysed. Jenny and her team of dedicated volunteers walk the forest floor looking and listening for flying foxes in distress, rescuing them, and bringing them back to the Bat Hospital. Some can be saved, many cannot, and many babies are orphaned. The purpose of care is to sustain those with a chance of survival, and return them to their forest homes as soon as they are ready for release. At times up to two hundred orphaned babies are being fed every four hours by the team of volunteers. Most of them will be released back into the bush.

Not so long ago, release meant a return to a life of relative safety. Queensland had shown its progressive side and had banned the shooting of flying-foxes because it is inhumane. Dispersals were subject to external oversight and were meant to be accomplished without long-term impacts on the species or specific cruelty to individuals. This meant that there would be no dispersals while the females were in the later stages of pregnancy and no dispersals while the young were dependent on their mothers. But this situation has changed. Queensland has reinstated shooting, and has had to exempt flying-foxes from the Animal Care and Protection Act in order to do so. The ‘new’ plan for dispersals looks set to amplify the suffering. Increasingly, flying-fox rescue and release may mean saving vulnerable creatures from one fate only to return them to an extremely chancy life as long as they are anywhere near humans.

In spite of these uncertainties, the Hospital is a wonderful antidote. Jenny puts food out for the resident flying-foxes every afternoon, planning for them to come down to eat around the time that the Hospital is open for visitors. Tourists arrive daily, and their faces light up with joy and amazement as they come into close but safe proximity with flying-foxes. Fear and hatred not only evaporate but suddenly seem incomprehensible.

It is a great gift to be able to look a wild animal in the eye and see the glow of intelligence. Sometimes one encounters a reciprocating glow of interest. It is a privilege to be close to members of endangered species, and to know that outside the enclosure the full and rich life of flying-foxes continues. And so it shall continue, unless humans decide to get rid of them. Such decisions are political. They take no notice of ecological relationships, and nor do they concern themselves with cruelty and abuse. They are driven by the zombies of hatred and persecution, and they aim to win elections. They do no credit to anyone.

 

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

 

References:
Moore, R. I. (2007). The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250 (Second ed.). Malden: Blackwell.
Woodford, J. 2003. “The Swingers,” in Sydney Morning Herald. Sydney.

For a short video about Jenny McLean and the Tolga Bat Hospital see:
http://vimeo.com/31001848

On pests see:
van Dooren, T, 2011, ‘Invasive Species in Penguin Worlds: An Ethical Taxonomy of Killing for Conservation’, Conservation and Society, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 286 – 298, http://dx.doi.org/10.4103/0972-4923.92140