Friday, August 19, 2011

The Ones That Got Away... (or the Cult of the Escaped Animal)

In Germany, a cow named Yvonne has become something of a folk heroine. The six-year-old dairy cow has been on the run since May, hiding out in the dense Bavarian Forest, and her plight has captured worldwide attention.

Authorities have tried to capture her. They sent a bull out with the hope of luring her back to captivity, but the scheme failed. They tethered her sister, Waltraut, to a tree in the forest, but Yvonne didn't take the bait. They put up a reward of £9,000 for her capture. Millions have been following her plight in newspapers. An animal psychic made news when she said that the escaped bovine has been in contact through mental telepathy. "She said that she was fine," the psychic reported, "but didn't feel ready to come out of hiding." (Source)

Animal sanctuary workers are also pursuing Yvonne. As Michael Aufhauser, founder of a sanctuary called Gut Aiderbichl, which is actively involved in trying to rescue Yvonne, explained: "Day and night, we have up to seven people on the search for the cow. We are even using an infrared camera, two four-wheel drive Jeeps and a quad bike, but no luck so far." (Source)

No question about it: Yvonne has become an animal celebrity. And her fame speaks to an element of our culture that is both encouraging and maddening.

On the one hand, it is heartwarming that when people see an animal fleeing death, many feel instinctively sympathetic toward the fugitive.

But it is also maddening - deeply, deeply discouraging - because of the public's tendency to pay attention to the plight of only one animal (or a handful of animals) while ignoring the suffering and murders of billions of others.

Earlier this year, Gary Francione wrote a brilliant blog post about his very issue. In a February 25 blog post titled "And What About the Four Other Dogs?", Francione wrote about a puppy in Oklahoma that was euthanized with four other dogs, yet somehow survived deadly two lethal injections (one of which should have killed him). In doing so, the puppy became a national celebrity, a "miracle canine." When the story hit the news, hundreds of offers to adopt him came pouring in from all over North America. The story went out around the world - on Google News, over the Blogosphere, on Twitter - and generated widespread interest in the puppy's plight.

Francione's commentary on the puppy raised one of the most important issues confronting animal rights activists: The tendency of the masses to zero in on the suffering of a few representative animals, while ignoring the horrific violence carried out against the billions.

You hear it all the time in stories about farm sanctuaries. A pig escapes. Or a chicken escapes. Or a cow escapes. Or some horses narrowly survived terrible abuse. Or a cat or dog got loose from an animal shelter. The animal ends up at a sanctuary and people speak about it as if it's a "miracle" or an "amazing" feat that the animal got away.

Francione's observations on this issue are profound. They are worth quoting at length:

Many people think that when an animal escapes death in this fashion, it is some sort of divine sign. These sorts of events ironically reinforce our view that because there is no divine intervention for all the other animals that are killed at “shelters” or in slaughterhouses, then this is the way things ought to be for those other animals. They are killed as part of the “natural” order.

My guess is that if God exists, s/he is as concerned about the four other dogs that were killed on Friday by the Oklahoma officer, the millions of others who are killed in “shelters,” and the billions who are killed for no better reason than that we are so selfish that we think that our palate pleasure justifies depriving another sentient being of her or his life.

And whatever God’s view of the situation, I suggest that our reactions in these sorts of situations should compel us to think about why we engage in the injustice of animal exploitation at all rather than thinking that only the “lucky” animals who escape our institutionalized injustice matter morally.

Eloquent. And powerful. Once again, Francione hits the nail on the head.

Here's a theory: I think that many (by no means all, but a hell of a lot of...) human beings cannot cope with gazing down into the abyss. We build our walls of denial high to avoid having to glimpse the piling stacks of corpses. Historically, people have done the same thing during genocides. That's why genocides have occurred in places like Nazi Germany and Pol Pot's Cambodia in the 1970s and Rwanda in the 1990s without any intervention from the global community for the specific purpose of halting the mass murder.

Even to this day, we cannot always cope with assembly-line killings. Think about cinematic representations of the above genocides. There have been films about the Holocaust (Schindler's List, The Pianist, Sophie's Choice), Cambodia (The Killing Fields) and Rwanda (Hotel Rwanda). They're all about people who make it out of the murderous cauldron alive. No wonder a colleague of mine who teaches about the Holocaust once said, "Just once, I'd like to see a Holocaust movie where all of the main characters are put inside of the gas chamber and murdered and then that's the end of the movie. That would be the most accurate representation of the Final Solution, but Hollywood won't go there."

