Tag Archives: Zombie politics

Flying-foxes and the G20

While we were listening to news of the G20 gathering in Brisbane and wondering how our government would respond to the major climate change initiative that the US and China have agreed to, the weather was doing its own thing.

Just a three hour drive south from downtown Brisbane, the town of Casino in northern New South Wales was experiencing a massive heatwave with temperatures up to and above 44C (111F). At those temperatures, flying-foxes start to die of heat stress. Grey-headed flying-foxes, already declared a threatened species and struggling against a barrage of perils, were dying again.

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

From the climate point of view, the timing was odd: mid-November (late spring), and already a heat wave of this magnitude. What does the summer have in store for us all? From the flying-fox point of view, the timing was disastrous. Their birthing time is October-November. The babies were still wholly dependent on their mothers’ milk, and indeed many were still dependent on their mother all the time, even when she flew out at night for food.

Mothers and babies were most vulnerable to heat stress.

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

The connection between heat and death is this:  when temperatures reach 43°C (109°F) these lovely flying mammals ‘start to melt from the inside out’, as one scientist vividly described it. In the words of another scientist: in extreme heat ‘flying-foxes first start fanning their wings, then they seek shade. Next they pant heavily and spread saliva on their bodies. Finally they fall out of trees, or climb down, and crawl on the ground looking for a cooler spot. At that stage they are close to death.’

The ground beneath a flying-fox camp becomes covered with flying-foxes most of whom, but not all, are dead. Mothers who die may yet have a living baby still clinging to the breast.

In the midst of all this heat and death, carers offer their dedicated labour. Systematically they sort through piles of dead flying-foxes to find any still alive. They euthanize those who can’t be saved, and they work round the clock to save those who can be rehydrated, allowed to recuperate, and released back into the bush. It is estimated that some 3000 individuals will die.

Given the time of year, there were many young orphans. Now they are now being fostered by flying-fox carers as far afield as Sydney.

 

Flying-fox pup, Paislie Hadley (CC)
Flying-fox pup, Paislie Hadley (CC)

All of this heat and mass death was taking place around the time that climate change was being discussed at the G20 gathering in Brisbane. US President Obama spoke movingly of Australia’s vulnerability to climate change. According to one report: “The science is in, he said, and Australia and the Pacific especially need to pay attention….”

“Extreme weather events, heatwaves, fires and the need to protect our beautiful Barrier Reef for generations to come make action imperative.”

By way of response, Australia’s Prime Minister Abbot rejected everything that was put to him both by President Obama and by the international community more widely. According to the Courier Mail: “Tony Abbott has rebuffed Barack Obama’s demand for increased action on climate change and openly clashed with the US President in a fiery end to Brisbane’s G20 leaders’ summit.”

“The Prime Minister muscled up to Mr Obama behind closed doors yesterday, declaring there could be no effective action on climate change without a strong economy and strongly endorsing fossil fuels.”

“He did not address calls to pay into a global Green Climate Fund backed by the US. He also refused to commit to new emissions reduction targets in the first quarter of next year, despite being urged to do so in the final G20 communique agreed by all leaders.”

Mr Abbot was in full frontal display as a master of zombie politics. The basic elements of zombie politics are fear, cruelty toward those who are vulnerable, and the vigorous defence of an ‘us-them’ boundary dedicated to the interests of the most powerful. Both at home and in the international sphere, zombie politics assert that dialogue is not really possible; all that matters is protecting one’s ’own’ against the others. The government’s ‘us-them’ commitments were clearly shown to be sick to the core: ‘us’ was implicitly defined as extractive industries, with fossil fuels at the centre. ‘Them’ included anyone who sought dialogue toward significantly reduced carbon emissions.

Back in northern New South Wales, rescue and clean-up continue. I am thinking about the two events – mass death and zombie politics – in the same frame. Along with being sickened by a federal government that revels in not caring for anyone but the powerful, I am also struck by the quality of local leadership. While Mr Abbot was refusing to lead the country on matters that affect the lives and well-being of humans and nonhumans alike, people who were experiencing the flying-fox heat death event were showing genuine and committed concern in matters of life and death.

Little red flying-foxes at Casino, Paislie Hadley (CC)
Little red flying-foxes at Casino, Paislie Hadley (CC)

Let us acknowledge these humans who show compassion, fair-mindedness and concern:

All praise to the carers. Their names have not appeared in the articles I have read, but we knew they are there, that their work is exhausting and traumatising, and that they hold fast to their commitments in the midst of it all.

All praise to public officers who have to manage the dead bodies, and who have remained grave and thoughtful. Mr John Walker of the Richmond Valley Council described the heat death event as a tragedy: “Whatever anyone’s opinion is either side of the bat debate, no one wishes this sort of tragedy on the bats.”

All praise to local residents who are experiencing the difficulties of sharing their parks and backyards with flying-foxes and never the less are able to balance inconvenience with awe and appreciation. Mr Paul Mackay of Casino spoke in an interview about the flying-foxes in his backyard. He showed himself to be an exemplary leader in multispecies co-existence and conviviality in this time when we need ever more respect across species and amongst humans.

My daughter Chantal Jackson is a mandala artist. She made this flying-fox mandala that praises the blessings of life on earth as they come forth in the mutualism of flying-foxes and  flowering trees.

Flying-fox mandala (Chantal Jackson)
Flying-fox mandala ( Chantal Jackson)

And so, with love and respect, let us yet again mourn the suffering and deaths of our fellow creatures in this time of escalating catastrophe. And let us honour the flying-fox survivors by doing all we can to assist them in their perilous lives.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources:

For information on Mr Walker’s statements, see: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-11-17/dead-bats/5896002

For the video of interview with Mr Mackay see: http://www.northernstar.com.au/news/heatwave-kills-bat-colony/2456008/

I have written about flying-foxes, mutualism, heat stress deaths, and the glories of fly-outs in several previous essays, see for example: Lethal Heat and Flying-foxes in Outback Australia.

 

 

Thinking About Nature With Bonhoeffer

I read something today that reminded me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s great words of wisdom. Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who refused to support the Nazi regime. As a Christian he could not, and as a theologian he could not. The depth and sincerity of his commitment to ‘love thy neighbour’ made it impossible for him to join the persecutors. His refusal put him at odds with the majority of German Christians who implicitly or explicitly acquiesced with the regime. His refusal went further, to acts of resistance including attempts to assassinate Hitler.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, St Johannes Basilikum, Sludge G (CC)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, St Johannes Basilikum, Sludge G (CC)

At a time when his colleague Niemöller had been imprisoned for eight years in concentration camps as the personal prisoner of Adolf Hitler, Bonhoeffer wrote these wonderful words:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionist, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Jew.
And then they came for me –
and there was no one left to speak for me.”

In the end, Bonhoeffer too was arrested and imprisoned. Even as the Nazi regime crumbled, one of Hitler’s last acts was to require some of his loyal henchmen to ensure that Bonhoeffer be executed. And so he was hanged, just two weeks before the liberating army arrived, and three weeks before Hitler committed suicide.

Although I am not a Christian, I am inspired by the perennial question ‘who is my neighbour’. Bonhoeffer is telling us that the neighbour is not only the one who is in some way like me. The neighbour is the stranger, the ‘other’, the ones whose lives disrupt my comfortable self-enclosure. The connection I was seeing today concerns the natural world, and so I am bringing social justice and ecological justice together in thinking with Bonhoeffer.

The division between social and natural is completely arbitrary and has its roots in the idea that humans are separate from and in some ways at odds with nature. This separation is false in the way it separates humans from all the others, and it is equally false in the way it lumps all humans together.

These days many of our biggest struggles are between two main human types: those who understand themselves as part of nature and want to see both humans and nature flourish vs. those who either despise nature or see themselves as its masters and conquerors. For this latter group nature seems to be only a collection of ‘things’ that matter to the extent that they can be made profitable.

For those of us who understand ourselves to be part of nature, our neighbours are not only human, but are all those fellow participants in living systems: forests, reefs, dingoes, Tassie devils, flying-foxes and the myriad other earth creatures.

Tasmanian Devil, Jamie Muchall (CC)
Tasmanian Devil, Jamie Muchall (CC)

Bonhoeffer was not saying that we should defend others because it is in our self-interest. Rather, he is saying that we are all part of this world of life. Turn our back on any of the others and we turn our back on anyone’s claim to be part of the world of life. As a theologian he was almost certainly saying that to turn away from others is to turn away from God.

We who love the nonhuman world and want to see earth life thrive are often, I know, beset with the question: how does one keep going when the odds seem so stacked against us and all that we love? Where is hope to be found, and when it seems hopeless, what sources of inspiration keep us going?

I was inspired by an article from the  Wilderness Society concerning the Tasmanian Forests. The Tasmanian Legislature has been debating whether or not to throw out the Tasmanian Forest Agreement. This agreement brought forest activists, the timber industry, the unions, and other key groups together to work out a path that would be good for the forests and good for people. This long work of reconciliation took decades, and it set in place a legal agreement that was recognised by all the parties.

Tasmanian forest, Tatters (CC)
Tasmanian forest, Tatters (CC)

Now it is on the line. The report from  the Wilderness Society expresses the matter perfectly:

“With questions and opposition from the independent upper house and key stakeholders – including environment groups – flying thick and fast, and the novice Government amending its own legislation on the fly, the bill may yet fail or be heavily changed in the coming days.

What is clear, however, is that if the bill passes, the Tasmanian Government is lining itself up for years of pain. The Tasmanian community will hold the Government responsible for damaging the environment, hurting Tasmania’s reputation, and taking an axe to a forestry industry slowly recovering as a result of unprecedented collaboration between former adversaries….

The Tasmanian Forest Agreement has already delivered a securely-protected World Heritage area, kept the chainsaws away from half a million hectares of forest, and shown that a strong commitment to working with past adversaries can deliver for nature.

Regardless of the outcomes of the impending vote, the Wilderness Society is committed to working with the community to see Tasmania’s old growth forests and wild places protected – forever.”

Commitment as Bonhoeffer advocated recognises that ultimately we are all connected, and ultimately we must defend the world around us, even when it may seem hopeless. Over the last few years I have met many people who rescue and care for wildlife and who are activists on behalf of nonhumans. I am constantly awed by the way they keep on working with love and dedication even when the opposition is brutal and relentless.

I keep asking myself questions that resonate with Bonhoeffer and that I know trouble concerned people everywhere. This is the ‘where was I?’ question.

They came for the reef, and where was I?
They came for the flying-foxes, and where was I?
They came for the dingoes, and where was I?
They came for the forests, and where was I?

We can’t all be everywhere at once, and as we see so much that we love being trashed, it seems particularly vital to remember that we are part of a multispecies community of care. Within this widely inclusive community, it is good to remember that we humans too are creatures to be treasured. The nonhuman world needs defenders. The defenders need support from others. Who will be there?

Today it was great to read that the Tasmanian government has postponed debate on the bill to destroy the forest agreement. I love their slogan:

‘Governments come and go but my love for nature only grows’.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

Resources: There is a wonderful biography of Bonhoeffer, written by Eric Metaxas, titled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (2010)

The full text of the Wilderness Society article is available online (view here).

The more recent announcement with the great slogan is also available (view here)

In an earlier essay and accompanying video I address the Prime Minister’s efforts to remove some of the Tasmanian forests from their World Heritage Listing (view here).

 

So Many Faces

I am reading Tim Low’s terrific new book Where Song Began. Tim Low is a renowned science writer, and in this new study he tells fascinating stories about Australia’s birds.

Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor
Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor

The birdsong of the world originated here in Australia.

It is wonderful to see the evidence piling up. For decades, though, this conclusion was resisted by many biologists who simply could not open their minds to the idea that something as significant on earth as birdsong could have evolved in a place so far from what many them liked to think of as the centre of earth-life, i.e., the northern hemisphere. And yet, DNA evidence is now showing beyond any doubt that Australia was the original home of songbirds. In Tim’s words, birdsong brought ‘a new dawn for planetary acoustics’.

