The inhumanity of animals

We are animals.

I’m abandoning all attempts to write in e-prime for this blog because I want to use the language of civilization against itself. So let me say this again.

We are animals.

When those words strike your brain, what kind of signals do they send off? What kind of picture do they paint? Do you picture viciousness? wanton, bloody destruction? claws, teeth, fangs? Or do you picture the squirrels that live in the trees, eating the fruit of the trees, building their homes with material given to them by the trees? What about the rabbit munching clover? Or the coyote that stalks them both, crouched in the grass, scenting the air, waiting for an opportune moment to pounce?

When you hear someone utter the phrase, “you’re an animal,” it’s usually in a negative connotation. I have never heard those words spoken to mean “you’re like a squirrel in that you live in commune with your natural surroundings.” The connotation usually expresses more along the lines of “you are a predator: you have sharp weapons that you use to decimate others.” But they also deny that the predator lives in commune with his natural surroundings.

I remember the shock I experienced as a child in elementary school when I discovered that I was a mammal. I don’t recall ever having heard that I am somehow better than a fox or a mouse or a dolphin or a dog, but somehow I still learned to distance myself from those other creatures. I knew from Mother Culture that I was somehow better, that two legs are good and four are bad, that fingernails are better than claws and hair is better than a pelt. Just notice the differences in terminology: muzzle vs mouth, fangs vs teeth, hide vs skin. These terms further distance us from our non-human neighbors.

In rewilding myself, I need to come to terms with the fact that I am an animal, and I need to change my definition of the term “animal”. Now, the picture I painted of squirrels and rabbits probably seems pretty nice and tame in comparison to the picture I painted of the coyote. Coyotes prey on other animals, so we see them as vicious. The media loves this. How many “nature” specials are there dedicated to seeing predators chase down and mutilate their prey? It’s savage, fierce, and from our modern perspective cruel. But why do we see it that way? Why do we see the squirrel nibbling on an acorn as kind and gentle while the coyote nibbling on the squirrel is seen as harsh and cruel? I believe we see it this way because of lines we draw for ourselves.

I was always bothered by my vegetarian friends and coworkers who made their stance based on ethical concerns. I certainly understand where they are coming from in that the meat industries are heartless machines designed to “process” life into a “product” for human consumption. But I do not agree that avoiding eating meat or wearing animal products preserves life. Most vegetarians seem to meet their protein requirements via soy products. But what of the animals who died due to habitat loss when their home was converted into an agricultural field? Is cotton any answer to leather shoes and belts when “Habitat loss and fragmentation due to modern intensive farming represent the greatest threats to natural genetic diversity.”1

The simple fact is that any product of civilization has come from the rape of our non-human neighbors.

And what of the distinction between preserving animal life while consuming plant life? This probably sounds silly to you, but it is important to me. If a person is going to change his eating habits out of respect to life, why should he make such a distinction between the kingdoms? For one person fish is okay to eat but chicken is not. For another, any moving creature is off limits, but those with roots may be consumed.

I love Wildman Steve Brill and appreciate all that he does to spark awareness concerning edible and medicinal wild plants. He is definitely one of the top authorities on the subject, and his books and tours are not only informative, they are entertaining as well. The Wildman was arrested back in the 80’s for eating a dandelion in Central Park on one of his wild foraging tours. This man has suffered for the cause of propagating information about the deliciousness of common weeds, but he would never deign to harm a bug on one of his tours out of respect for the bug’s life. He eats plants and mushrooms and bacteria (many of his vegetarian recipes make use of yogurt in lieu of meat products), but he draws the line at the insect and animal kingdoms.

What determines the distinction in our minds that some life is okay to take and other life is not? In my journey to answer these questions for myself, I had to put myself in another species’ shoes–so to speak.

I came under the scrutiny of a New York City park official once for eating cattails in Van Cortlandt park up in the Bronx. The official was giving a tour of the wetland area below the Van Cortlandt house–a beautiful little marsh teeming with so many water-loving plants that I myself love to eat and use: cattails, spearmint and jewelweed to name a few. I had just passed through the marsh and collected a few of the delicious Cossack’s asparagus from the cattails growing there, when the tour came up on the marsh. The tour guide gave a little speech about the diverse species that make their home in the wetlands, and she indicated that the cattails had been a very useful plant for the Native Americans that had once inhabited the land that became New York City, but she made no mention whatsoever about eating cattails. Her glaring omission sparked the teacher in me, so I filled in the gap for her by telling the group that cattails are edible as well, from the roots to the shoots to the flowers and their pollen. I concluded my little bit of information by taking a bit of the Cossack’s asparagus that I held in my hand.

