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.


  1. You have identified the problem with "the ones that got away" awareness. The evincing of sympathy and compassion for the plight of the singular with no corresponding re-evaluation and adjustment of behaviors...which would benefit the multitude.

    Were Emerson around he would not think this to be a foolish consistency. If folks empathize with the cow...go vegan. Not a foolish consistency at all. But few do...

    One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic (not said by Stalin, by the way)...the difficulty our species has apparently is in dealing with numbers...we seem to have one set of cognitive activities for one, then when we encounter "many" we have a completely different set of cognitive activities.

    If that's the case, we're just going to have to convert folks to veganism one by one and save the animals one by one...a pain in the ass...but if we gotta, we gotta. :-)

  2. Agree! The real hope rests with folks who can feel compassion for one animal, or a few animals, and then somehow figure out how to connect the dots to include all sentient beings. It happens. It happened with me. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone...