A sliver of moon glistened above the dark clouds hanging over the ocean upon our arrival on site in twilight. In the secluded garden behind the house the white box, eerily suspended on a wire frame, glowed in shadows. We approached surreptitiously to inspect the hive’s entrance for bees, observing a few stragglers that hadn’t yet settled in for the night. Detecting a threat, these guards became agitated as we stupidly lingered: intrigued, gazing, mesmerized, and somewhat dumbfounded that the bees weren’t all tucked up for the night in preparation for their journey to the new location beyond two mountain ranges of which we had summarily informed them.
Aroused, the bees drifted towards us to investigate, casually encircling, our motionless forms. I turned, leaped over the bushes and bolted up the pathway to safety, I recalled a childhood situation when I had stood absolutely still while an entire swarm, that had been provoked by others, enveloped my body, crawling under my shirt, tickling my skin until I could no longer tolerate the excruciating sensation and fled succumbing to multiple stings as I ripped the shirt from my torso. Meanwhile a persistent pair interrogated Anna, who remained calm throughout. One bee explored her hair while the other ventured provocatively under her circumstantially inappropriate long skirt and vented its sacrificial warning jab the moment it sensed intent to apprehend.
The prospect of receiving a gift of a ‘proper’ thriving beehive for the farm, despite not being a honey bear, seemed very exciting at the time, but I neglected to fully consider the bees’ well-being. The instructions from an expert apiarist seemed simple enough: a half an hour after sunset block the access gap with crumpled netting before transporting. But after three failed attempts at plugging the opening, despite allowing time for them to settle in between, defenders of the realm were not surprisingly on high alert. A half dozen little stings to my hands and the escalating consternation inside the box finally persuaded me, to my chagrin, to abandon the operation for another time.
It was already late for embarking on a three hour nocturnal car journey, so I hastily set off into the night, alone. Thirty minutes later while idling at traffic works, strange sensations began to grip my body affecting groin, perineum, and armpits which soon began to itch intensely, followed by swelling and warmth in my ears, eyes and throat. It was difficult to remain calm suddenly overcome by acute anxiety. I called Anna, then sped to George Hospital where I was confronted with an overcrowded, chaotic waiting room, and virtually dismissed by nonchalant officials. By then I realized that my intense symptoms were subsiding and I didn’t appear to be in a critical condition. I think my own adrenaline surge had counteracted the anaphylactic response. Later I discovered that severe reactions (occurring in 3% of the 10% of people who suffer from allergy to bee stings) can cause death within ten minutes!
I was mortified by my own ignorance and lack of grace surrounding our misadventure with a peaceful colony of Apis mellifera capensis. The ensuing disruption of harmony has been playing heavily on my mind, not least because of the ongoing effects of my potentially fatal systemic reaction, but also repercussions in other spheres of life.
It was foolish and rude of me to rush in without paying homage to the queen and engaging politely with the colony. My attempt to seize and relocate the hive to a completely different geographical zone where the Cape honey bee does not naturally occur lacked insight. The Southern Karoo region is populated by a different, hybridized (with A.m. scutellata from the North) species of which there is a wild colony occupying an old poplar trunk near the river on my farm. The Cape honey bee is specifically adapted to fynbos vegetation, and would have also parasitized my local colony. A.m. capensis is unique and fascinating in many ways particularly in their unusual reproductive possibilities: Cape workers produce diploid eggs, known as thelytokous parthenogenesis whereby the worker bees can produce males and females parthenogenetically (http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/misc/bees/cape_honey_bee.htm).
Bees represent a microcosm akin to that of the white ant where the colony behaves as a single, unified organism (a phenomenon so beautifully evoked by Eugene Marais in his ground breaking book ‘The Soul of the White Ant’). This interconnection also links into the broader collective consciousness on earth experienced by all living organisms. Those bees understood the implications of what was happening and the potential consequences. It would have been another great disaster for the bees, who as a nation have already suffered so tragically at the hand of man, if we had succeeded in abducting them against their wishes. The group clearly communicated their annoyance, halting our intervention while exerting their power through a few individual martyrs, encouraging us to reconsider the ramifications of imposing our rampant human will on the once harmonious living world that we inhabit.
On a warm Winter’s day I found myself keeping vigil over a juvenile jackass penguin(‘Gwen’) at the water’s edge on the beautiful beach at Wilderness. Passersby of all ages stopped, curiously capturing the silent agony of the ailing bird on cellphone cameras. As I sat down on the dry sand nearby trying to imagine the tale of this lonesome creature I noticed that she was not alone in her displacement and distress. Writhing in the sand between me and her was a dying bee, while a languishing ladybird explored the fresh corpse of a tiny ghost crab. I wondered what could possibly have occurred to disorientate and damage these finely tuned navigators of the air, earth, or waters. Penguins move in social groups playing in the waves or chatting on shore. Bees are synonymous with perpetual work, pollinating plants for our mutual benefit. Ladybirds thrive among our organically grown vegetables devouring aphids. Crabs celebrate the fine sands of these shores. This valedictory vignette depicting the global demise of our animal friends who we need for survival, made me unbearably sad. Set against a backdrop of the vast, ebbing ocean appeared the last penguin, the ultimate ladybird, the final crab to grace the earth, and the concluding sting. Human animals have robbed them of their sustenance, polluted their environment with poisons, gases, and radiation, relentlessly destroying life on this once flourishing planet. In so doing we also deprived ourselves of experiencing the bountiful biodiversity of which we were once an integral part.