It's not exactly fair to blame Hollywood. Hollywood makes movies that people want to see, and powerful studio execs do their demographic homework. They know what consumers want. No, Hollywood isn't to blame for widespread denial. The inability to grasp the profundity and finality and totality of death rests with the public, whether it has to do with the popular culture or the animals they consume.

Which brings us back to Yvonne the dairy cow, a global folk heroine, an animal being cheered on by millions who otherwise have no interest in animal rights. Many of those who sympathize with her eat hamburgers and drink milk without thinking twice about it, yet they root for a "plucky" cow who's on the lam.

Therein lies the problem.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Going Vegan With Ellen!

Thank you to my daughter, Madeline, for pointing out that Ellen DeGeneres now has a vegan website, called Going Vegan With Ellen.

It is a stunningly beautiful Website, with great looking recipes, articles, tributes to vegan celebrities, links and a promo for the wonderful folks at the Gentle Barn animal sanctuary in Santa Clarita, California. With advocates like Ellen in our corner, we keep growing and gaining new converts.

Right on, Ellen! Thank for the inspiration!

A Nice Dose of Vegan Humor...

If you get a chance, watch this hilarious vegan video. In a mere 3 minutes and 19 seconds, Aletha manages to capture a multitude of responses that we've all heard before from non-vegans who can't believe that we'd adopt such a "crazy" lifestyle. Aletha is another one of these wonderful vegans with a YouTube channel, and - like Beverly (in the post below) - she needs our support. Subscribe to her YouTube channel if you get a chance. She's a very insightful commentator.

Words of Wisdom from an Incredibly Eloquent Young Vegan

Here is a deeply moving and eloquent video of a 16 year old named Beverly who converted to veganism last year. She has her own YouTube Channel (subscribe, if you get a chance). She is absolutely wonderful and when I see videos like this one, I feel a lot of hope for humanity.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Planet of the Apes (1968): A Profound Critique of the Human Race

There is a new Planet of the Apes film out, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a prequel that explains how the story began. I will probably end up seeing it, although with some reluctance. You see, I'm a hardcore fan of the original 1968 Franklin J. Schaffner film, starring Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans and James Whitmore.

Long before I went vegan, long before I embraced animal rights, Planet of the Apes helped plant the seeds in my mind that blossomed into those commitments.

WARNING: For those of you who still haven't seen this superb science fiction film, you may not want to continue reading this Blog post, especially if you're someone who doesn't like spoilers (i.e., a piece of writing that divulges a surprise or twist in a film).

The plot: Sometime in the future, Colonel George Taylor and his fellow astronauts awaken from deep-sleep hibernation (a state they've been in for thousands of years) when their ship crashes on a planet. They escape the ship as it sinks into a lake and when they reach the barren landscape, they search for signs of life. Eventually, they encounter human beings who behave like wild savages: mute, fleeing through cornfields, behaving like primitive cavemen.

At this point, the astronauts and the wild humans clash with apes on horseback. One of the astronauts is killed and the other two, Taylor and Landon, are captured and separated. Landon is later lobotomized. The apes give Taylor to two chimpanzee scientists, the open-minded and kind-hearted Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall).

Over time, Zira develops a friendship with Taylor. Cornelius is slower to come around, but he also warms up to the astronaut. Because Taylor has been shot in the throat by the apes who captured him, he has to use pantomime to communicate. At some point, he tries to escape, and when he's captured by ape soldiers, his voice returns. "Take your paws off me, you damned, dirty ape!" Taylor shouts.

Taylor is later brought before a tribunal, led by the venerable Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) to explain why he can do things that other human beings cannot. The "wise" orangutans who head the tribunal threaten to punish and lobotomize Taylor for being a subversive, but Zira and Cornelius plot to free Taylor with the help of Zira's nephew Lucius. Their plot succeeds. They free Taylor, along with Nova (Linda Harrison), a mute female human with whom he has fallen in love.
Zaius reveals that humans and apes once lived side by side, but human beings destroyed their civilization thousands of years earlier in warfare. The cradle of this dead civilization is called the Forbidden Zone.