I saw the park official that was giving the tour get very uncomfortable. My first thought was, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t have stolen her thunder. I bet she was just about to get to that part.” But I don’t think she ever had any intention of telling her tour about eating cattails. I don’t know whether she knew the information or not, but she certainly didn’t want anyone else to know it. As soon as I had made my presentation she told me that it was illegal to harm the plants in the park.

“I’m not harming them,” I told her. “I’m just eating them.”

That didn’t fly with her. “You could be given a citation for what you’re doing, sir,” she told me.

“Sir?” I thought. She appeared to be quite older than me, so I found it odd that she called me that. Then I saw how terribly uncomfortable she was. Her voice was almost trembling. I realized she was afraid of me. At first I couldn’t understand why. I was being very nice, I was speaking calmly, offering useful information. None of the people on her tour were reacting the way she was, so what about me was upsetting her so?

I finally came to the conclusion that I was threatening her world view. To her the park is a place to preserve nature–to allow birds and turtles and chipmunks to frolic at will, but man had no such freedom because man is not a part of nature.

I certainly understand that they city wouldn’t want everyone coming there and eating all their cattails. I wouldn’t want that either. That would be destructive. But I wasn’t destroying the plants, I was interacting with them, the same way the animals in the park do. I wondered if she would have reacted so fiercely to me if she had caught me eating mulberries from the trees along the path. I knew that for her there were distinct lines about what a person could or couldn’t do in the park, but I didn’t know where those lines were in her head. It was fine for cricket and soccer teams to decimate the plant life growing on the parade ground just up the hill from us. It was fine for people to hook fish mouths with metal barbs in the pond that fed the marsh. And it was certainly fine for the park animals to eat the plants there, for I saw none of them walking, crawling for flitting around with city citations in their “hands”. But I was not an animal–not in her eyes, not in the city’s eyes, not in civilization’s eyes.

This distinction between human and animal has sparked a lot of controversy in our recent history. Some people find it patently disturbing to think of the common links between themselves and creatures that are renowned for throwing their own feces at each other.

When I told one of my friends that I wanted to become a high school science teacher, his first question was “Are you going to teach evolution?” At first, I couldn’t fathom why he was asking me that question. To me it was no different than asking “Are you going to teach about respiration?” But to my friend it was a question of religious integrity. I think at the heart of his question, he was asking me whether or not we believe in the same thing.

I don’t care anymore about the “scandal” of evolution. I turned in my christian badge and gun several years ago when I decided that there really isn’t anything wrong with human nature that we would need a saviour to save us from. It was a difficult decision for me to make, but I had to face the new beliefs I had come to grasp. I am an animal and no more “sinful” or “corrupt” than a squirrel or a coyote. Why would Jesus come to save the squirrels or the sparrows or the lilies of the field? They’re fine. So why are people not fine?

I first found the answer in the works of Daniel Quinn, and now I see it everywhere I go. The non-human world knows how to live. Plants eat the sun; animals and insects eat plants and each other; fungi eat the soil and the rocks and the plants; bacteria eat everything. The coyote doesn’t feel guilty for eating the rabbit, because that’s what coyotes do. The rabbit doesn’t feel guilty for eating the clover, because that’s what rabbits do. But civilized man has abandoned his animal history. He has denied it, and in doing so has forgotten how to live. (You can see the distinction between people who know how to live and people who don’t in the words of Sitting Bull.)

So what are humans supposed to do?

Derrick Jensen says that eating a fish is not the same as exploiting it. I believe you can eat hamburger and not feel guilty if you knew the animal that gave her life to feed yours. I believe you can wear clothes made of plant matter and not feel guilty if you know that species did not die to give their habitat to the plants that you now wear. And in all things, give thanks: to the animal and plants and fungi that feeds you and clothe you and make up the world around you. Notice them. They are there, and I guarantee that they notice you.