Tim Low is a biologist with a strong interest in connectivity. The story of Australian birds is told in the context of soils, sunshine, trees, seeds, sugars and nesting areas. In the case of parrots, for example, primary breeding sites are tree hollows. Eucalyptus hollows can take hundreds of years to form. In one of the great understatements of the year, Low notes that ‘the demise of large trees in farmland raises concerns about future parrot success’.

Young grey-headed flying-fox in care
Land Clearing, Queensland

I visited Tim last week, and as I was driving through his neck of the woods there was a lot going on both in the country around me and in news from elsewhere. It was adding up to a pretty awful moment in the ecological life of this amazing continent that had the exuberance to bring forth birdsong.

I saw a lot of evidence for the ‘demise of large trees’, and I am moved to express myself in more vigorous language: I saw trees being killed and paddocks massacred. I know from my study of land clearing issues that a lot of dying was happening here in addition to the highly visible trees.

According to a Bush Heritage publication on Land Clearing and its Impacts, Australia is still clearing way too many trees, and the effects are not only on the trees themselves but on all the other creatures who live in and amongst trees, including those who inhabit the understory. This report does not pull its punches:

“Over 5 million parrots, honeyeaters, robins and other land birds are killed each year by land clearing. For every 100 hectares of bush destroyed, between 1,000 and 2,000 birds die from exposure, starvation and stress. Half of Australia’s terrestrial bird species may become extinct this century unless habitat destruction is rapidly controlled.

Nearly half our mammal species, including some wombats, wallabies and bandicoots, are either extinct or threatened with extinction as a result of land clearing, habitat destruction and other threats.”

Another point made in this report concerns that great ecological dictum: ‘what goes around comes around.’ Bush Heritage warns that land clearing increases the potential for salinity, adversely affecting both soils and water, and thus generating negative impacts for farms, towns and cities.

One side of the story is the lack of political will, another side is human intransigence. As it happened, I was driving past recently cleared paddocks whilst listening to reports on the radio about the funeral of Glen Turner. Mr Turner was an environment inspector in the state of New South Wales, a government employee whose responsibilities included monitoring land clearing. He was shot and killed, and a local farmer Ian Robert Turnbull has been arrested. The news reports state that Mr Turnbull had a history of conflict over land clearing. Previously he had been in court over the matter of ‘clearing’ some 3000 trees. We will learn more about it in due course. In the meantime, Mr Glen Turner, a local man who was said to have loved farming life and the rural community, is gone forever.

One of the many reasons we take death seriously is that individual death, like species extinction, doesn’t offer return tickets.

There is so much evidence about the value of trees on properties that one is left wondering why people become so intransigent. It strikes me that some people get smart when they have to figure out how to make a living that will be legal, sustainable, and ecologically inclusive.  Others, it seems, just get mean.

The human capacity for meanness was on display in Brisbane during this same week in another case that also involved clearing. According to a report ‘Bat Battle on the Bayside’, some people whose homes are adjacent to a park where the land is zoned ‘environmental reserve’ are annoyed. Apparently the fact that the environmental reserve was actually fulfilling its function as a haven for both humans and nonhumans was not appreciated. It is not clear that all residents felt equally angry about having to live in proximity to flying-foxes from time to time; what was clear was that the on-going actions of the strident residents led to a response that was euphemistically called ‘trimming vegetation under storey’.

Trees, understory, and flying-foxes, Redlands City
Trees, understory, and flying-foxes, Redlands City

The ‘trimming’ took place at night because it was anticipated that the flying-foxes would be out foraging, and thus would not be directly disturbed by the machinery and activity. The method involved a machine that bites into the understory, chomps it up, and mulches it on the spot. Plants, animals and fungi go in one end, mulch comes out the other, and everything that was alive – birds, eggs, skinks, snakes … whatever was sessile or not quick enough, was ground up and spat out.

The point in relation to flying-foxes was that they do not like camping in areas where there is no undergrowth. All the deaths in the understory would, it seems, be validated because the changes would encourage the flying-foxes to move a few meters further away from human homes.

Many grey-headed flying-foxes were camping in this area (Pteropus poliocephalus). This species is listed as vulnerable to extinction and protected under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999). This is one of the mammal species the Bush Heritage Report was discussing in relation to vulnerability and land clearing. In addition to species vulnerability, many individuals are pregnant females, and are now or will soon enter the critical third trimester. Both they and the next generation are at risk in actions that cause shock and stress.

Young grey-headed flying-fox in care
Young grey-headed flying-fox in care

The most strident resident (at least in the news) was Annette Brown. She called the flying-foxes ‘noisy and smelly’, and said she ‘wants them gone’. Ms Brown’s televised statements encapsulate to perfection the lack of thought around these issues.

1) living in a home near land zoned for environmental reserve and deciding that nature will have to go

2) remaining indifferent to the direct and indirect suffering that has been and will continue to be caused by the ‘trimming of understory’

3) failing to connect the dots: flying-foxes lose their bush habitats through land clearing, then they are shoved from one spot to another in urban areas.

The pressure comes from everywhere, and if there is a grievance it would  more fairly be directed against other humans.

I went to visit the site on the morning after the first night of ‘trimming’. When I got there the sky was thick with flying-foxes flapping about in agitated consternation. This was in broad daylight, a most unusual event for these nocturnal creatures. I hear that some of the residents may be out there during the day harassing the flying-foxes in order further to force them away.

Mr Bill Lyon, Redlands City Council CEO, spoke of the action as a limited effort to make more space between human homes and flying-foxes. He was well aware that dispersal would just shift ‘the problem’ somewhere else, and he seemed to be hoping not to do that. Ms Brown had no such concerns. In her words: ‘I don’t care where they go. I just want them gone.’