Taylor and Nova leave the apes behind and travel a great distance until they reach the Forbidden Zone. When they arrive, they find the top of the Statue of Liberty, revealing that they are on earth, and that human civilization collapsed, presumably in nuclear annihilation.

In 1968, Planet of the Apes was a radical critique of the human race, based on a 1963 book Monkey Planet (or Planet of the Apes) by French novelist and screenwriter Pierre Boulle. The screenplay to Planet of the Apes was co-written by Rod (The Twilight Zone) Serling and Michael Wilson, an Academy Award-winning screenwriter (he netted the Oscar for 1952's A Place in the Sun) who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He wrote several screenplays under pseudonyms or using "front writers" during the 1950s and early 1960s (including, ironically, for Bridge on the River Kwai, which was credited to "front" writer . . . Pierre Boulle). Wilson also wrote the screenplay to Salt of the Earth (1954), a pro-labor movie about a miners strike in New Mexico made entirely by blacklisted filmmakers. Salt of the Earth, like Planet of the Apes, has become a cult film.

Serling and Wilson very deliberately set out to write a subversive script that challenged some widely held assumptions of the day. Amazingly, the concept of speciesism - the notion of or belief in the superiority of one species over all others (in this case, apes) - came under intense assault in Planet of the Apes. I remain convinced this film was actually a thinly veiled attack on human speciesism.

Despite their backwardness and arrogance, the apes in Planet of the Apes despise human beings for very good reasons. At one point in the film, Cornelius reads from the ancient, sacred ape scriptures:
Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.

Throughout Planet of the Apes, the "wise" orangutan leaders harbor a deep distrust of the chimpanzee intellectuals, who are the gentlest and most thoughtful and inquisitive of the apes. At one point, Dr. Zaius warns Zira that her faith in science puts her in danger of being judged as subversive. Zaius tells Zira:
Dr. Zira, I must caution you. Experimental brain surgery on these creatures is one thing, and I'm all in favor of it. But your behavior studies are another matter. To suggest that we can learn anything about the simian nature from a study of man is sheer nonsense. Why, man is a nuisance. He eats up his food supply in the forest, then migrates to our green belts and ravages our crops. The sooner he is exterminated, the better. It's a question of simian survival.
And to Cornelius, Zaius cautions:
Ah, yes - the young ape with a shovel. I hear you're planning another archeological expedition. Cornelius, a friendly word of warning - as you dig for artifacts, be sure you don't bury your reputation.

Zaius is the voice of conservatism in this ape civilization. He is a brilliant simian, a sort of Grand Inquisitor, who fully understands the past and knows that certain truths have to be kept a secret to keep ape civilization intact. Before Taylor wanders off into the Forbidden Zone with Nova, he turns with his firearm to Zaius and the following exchange occurs:

Taylor: Don't try to follow me. I'm pretty handy with this.
Zaius: Of that I'm sure. All my life I've awaited your coming and dreaded it.

All along, Zaius knew something that naive Zira and Cornelius did not: Human beings lacked humanity and destroyed themselves. To prevent the calamity from occurring again, the apes brutally repressed the wild humans in their midst. But Zaius understood, more than any other character in the film, that this repression was a necessary evil.

Planet of the Apes showed the gorilla soldiers handling human beings like animals. And yet, as awful as human beings are treated in this film - trapped in nets, thrown into cages, occasionally beaten or shot - they are not murdered en masse the way that human beings destroy animals. Repressive as the apes in Planet of the Apes were, there was a method to their madness, and a decency completely lacking in human beings.

Planet of the Apes may have been the most radical film to ever have come out of Hollywood. This should come as no surprise. Earlier in the decade, Rod Serling - eager to keep finding work as a writer at a time when Cold War attitudes were still strong in America - disguised social critique in the form of science fiction in The Twilight Zone. In adapting Planet of the Apes to the screen, Rod Serling and Michael Wilson wrote a profound and deeply pessimistic tale about the human race that remains as relevant and powerful in today's world as it was 43 years ago.

(Left: Dr. Zaius, who understood the evil of human beings more than any other character in Planet of the Apes.)