That is the kind of life that is sustainable–that doesn’t rape its surroundings–that gives back whatever it takes and more. That kind of life is my goal–and the coyote and the mayfly and the cattail will show me how to get there. They will teach me how to be the animal that I am. As Jason Godesky points out in Wilderness & Its Troubles:

Humans have a place in nature, and just like any apex predator, it is a keystone role. The problem is not with humanity itself—we do not eradicate the “wilderness” simply by existing. The problem is simply with one way of life of the many we’ve tried, one that eradicates anything and everything in its path. We know other ways of life, and for the sake of the wilderness—and that means for our own sakes as well—we’d best remember them with all haste.

We are animals.

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13 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks you wrote that really beautifully, Im sitting here with my cats and they are the first thing that sprang to mind when I thought about how I am an animal.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Rix on 05/08/2007 at 1:27 pm

    Curt’s latest blog at Surviving Within Civilization entitled John Trudell, Animism and Providence has a piece from an interview with Native American author/poet/musician/activist John Trudell that talks about how we came to forget our nature.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Shannon on 05/08/2007 at 8:04 pm

    I am both impressed and saddened by this blog. I think that it points out several new (or maybe old) thoughts, but lacks the simple understanding that we are different. Why are the kingdoms seperated in the first place? They are separated by thier differences. The mere fact that you and I have the ability to question or existance marks how drasticly different we are. God did create all of life, but he made us in his image.

    Reply

  4. Posted by jhereg on 05/09/2007 at 9:59 am

    I first saw a wolf in my mind’s eye when I read “We are animals”. I’ve never really associated wolves with any particularly special level of “savagery” or “viciousness”, tho’. On the other hand, I do associate them with packs. Community. Group harmony. I’ve always admired that about wolves, all the more so because I have a number of “people” issues that often get in the way of experiencing that first hand. These days, I emphasize community-building a lot, I suspect largely because I know that’s my biggest personal Obstacle on the rewilding road.

    Reply

  5. Shannon,

    Thanks for stopping by my blog and thanks even more for responding to it.

    I’m not sure why it should seem sad to you. For me, sadness stems from the fact that we have forgotten our relationship to our non-human neighbors. I think if we stopped seeing them as less than ourselves, it would be a lot harder to destroy them the way we do.

    It would probably be pretty hard for a person to just bulldoze their neighbor’s home in order to take that space and use it for themselves. You would have to come to terms with the fact that you would be evicting a fellow human being. You would have to turn off some switch that lets you see their life as important in order to do something that heinous. But we don’t see the insects, animals, plants, fungi, etc. as important when we continually sprawl our cities out and destroy their homes.

    That’s not to say that humans have never treated other humans the way we treat bugs–in fact, civilized history is riddled with stories of humans treating other humans that way. We refused to see the “humanity” of Africans and Native Americans for a long time. (I say “we” because I’m speaking of my own ancestors’ history.) Eventually, white politicians decided that someone with black skin counted for 3/5 of a person–but only so that they could have more congressmen to represent themselves in the fledgling American government.

    My point is, in order to treat something (a person of a different color, a creature of a different species, a living thing from a different kingdom) as nothing more than a resource, we have to view them as less important than ourselves. As I even the playing field for myself and learn that I am an animal and that I am dependent on all the other life around me in order to survive, then I can’t treat my non-human neighbors the way I used to.

    Derrick Jensen has a really amazing metaphor that he uses to express this. He says, “If I see a woman as an orifice, I’ll treat her like an orifice. If I see her as a woman, I’ll treat her as a woman. If I see her as another individual, then I’ll treat her as an individual.” That same logic applies to all life. How you see something is the basis for how you will treat it.

    So when I say “we are animals,” I am seeking to change our perspective of ourselves, so that our perspective toward other creatures will change and our treatment of other creatures will change.

    As for the separation of the different kingdoms, it’s actually a terminology that we devised to group similarities. To look a species and say “It reproduces by spores and has no chlorophyll” lets us group it with other species that have similar characteristics that we call fungi. The whole taxonomic system works that way by classifying things according to their similarities.

    I don’t deny that humans are different from all other life on the planet. But to note that we are different is merely to note that we are a separate species. Each species is a unique entity, completely distinct from other species. What we want, what we’re looking for when we distance ourselves from the rest of life is a way to see ourselves as more unique than anything else.

