Sunday, October 12, 2008

Animal Subjects

Animal Subjects: An Ethical Reader in a Posthuman World, is not an easy book to read. Whether or not you put animals on the same moral plane as humans, whether or not you believe that beasts should be bestowed with all the unalienable rights of "personhood", it's unpleasant to confront some of the truths in this collection of essays on animal ethics. Take, for example, "Power and Irony: One Tortured Cat and Many Twisted Angles of Our Moral Schizophrenia about Animals," by Lesli Bisgould. The essay recounts the case of Jesse Power, a Canadian art student who filmed himself and friends torturing a cat and then claimed it was part of a school project on animal rights. In 2002, Power was sentenced to just 90 days in jail, which he chose to serve on weekends so his class schedule wouldn't be disrupted. Bisgould makes the point that, while anyone who saw or even read about the feline torture film knew viscerally that it was wrong, we generally ignore that animals are used, abused and murdered every day, in order to produce food and clothing, test household products or medications, or just for purposes of entertainment. "Should we not finally confront Orwell's observation literally and ask, why are some animals more equal than others?" Bisgould asks. "Is there really a difference between the animals we call 'pets' and the animals we call 'dinner' or does the difference reside in the comfort of our own imagination?"

If you've ever taken your children to the zoo or aquarium for a day of wonder and fun, gazing at exotic animals, applauding for somersaulting sea lions, you might see things differently after reading "Monsters: The Case of Marineland." In this essay, author John Sorenson draws disturbing parallels between these animal exhibits and the sideshows of human "freaks" put on display by P.T. Barnum and other legendary exploiters of people with genetic disorders and physical abnormalities. "Zoos and aquaria are prisons for animals where the public can visit and observe the suffering of the inmates, just as the circus sideshow allowed paying customers the opportunity to derive pleasure from viewing the misfortunes of the disabled." Sorenson focuses in on Marineland, a marine mammal theme park in Niagara Falls Ontario, to illustrate his point with disturbing clarity.

Throughout the 14 essay collection, edited by Jodey Castricano, spirited arguments are made for the elimination of any moral distinction between human and non-human animals. In "Electric Sheep and the New Argument for Nature," Angus Taylor rejects a litany of mental attributes traditionally used to elevate humans above animals. "Not all humans can reason better than animals; not all humans are moral agents; not all humans can imagine an extended future for themselves or have a sophisticated conception of self. Many animals exhibit more autonomy than many humans do, in the sense that they are better able to care for themselves and to navigate successfully through their natural and social environment."

For those who believe all creatures should be treated with dignity, this volume is full of difficult reminders about how far we have to go. For those who abuse, mistreat or neglect animals, this book should be required reading.

I'll end where the introductory essay begins, with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi.
"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."

Animal Subjects is published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press

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