In the same news report, Denise Wade (Bat Conservation and Rescue, Queensland), made the point that loss of habitat is pushing flying-foxes closer to humans. In her words: ‘It’s about planting alternative habitat and preserving the habitat that we have left. I see a very bleak future for bats.’

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

I have been interviewing many talented and committed rescue and care volunteers, and this perception of a bleak future is widespread. Every little bit hurts, and of course much of what hurts is by no means small, as we know from the actions in numerous Queensland towns and cities in recent years (discussed here).

Over the course of those few days in Queensland I was gaining the sense of a desperately disturbing deep-time trajectory. The steps go like this: this is the continent that brought forth birdsong and enriched the whole earth; this is the continent that was inhabited by Aboriginal people for millennia under a cultural regime we now know as ‘caring for country’; this is the country that now has the highest rate of mammalian extinction in the contemporary world.

When Tim told me that another animal appears to have gone extinct I can’t say I was shocked. The only surprise was that it was a lizard. The Christmas Island Forest Skink suffered a quick and severe decline. At one point they were prevalent, then suddenly their numbers were down, and earlier this year the last known individual died. The authors of the report find that ‘In most cases, extinction can be seen as a tangible demonstration of failure in policy and management, of inattention or missed opportunities.’

If I were writing up a report card, the result would be terrible. But the failure goes way beyond reporting and assessing. There is widespread, systemic failure to consider and protect individuals, species, ecosystems, habitats, and ecological connectivities, along with the failure to cherish beauty, to prevent harm, and to show consideration for the lives of others.

This deep and exhaustive failure offers on-going evidence of a terrible wound in the biocultural fabric of Australia.

I suspect that none of us knows how, or whether, it can be healed. Our capacity for ethical action is bleeding out all over the place. The great continental philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote of the ‘face’ as that which interrupts my self-absorption and calls me into ethical responsibility. There has been a lot of discussion in recent years as to whether the face means ‘a human face’. What about other animals? What about trees? What about understory? The definition of face that I find most inspiring treats it as a form of action. Here face is something one does rather than something one has:  ‘facing is being confronted with, turned toward, facing up to, being judged and being called’.

The living world is filled with facings – to be alive is to live among faces, many of which are noisy and interruptive. This is good. This is life in the mode of ethics. At this time, this is also tough. There are so many facings, and often one feels so helpless.

Australian magpie, David Jenkins (CC)
Australian magpie, David Jenkins (CC)

And yet, the exuberance of living creatures continues to be inspiring. It is still possible to step outside and listen to birds. For the moment, now, I am taking myself off to the garden. It is true that these songbirds are not all equally musical to my ear, but they sure are smart and lively, and many of them sing beautifully. They have been here for a very long time, and I hope they and many of the others will continue long beyond this current regime of terror.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources: Where Song Began: Australia’s birds and how they changed the world, by Tim Low published by Viking/Penguin, 2014.

In a couple of my previous essays I have had a few words to say about ‘creature languages’ and ‘songsters’.

Bush Heritage Report on Land Clearing and its Impacts (view here).

‘Trimming vegetation understory’ (view here)

Bat Battle television story (view here)

‘Vale ‘Gump’, the last known Christmas Island Forest Skink’ (view here)

A number of terrific essays on Levinas and nature can be found in the book Facing  Nature, edited by William Edelglass, James Hatley, and Christian Diehm.

The quote is from Susan Handelman’s book Fragments of Redemption. (Indiana Uni Press, 1991)

Dingo Prayers

I have been packing my bags again, this time for a trip to the Northern Territory. Travelling with the ‘legendary bushman’ Darrell Lewis, the plan is to visit family, friends and flying-foxes in the Victoria River District. With the first National Day of Action for Dingoes (NDAD) on September 21 very much on my mind, I was also longing to see and hear a few dingos.

Dingo in Queensland,by John Murray
Dingo in Queensland,by John Murray

My hopes were not too high. Last year in the Victoria River District many of the stations had been putting out the 1080, and in 2012 the NT Parks and Wildlife Commission had spread the poison around in the Judbarra-Gregory National Park.

As it turned out, I did not hear a single dingo. The only live one I saw was a forlorn and confused young creature who seemed, to my eyes, to personify the life of the lost in the aftermath of grievous trauma. Thoughts of the young fellow continue to trouble me, and there was more to come.

Out on the Victoria Highway, the main road between the Territory and the Kimberley, we encountered the dead and desecrated body of a handsome golden dingo.

Perhaps he had been deliberately run down on the road. It happens. But there was no ‘perhaps’ about the deliberation with which he had been taped up with packing tape on the roadside sign advising travellers to stop and refresh. He had become another trophy death in the war against dingoes.

There was also no doubt about the deliberation with which the sign had been shot at repeatedly, just as there was no way of knowing whether the shots had been put there before or after the dingo. The dents were very fresh.

We stopped the truck. I had picked some flowers earlier in the day, and I laid them on the ground beneath the dead body. There was a lot of blood, and the internal organs were bulging out from a belly wound. A long string of bloody saliva hung from his mouth. The flies were there, but the scent of decay was still faint. We were witness to a very recent event.

It is true that death often brings a sense of peace, and there was in this desecrated body the aura of a finality that goes beyond trauma. The golden fur still glowed as if life could return, but of course the rest of the body told otherwise. Confronted with the actual dignity of death, the vile evidence of desecration, and one’s attempt to imagine the deranged and brutalised humans who had done this, my offering of flowers seemed utterly inadequate and yet still necessary.

I do not know how to stay in the presence of dingoes that are being killed for no good reason. Their lives are being wasted, there is endless heartbreak for dingoes and for humans, and it is all pointless and relentless. I do not know how to stay with it, and nor can I turn away.

To honour the memory of this dingo and all his kin, and as a reminder of why we need NDAD, I am reprinting part of an essay I wrote in 2005 called ‘Dingo Prayers’.

Dingo Photo: Arian Wallach
Dingo, Arian Wallach

“Often when I am in Dingo country, my thoughts stray to Old Tim Yilngayarri. His country was out in the savannah region of the Victoria River region, and he was the greatest Dingo boss I have known. He was the only person I’ve spoken with who not only told long complicated stories about Dingo Dreamings, but also spoke with dogs in daily life. As Old Tim told the stories, Dingoes made humans as humans; before that we were all one species.

They are today our closest relations on Earth, our ancestors, our contemporary kin, and the creatures who show us what it takes to be human. Tim was acutely aware of the injustices dogs and dingoes suffer at the hands of humans. In his stories the ancestral Dingoes give voice to their sense of lost reciprocity, and to current grievance: ‘”I been make them man and woman. Now you been drop me, put me in the rubbish dump'”. Old Tim called them by their kinship names: Mother and Father Dingo, and there have been times when I have too….

Across Australia there is a concerted war against dingoes.

In the Northern Territory they talk about dingo control, but in Queensland they aim for destruction. In spite of all the evidence to show that dingo baiting itself is creating the problems that it is supposed to be controlling, and in spite of evidence for the significant role dingoes play in sustaining biodiversity, the killing goes on. Discursively the war against dingoes has shifted to a war against ‘wild dogs’, as if it were more legitimate to kill dogs than to kill dingoes.

Queensland has taken the most vigorous approach to eradication. With its carefully maintained 2,500 kilometres of Dingo Barrier fence (now Wild Dog barrier fence), and its restrictions against travel along the fence, the commitment is clear. In the western regions of the state the fence runs along state borders and there are large gates that allow motorists through. You stop and get out of the truck to open the gate, and then you carefully close it behind you, and when you do that you can’t help but think of death. At each gate there are signs that read:

THIS GATE SHOULD BE CLOSED
AT ALL TIMES
IF FOUND OPEN PLEASE CLOSE
Wild Dog Destruction Board

For years I have been photographing Dingo fences, Dingo gates and 1080 signs in order to document for my own conscience the war against dingoes. Some of the Dingo fences had dead dingoes strung up near the gates or ramps, and I have photos of them too. For years, too, I have been removing the poor shattered bodies of dead dingoes from the road, tucking flowers under their bruised corpses, and saying a small farewell to them in apology for the disasters that run them down.

On a recent trip through Queensland I stopped to photograph a hand-lettered sign, white on green background, announcing that this is a Dingo Barrier Fence. Bureaucracy hadn’t gotten here yet, either to erect a formally printed sign or to change the words from Dingo to Wild Dog. On the ground in front of this homely little sign two flat rocks were set up, one on top of the other. Their placement was so casual and so unexpected that it could have meant anything.

The stones may be something or nothing, purposefully placed or just a whim. I took hold of that ambiguity and interpreted them as a prayer, and when I left, I put a round stone on top of the two flat ones. Since that day I’ve made other trips and started other prayers around sites that proclaim the war against dingoes. At Hawker Gate, Fortville Gate, Warri Gate and others, I have gathered stones and made unobtrusive little cairns. Wherever possible I add stone flakes, reminding whoever may take notice that the war against indigenous folk has been widely as well as brutally focussed.

For me, the stones are an intention, an apology, a counter-action, a visible prayer for a world in which all this killing can be stopped. I think of Old Tim and his dogs, his stories and his love: that Dingoes are our relations, our kin and co-creatures. The stones mark gratitude for him and his teaching.

Mother and Father Dingo, I say as I place yet another stone, precise words don’t exist for the heartbreak that this death work is piling up between us. Let me offer stones along with words, and pray for our fellow creatures in their torment. I mean to inscribe a human conscience that is shaped into action by Dingoes and by the people who hold and tell the stories. A human conscience that stands within, and affirms its opposition to, a world of wilful and deathful bloodshed.

But perhaps I am trying to put too many words on it.

The poet Rumi tells us ‘There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground’.

Think of it! A thousand ways –
One way, surely, is to make dingo prayers.”

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

Resources: The original version of ‘Dingo Prayers’ was published in 2005 in Island, 103, pp. 6-10.

Information on the role of dingoes in biodiversity, and the havoc wreaked by 1080 is available in several of my earlier essays (view here), and on the excellent webpage developed by award-wining scientist Arian Wallach. A recent radio program in the Freedom of Species series (listen here) addresses matters concerning 1080.

I discuss the desecration of dingo bodies in my book Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction.

 

 

 

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)

Sharks in a Sea of Death

Tiger shark, Albert Kok, Creative Commons
Tiger shark,
Albert Kok, Creative Commons

Every year, between 5 and 15 people are killed by sharks world wide. For their part, human beings kill more than 100 million sharks, world wide, every year. Three quarters of these deaths are due to commodity killing, particularly ‘finning’. This is the cruel practice of cutting the fin off the shark and, often, throwing the shark back into the ocean to die a lingering death as it is unable to swim properly. One quarter of the deaths are ‘by-catch’, meaning that they are the collateral damage of other fishing practices.

This is the context in which the  Western Australian government is ‘culling’ sharks, in spite of protests in WA and around the world. Let’s be clear: this means killing. The method is to set out baited hooks and wait for sharks to come and get caught. They are then killed (if not already dead), and the bodies are towed out to sea. Only three species are meant to be killed: great white sharks, tiger sharks and bull sharks. Only animals over two meters in length are meant to be killed. The great white shark is protected by both state and federal legislation as an endangered species. Already the hooks are catching individuals that are smaller than can be killed. There appears to be no monitoring of the effects of this method on the individuals of these beleaguered species.

Once again I am reminded of the zombie politics that seeks to display power through killing. The discourse may be managerial (a problem to be solved), but the underlying logic is not. Zombie politics seek power through the demonisation and death of unwanted others. Such politics, which should have died out centuries ago, remain with us even today  in this time when the rapid degradation of the ecological webs of life would inspire any thoughtful person to develop a politics of care. And yet, this politics of death-making seems to be thriving. It suppresses ethics and compassion, and  refuses to engage in a reasoned understanding of ecosystems. This is the politics that is driving so much of the damage that is unmaking planet earth today.