    As David Abrams says in The Spell of the Sensuous:

    Ever since Aristotle, philosophers have been concerned to demonstrate, in the most convincing manner possible, that human beings are significantly different from all other forms of life. It was not enough to demonstrate that human beings were unique, for each species is evidently unique in its way; rather, it was necessary to show that the human form was uniquely unique, that our noble gifts set us definitively apart from, and above, the rest of the animate world. Such demonstrations were, we may suspect, needed to justify the increasing manipulation and exploitation of nonhuman nature by, and for, (civilized) humankind. The necessity for such philosophical justification became especially urgent in the wake of the scientific revolution, when our capacity to manipulate other organisms increased a hundredfold. Descartes’s radical separation of the immaterial human mind from the wholly mechanical world of nature did much to fill this need, providing a splendid rationalization for the vivisection experiments that soon began to proliferate, as well as for the steady plundering and despoilment of nonhuman nature in the New World and the other European colonies.

    To be sure, the Judeo-Christian creation myth is not the only one in which man kind is created specially. The Huron believed that they were born directly from Skywoman. So why didn’t they rape the land the same way we have since time immemorial? Because they also believed that the plants they eat for food came from Skywoman, too:

    When the divine woman was buried, all of the plants needed for life on earth sprang from the ground above her. From her head came the pumpkin vine. Maize came from her chest. Pole beans grew from her legs.

    To the Huron, the plants were their brothers and sisters. As Willem points out at The College of Mythic Cartography:

    But since when did the Gods belong to our family, anyway?

    Grandmother Spider. Sister Corn. Father Sky. Brother Coyote. Grandfather Pine.

    Once upon a time they did, all around the world, in all human cultures. Once upon a time humans shared the common bond of looking out at the entire world and saying, “All my relations”. So what happened? How did we go from sharing our family with Sister Corn, to looking to the heavens for the aid of an untouchable and remote “Goddess of the Harvest”?

    I would love to get that family back.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Rix on 05/09/2007 at 1:20 pm

    John and jhereg,

    Thanks for your responses about the images that hit your minds’ eyes.

    John,

    I love the image of a cat as a response because it’s not uncommon for cats to retain their wild instincts even when they have grown up domestically.

    jhereg,

    The concept of community is one that I have also sadly lost. Wolves would be good teachers in that regard. Some have postulated that similarities in our diet with wolves, which lead to shared habitat, was the first step toward our later domestication of them. I think in a rewilding sense, we could just as easily take advantage of the similarities in order to learn from them the lore that we gave up in the Great Forgetting.

    Reply

  7. Great Post, Rix.

    I feel sad sitting here at my computer talking about how we need to remember that we are animals. I’m 32 years old. Shouldn’t it be obvious by now? Unfortunately, it was more obvious to me at ten years old when I was running around behind my house building forts in the cattail marsh.

    But, we need to help the future generations remember who the hell we are. We’re suffering from an identity crisis. To quote the wise words of John Trudell:

    “No we’re still the ones. Because what we say to them is what they’re gonna have to use as their basis of reality. So for me, the only thing I advocate at this moment is that we teach our children who they are, they’re human beings. We teach them what that means. So when you look at the human part of this, the bone, flesh and blood, the DNA of the human, the bone, flesh and blood is made up of the metals minerals and liquids of the earth. So we are shapes and forms of the earth. And we have being. That’s the spirit. All of the things of the earth are made up of the same DNA structure. Everything on this earth is made up of the same metals, minerals and liquids of the earth, it’s just that the shape is different. And everything of the earth has the same being that the human has. So that’s who we are. That tells us our connection to power, our relationship to reality is there. So I think that it’s in the next generation’s best interest to understand that. The human being has been given protection, has been given medicine, has been given a means of self-defense, and that gift is intelligence. And so when we remember who we are as human beings then we will know to use our intelligence intelligently. And I think that’s what the next generation really needs to have. It isn’t how much money we leave them or what kind of political system we leave them or any of the rest of that. It’s the knowledge of who they are.” http://www.geocities.com/homecorbett/Trudell.html

    Now is the time for the Great Remembering.

    Reply

  8. Posted by Rix on 05/10/2007 at 7:48 am

    Thanks for sharing more of Trudell with me, Curt. I can see why he’s your new hero.

    Amen to the Great Remembering.

    For any of my gentle readers who are not familiar with the concepts of rewilding, the “Great Remembering” is it in a nutshell: trying to get back what we have lost–trying to regain the memories that used to be handed down from elder to child in every culture, the memories that were wiped out when the machine of civilization rolled over our ancestors (and caused the “Great Forgetting”). As rewilders, we want those memories back–the traditions that teach us how to live.