Our standard discourse often inadvertently feeds into the politics of death-making. In an earlier post, I objected to the idea that ‘both sides’ of every story should be told. My point was that every story has more than two sides. In that post, I offered eleven sides to the story of the cruel persecution of flying-foxes in Charters Towers, Queensland. There’s no fixed number. The significant point is that good ecological thought involves exploring numerous sides to any story. I came up with 13 sides to the current shark kill, and I am sure other people will be able to add more.

In contrast to ecological thinking, the decision to kill sharks is based on a simple oppositional binary: which is more important, the lives of humans or the lives of sharks? Politicians are of course saying the lives of humans are more important.

Almost everyone else, though, is refusing to play the binary game. They are saying it doesn’t have to be ‘either-or’. There are many ways to achieve co-existence, they are saying, and killing gets in the way of better solutions. These are people who are able to think with sharks, to see the commonalities of our creaturely lives rather than sliding into vilification and killing.

Interesting as these human sides of the story are, the issue is even more fascinating when ecological thinking starts outside and away from the noisy human sphere. Stories of ecological functioning are usually win-win at the level of populations. That is, big fish eat smaller fish, and so on through the food web, so that when systems are functioning well, populations benefit from the interactions. Sharks are top predators (also called apex predators). The only creature that regularly preys on them is the human.

Steve Garner, Flickr Creative Commons
Shark, Steve Garner,
Flickr Creative Commons

Here are thirteen sides to the  culling frenzy:

1) The sharks themselves. Those who die did not choose to die. Some will have died painful deaths, caught on hooks, and unable to free themselves. Others who were not meant to be targeted will also suffer, and some will die.

2) The species. While a species can’t be said to have a ‘perspective’, it does have a history, and unless extinction takes over, it has a future. That great lineage is not ours to destroy.

3) Turtles, dugongs and seagrass. As top predators sharks exert pressure on the ways in which turtles and dugongs graze on the seagrass. That pressure is good for the health of all three kinds of beings, as well as for sharks.

4) Coral reefs. In order for coral to continue to grow, algae has to be kept in check. Small herbivorous fish do this. Sharks have a positive effect on small fish by keeping in check the mid-size fish that feed on the small ones.

5) Bivalves (scallops, oysters, clams). This story is known in detail because it is happening along the east coast of the USA at this moment. The large sharks of this region have been so reduced in number that they are functionally extinct. The waves of disaster that follow from this functional extinction tell the terrible story of extinction cascades. Loss of sharks meant that certain other marine animal populations increased enormously. One creature is the ‘cownose ray’ which migrates up and down the coast eating scallops, clams and oysters. The scallop population has collapsed, and the scallop fishing industry is suffering. The rays are now expected to turn to clams and oysters.

6) The ocean itself. Bivalves are the ‘filtration system’ for the ocean, according to the Oceana report. Their decline means that ‘already stressed coastal areas could experience additional uncontrolled algal blooms and dead zones…’

Turning now to humans:

7) Activists. Most of these people also swim, surf and dive. They are turning out by the thousands, with support from around the world, to say that co-existence is possible.

8) The Aboriginal people of the Perth area. The Noongar people, led by their Elders, are taking a leading role in opposing the killing. Their long-term co-existence with sharks has involved cultural relationships which remain private.

9) Scientists who are carrying out research into shark life and behaviour. ABC Radio’s Bush Telegraph program on the shark issue gave space to marine neuroecologist Ryan Kempster. He drew on evidence from shark control around the world, and said that the best approach is to capture and tag sharks, and take them further out to sea. In this way the ‘problem’ is taken away, and the sharks can be monitored. Both science and surfers benefit by knowing more about sharks and by identifying individuals.

10) People concerned with the legal implications of these exemptions. The same radio program brought in Green MP Lynn MacLaren; she expressed concern about the legalities of the process, and indicated that legal challenges might be forthcoming, perhaps from the Environmental Defender’s Office. The bottom line is that state and federal legislation, most significantly the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, has as its main aim the protection of endangered species. It isn’t a luxury to be dispensed with whenever politicians decide on a bout of death-work.

11) Surfers themselves who oppose the killing. A particularly articulate statement was put forward by Jack Serong. He writes: ‘On average, 87 people drown at Australian beaches every year. These are preventable deaths. On average one person will die by shark attack in the same period. And it probably won’t be preventable. His conclusion:  ‘For the cost of a national shark cull, for the environmental damage it would do, how many sharks could we tag? How many kids could we teach to swim? How many more beaches could we patrol? This is the delicate dance of numbers, so easily skewed by fear.’

12) WA surfers who may support the killing. Kevin Merriman spoke on the Bush Telegraph program. He acknowledged the fact that surfing is risky, and described surfers as people who are at one with mother nature. He thought that human lives should take precedence over shark lives, but after hearing about the possibility of capture, tagging and removal, he acknowledged that it seemed like a reasonable option.

13) The WA government, led by premier Colin Barnett. As far as can be determined, Mr Barnett is unwilling to consider alternatives to killing. He managed the exemptions from the WA legislation that is supposed to protect the great white whale, and he asked for, and received, federal exemption, granted by the Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt. The Minister, it may be noted, is making a name for himself as the honcho with the most destructive approach to the environment that Australia has ever known.

The most stunning thing about looking at so many sides of the story is that the proponents of killing are so few.

As I was considering the 13 sides to this story, I was struck by the  diversity not only of human sides but also of ways of expressing those sides. There have been inspiring photos, and there have been wretchedly vivid ones. There have been some wonderfully pointed comments as well.

This one particularly appealed to me:

LOTL Rescue
LOTL Rescue

Along with visual imagery, there are forms of writing that are more poetic and more personal. My friend Kim Satchell is a poet, philosopher, teacher, and life-long surfer. I asked him if he had any poetry on surfing and sharks, and he sent me this poetic essay:

Terror Australis

There is an eerie calm that accompanies the murky Saturday afternoon—the brown sea is a jumbled mess. An onshore wind is ripping the surface to shreds. Little waves fall apart on the shore. While news of a nearby shark attack spreads a contagion of fear and anxiety. Each person who knows, seems compelled to tell someone else. I am checking the surf and a man I know drives up, winds down his window and blurts out the gruesome facts, relieving himself in auto-absolution. The radio and television get in on the act, by Sunday morning its front page headlines and photographs in both papers. The death is brutal, a young body-boarder’s legs torn from him, bleeds toward death, while his mates wrest him from the troubled sea. On the beach CPR cannot avert a shocking cardiac arrest. The bravery, the tragedy, and the utter helplessness meld together as shock gives way to grief. Experts are called in to identify the teeth marks, names are bandied about—tiger, bull, great white. Cold comfort for those already gripped by the psycho-socio phobia, of panic around sharks. A frenzy feeding on human frailty and the vulnerability that is exposed by the deep blue sea. Talk inevitably turns to all too human concerns of patrols, nets, a vendetta kill and more broadly the question of culls. Ah the taste of blood in the water. Straying far from common sense, the sacred balance of the more-than human world and its complex relations seem implausible, alas, and the reality of mass destruction of habitat as inconceivable to the narrow mind; whose sense of rights and territory are bound and bonded by a human exceptionalism, vouchsafed by the misguided progress of the dominant species. Whose built environment supersedes the necessity of the wild and untamed or the god of industry forbid, a thriving ecology. The irony of rhyming slang, the shark—Noah’s Ark or maligned doubly in the euphemism, as the men in grey suits. I know sharks not only belong in the sea, they are integrally woven into the fabric of all marine life, to the health of the ocean. To be honest they are woven into the fabric of my life, not through fear or mistrust but through presence and respect. When people seek to needlessly destroy them, they hurt us (living organisms and sentient life) all and all we rely on is further compromised.    (© Kim Satchell, 2014)

The great shark lineage has been swimming the oceans for about 400 million years . As a lineage they have survived four of the five previous mass extinction events. Perhaps some members of the lineage will make it through the extinction event that is now occurring, perhaps not. But it isn’t only a question of numbers, or of time, or of survival. It is for us today a question of how we take a stand for the lives and deaths of others. The threats to sharks go way beyond the WA kill, and our activism is needed everywhere. At the same time, these deaths are caused specifically in our name, and it is our responsibility to bring them to a speedy and lasting halt.

Postscript

After completing this post, I came across an article discussing research that shows that many sharks practice ‘natal philopatry’, meaning that females return to their own place of birth in order to give birth to their own offspring. Whether or not these findings are applicable to sharks in WA is unknown, but the authors conclude that ‘our findings support the emerging paradigm that natal philopatry is widespread in mobile marine vertebrates’. Somehow, when I think of mums going home to have their babies, sharks don’t seem quite so remote from us humans! And I would like to know: have any of the sharks that have been killed in this latest assault been pregnant?

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources

The greatest part of the factual information concerning sharks is sourced to the Oceana publication ‘Predators as Prey‘, Wikipedia, and the IUCN.

Postscript: this just came in – an update on the drum lines, and a chance to voice your oppostion!

Dear Deborah,

It’s sickening. More than 100 sharks have now been caught and many killed or found dead on the drum lines under Western Australia’s terrible bait-and-kill policy.There’s still no evidence that the program improves the safety of beach swimmers, yet now it could be extended for another THREE years.

WA Premier Colin Barnett is trying to seek approval to continue the shark slaughter until April 2017. But Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt is reviewing the ‘trial’ policy and has the power to end it for good. He’s accepting public submissions right now, and a huge public outcry could tip the balance at this critical moment.

We have to act fast: there are only a few days left to make our voices heard before Minister Hunt makes his final decision. Can you send an urgent email to stop the cull and save our sharks?

Take-action-button.png
The WA shark culling program has already created massive international embarrassment and controversy for Australia. More than two-thirds of the sharks caught were under the 3-metre length limit. The majority of the sharks caught and killed were tiger sharks, a species never known to have ever killed a single person in WA.

Then there’s the cost: since 26 January, one man has been paid a whopping $5,705 per day to catch and kill innocent sharks [1]. What’s more, the drum lines strung out at sea have been known to catch protected species, including dusky whaler and mako sharks.

Whatever way you look at it, this shark cull is a dead-end waste of time and money that could be otherwise spent providing real solutions to protect beach swimmers. The millions of dollars being diverted to this program could be spent on more and better scientific research into shark behaviours, or trialing tracking devices and sonar beacon repellents.

Show Minister Hunt to you want him to end the WA shark cull for good and instead ensure these funds be used for more effective shark management programs.

Of course no one wants to see any more people injured by sharks at sea. I regularly visit Sydney’s beautiful beaches with my wife, six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. We’re truly lucky to have beautiful beaches so close to our homes. But the oceans are there to share.

I know I’d regret giving the next generation the impression other living creatures should be simply killed if they caused an ‘inconvenience’ or fear. If you feel the same way, please consider sending an urgent email to Minister Greg Hunt today.

With hope for a humane solution,

Ben Pearson
Program Director
Greenpeace Australia Pacific

[1] Shark catch-and-kill fisherman being paid $5705 a day, Perth Now, 29 January 2014.

 

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)

Art in Dark Times

Janet Laurence, TarraWarra Gallery
Janet Laurence, TarraWarra Gallery

My friend Lorraine Shannon once described dark times as these moments ‘when ethics, tenderness, and the embrace of earth others are being trampled on’. Lorraine is a fellow member of the Kangaloon Group for Creative Ecologies, a ‘fellowship of poets, scholars, artists and activists in dialogue with the current cascade of ecological degradation and diminishment of life’.  I keep coming back to her words because they so clearly draw us into realms of vulnerability, love and participation in our lively planet, and so vividly express the violence that rages against life in its fullness. In dark times we need words of witness. We need to share insights with each other, and we need to be reminded that what is passing for ‘normal’ is actually a full-frontal assault on life in both the present and in the future.