    Reply

  9. Posted by neworangutang on 05/12/2007 at 5:44 pm

    This was a great post, Rix, all too often people use the phrase “we are animals” as a throwaway phrase. Hardly ever do we fully take into account the full implications of those three words. I fully second Curt’s last sentence, now we must begin remember.

    Reply

  10. Posted by Cehualli on 06/06/2007 at 11:36 pm

    Great post, very thought provoking, and I must admit that I’m saddened as well, saddened that so few share these ideas that people are animals and look at me like I’m a kook when I so much as suggest that endless rapacious behavior might someday come to an end.

    You touched a lot of the reasons why I follow vegetarianism in this post. Dissatisfaction with the life-as-profit machine of factory farming, lack of respect, artificial, “we’re special/better than” boundaries, re-enforced by religion and ego. I don’t think that there’s a difference between the kind of life that I have and an animal has. I respect plants a great deal, but I feel that the intelligence and complex nervous systems that animals has compounds their ability to perceive suffering, and that because of this suffering, they should be treated with more care. Factory farms are horrible, as I’m sure you’re aware, and animals live their entire lives in suffering, many unable to ever even see daylight, denied their true natures. As “free range” cattle and “organic” farming become corporate honeypots, I don’t trust our miserable, toothless sham excuse for regulatory agencies to have the animals’ welfare in mind. I cannot support these things.

    I certainly don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong or unnatural about eating meat, especially meat that you yourself have killed, because the act of killing or being close to it gives you a respect for the animal that you wouldn’t have had if you bought it in a little styrofoam box in the supermarket. You knew it, you saw it live, you killed it so that it’s gift would keep you alive – this is an honorable thing. Gluttony results if you lose sight of that simple, humbling reality: something died so you can continue breathing. I don’t think that plants get the kind of respect they deserve either, far from it. I do my best to honor everything I consume.

    Another reason why a lot of people choose to go vegetarian is simple numbers. Striking the whole suffering idea from the argument completely, it takes less resources to grow vegetables and grains than it does to feed a cow, which otherwise has to support it’s bones, organs, reproductive systems, etc, while we only generally eat the meat. If you combine this with the fact that Americans generally eat at least one cow each per year, factory farming is the only system remotely capable of keeping up with this high demand, and even then, only with heavy water subsidies. The feces from pig farms is decimating entire river ecologies, since they just pile it into big lagoons and don’t bother doing anything further. Pumping these animals full of antibiotics threatens to create a new drug-resistant super bug, blah blah blah. I just refuse to participate, anymore. It won’t tear the system down, but maybe I can be an example to other people, and they’ll raise fewer cattle next year.

    When the time comes, and the collapse happens, I’ll be eating meat along with everyone else. I’ll finally able to live in an honorable fashion – not hiding from my prey, or its death, behind the veneer of industrial society and “we were just doing our jobs”.

    I say these things not in some sort of banner-waving fervor of vegetarianism, only as a response to your comments about such. I do not choose vegetarianism out of respect for life, I choose it out of respect for suffering and ecology. Suffering and ecological damage happen no matter what one eats, and you were very right in saying that all products come as a result of the rape of the earth, but, for me, this seems less destructive. Killing something isn’t disrespect, but not allowing it to ever live with dignity is.

    Reply

  11. thanks for sharing your views on vegetarianism, Cehualli. you come from a different mindset than most of the vegetarians and vegans i have met. truly, living within civilization, we are often faced with choosing between different levels of evil, as the machine poses us with very little besides evil to choose from.

    i respect your choice and appreciate the way in which you have shared it. i think anything that is embroiled with civilization’s machinery, whether it is factory farming of livestock or monocultural agriculture that depletes and erodes the soil and further destroys habitat for other plants, animals, insects, etc, it really comes down to the fact that unless you know your food–where it came from, how it got to your plate–then you’re hard pressed to find any high ground on which to stand. the best we can do is make choices for ourselves and live with our decisions.

    again, thanks for sharing your perspective.

    Reply

  12. Urban Scout recently posted a blog that focuses on some of these same issues.

    Read Civilization Found in Vegan Ethics

    Reply

  13. […] the planet understands but that civilization has blinded its inhabitants to.  As I mentioned in The Inhumanity of Animals, no harm comes from the coyote eating the rabbit.  Coyotes eat rabbits for a […]

    Reply

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