Just this week the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced plans to invite world leaders to a climate change summit in response to the fact that greenhouse gas emissions are rising, and scientific warnings about the consequences are becoming ever more vigorous. At the same time, the new Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot continues his charge into the heart of darkness by abolishing both the Climate Commission and the Climate Change Authority, and by getting rid of senior public servants who have served the nation on matters of climate science and the future.

We know the climate change issue well because it has the greatest profile, but of course it is just one big part of a much wider set of entwined events that include the great mass extinction event now in process, the acidification of the oceans, the accumulation of plastic waste, the loss of soils and fertility, the loss of rainforests, and of course the rampant consumption that fuels the work of tearing up and wrecking planet Earth. And then there is the wreckage of denial: the insistence that these trampling assaults are really just business as usual.

Isabelle Stengers, one of the great continental philosophers, holds that the lure of contemporary darkness is like sorcery – we are bewitched, or ensorcelled, by the seductions of darkness. To break out of the spell, she says, we need antidotes. Not just rational arguments, although they matter too, but other kinds of conversations entirely. We need spell-breakers.

A few weeks ago I immersed myself in a powerful spell-breaker at the TarraWarra Museum of Art in Healesville, Victoria. The Director Victoria Lynn has mounted an exhibition called ‘Animate/Inanimate’ which includes the work of leading contemporary artists, including Janet Laurence and Louise Weaver from Australia, Allora & Calzadilla of the USA, Amar Kanwar of India and Lin Tianmiao of China. All the work explores impacts on earth life of global economic assaults, climate change and direct human violence. The works are haunting in their beauty and intensity, and include sculptural works, sound installations and video works. Dr Lynn writes (in the catalogue) that the artists in ‘Animate/Inanimate’ are not communicating ‘about life’ but rather are imbued ‘with life’. This is the spell-breaker: the reality of encounter that artists offer us; the seeming magic of how they enable us to see and understand more deeply and strongly.

The gallery space is wonderfully generous. We move slowly, almost as in a procession, through works that take our breath away, knocking us sideways, if not totally off our feet, with their power, beauty, energy, passion, commitment, care, concern, drama, tenderness, and their calmly contained but implicit desperation. I was especially thrilled to spend time with the installation produced by Janet Laurence (there will be more about the other artists in future posts). She is a Sydney artist, and another member of our Kangaloon group. Her work has been described as occupying ‘the liminal zones or meeting places of art, science, imagination and memory’. Last year the philosopher-artist Jim Hatley (another Kangaloon member) and I visited her in her studio, and also spent time with her large work ‘The memory of nature’ in the Art Gallery of NSW.

Janet gives witness to violence by working with its effects in the lives of plants, animals, and habitats. Her work becomes an ethical call to the vulnerability of others. It speaks into dark times without in any way becoming consumed by them. Jim wrote about ‘The memory of nature’:

‘Her works are inhabited by a loving tenderness for the living world, which, we are called to acknowledge, inevitably is also the dying world, indeed, the world become dead.  Memory reminds its viewer how the distance between the unborn in the womb and the recently living being rendered back into earthly elements is not so far.  Laurence would have human-beings enter into the liminal space between death and life, not in order to renounce earthly existence and all its chthonic mysteries, but in order to become fully acquainted with it and them. (Wednesday, September 5, 2012)

The TarraWarra installation is called ‘Fugitive’. It addresses itself to the precarious place where life and death, both for individuals and for species, hover at the brink of disaster. The space is divided into a number of veiled areas which Janet calls cells. The veils overlap so that one can pull a section aside and enter the cell. There the visitor is brought into intimacy and empathy, and into new possibilities for caring and concern.

Janet Laurence, TarraWarra Gallery
Janet Laurence,
TarraWarra Gallery

In ‘Fugitive’, as in other recent work, Laurence unsettles the visitor with veils, lighting, sounds and motion. She writes (in the catalogue): ‘Within the gallery space I want to bring us into contact with the life-world. With a focus on the animals and their loss, I think about the loneliness of the last one of a species. What was their death? I wonder about their umwelt, the unique world in which each species lives.’

Along with the veils, there are also screens on which images are projected in ghostly beauty. And always there is a dimly mysterious light, invoking the haunting sense that, in Richard Flanagan’s evocative words, ‘We live in the twilight of some terrible moment, the meaning of which we can only grasp at’.

Janet Laurence, TarraWarra Gallery
Janet Laurence,
TarraWarra Gallery

The burden of living in a world dominated by humans becomes disturbingly tangible. There are mirrors, and one sees oneself as part of the story. One starts to sense the incommensurate gap between our capacity to harm and our capacity to avert all that harm. The astonishing tenderness of her work is syncopated to a slow rhythm of breath. We slow down, adjust, breath in, breath out; we are stunned by the fragility of it all. We walk amongst veils, we go in, we go out, and as we breathe again, and remain within the world of the living, we experience the unassailable kinship with all those whose breath may never come again.

In Laurence’ work we see ourselves living now at a threshold of generational transition in which future life will either collapse or will flourish. We bring to the exhibit our knowledge that the zombie politics of darkness are dedicated to ruthlessly squandering the possibilities for earth life. And we are struck more forcibly than ever with the realisation that artists are among the great spell-breakers of our time. They are our magicians, our messengers who return from places of deep truth with visions of transformation.

Artists bring meaning alive for us, they catch at our minds and hearts, they enable us to become part of the work that refuses ‘business as usual’. Breath is the movement of life, the exhalation, and in-spiration. Artists are those who take our breath away. And artists are those who help us breathe again, re-inspired and transformed, as Ross Gibson has so vividly explained.

Artists return us to awe, love, wonder, joy, grief – all those encounters that fill our hearts without requiring justification – that simply are, as they erupt in our lives. All those encounters that grab hold of us without our asking, that take us out of ourselves, that remind us of the great and mysterious beauties of life, and return us to our humble place as part of the on-going story of life.

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

 

References:

Ross Gibson’s article on art and breath can be found in Humanities Australia

Catalogue: Animate/Inanimate; TarraWarra International 2013. Published by the TarraWarra Museum of Art.