In the twenty minutes it took the people from SAPREC (Seabird And Penguin Rehabilitation Centre) to collect ‘Gwen’ I reflected on the extent of our collective loss. Ruthless massacres of species have occurred everywhere even in my short lifetime to a greater extent than any other period in the history of our planet. Once plentiful, fish are fast disappearing from the sea. Sharks, dolphins, and whales are butchered for meat and sport, fat and fin. Seal cubs clubbed to death mercilessly for their fur bloody the icy landscapes in their thousands. Sea birds perish smothered in crude, obstructed by plastic, sinking deep down to trawled ocean beds still simmering with disintegrating drums of nuclear waste designating the denial of our catastrophic impact. We photograph glimpses of the beauty in lieu of experiencing the wonder first hand. Sterile films are all that will remain for future generations as we slump in front of our screens watching paradise slip away irrevocably.
The SAPREC team have saved seven young penguins in the area over the past two weeks. They are the lucky and magnifiscent seven who made it to shore alive having prematurely left their nests in the breeding colonies over 300 kms away. Moulting disrupted the integrity of their feathers causing ineffective waterproofing and insulation when the birds took to the water. The local dearth of fish forced their parents to hunt for food further away, abandoning their starving chicks who then set off in despair carried by strong currents to these distant beaches arriving exhausted, dehydrated, weak, and sick. They will be rehabilitated and returned to the dying ocean.
Whose authority do we need to reverse the cycle of destruction? What is required to restore the abundance of life on earth? The WHO (World Health Organization) promotes a diet based on plenty of fruit and vegetables for optimal health. A recent UN report has urged for a vital ‘global shift towards a more vegan diet to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change’. Greater numbers of individuals and groups are heeding this call and advocating a shift towards plant based organic agriculture as a survival imperative.
PS. Two months after writing this ghost story on 12 August 2013 a cargo ship carrying 350 tons of heavy oil ran aground off the coast of George spilling its slick load into the ocean smothering all life forms in its wake. SAPREC have been inundated with oil soaked sea birds.
Minister Joemat-Petterson’s Fisheries department is responsible for managing South Africa’s six Environmental Protection Vessels, which are to be used in the event of threats to the safety of the country’s coastlines, including oil spills. These are the only vessels in South Africa with a mechanism to prevent leaked oil from drifting further into the ocean.
These six vessels are currently sitting in dry dock in Cape Town Harbour and Simon’s Town Naval Base due to a failure by the Fisheries Department to properly manage them. They therefore cannot be deployed to contain and clean up of the oil spill.
The oldest vocation in the history of agriculture is ready for a modern revival. Farmers have proven over the centuries that human presence in the form of a shepherd is the only truly effective way of safekeeping their vulnerable domestic animals whilst continuing to live in harmony with nature.
The ‘Shepherds of the Karoo’ project will provide a specialized flock and veld management service to sheep farmers. Shepherds will also be trained as field guides.
The main benefit for the farmer will be significant economic gain due to reduced lamb losses from predation, theft, and sickness or injury. ‘The constant observer’ will also monitor and potentially improve other aspects of flock health and veld restoration. Flock focused protection has the spin-off advantage of stabilizing local wild animal populations. Consequently there will be greater potential for agri-tourism.
The economy of our region has shifted from agriculture to tourism. It makes sense for farmers to capitalise creatively on this trend. Visitors who want to encounter the great Karoo outdoors could stay on farms where they will learn about integrated farm management and gain insight into the ecology of Karoo plants and animals. Guests will spend one or more nights out in the veld with their shepherd guide, and would require basic accommodation, and food. Individual farmers will be able to tailor details of this aspect to create a unique farm experience. The income generated would contribute to shepherds’ salaries. All it requires is marketing.
Practically, the shepherds will work in shifts, staying with the sheep day and night accompanied by a working sheepdog. Sheep will be kraaled in a mobile structure constructed from solar powered electrical fencing. An easily moveable base camp will ensure that veld damage from trampling is limited. By implementing planned grazing patterns as part of a holistic management (see http://www.savoryinstitute.com) program, the flock could then be guided to the most suitable terrain.
Shepherds will belong to a guild or co-op and become individual service providers to the farmer. This support structure will stimulate pride in their shepherding career, ensure a greater sense of responsibility, and provide access to resources. Selected candidates will receive training pertinent to the shepherding profession in animal husbandry, emergency medicine, basic veld management, first aid, and field guiding.There will also be opportunities to pursue further vocational training in order to develop skills in areas of special interest. Farmers will be supporting a progressive human development initiative.
The rewards of a highly marketable ‘product’ that is ‘ecofriendly’, ‘free-range’, ‘fairtrade’, and ‘certified organic’ are far reaching and could further elevate ‘karoo lamb’ status to meet the increasing tendancy of consumer demand for ethically produced food.
In light of the renewed move to ‘Treasure the Karoo’ since the threat of fracking, many people recognise the Nama Karoo Biome as one of the last remaining untouched biodiversity hotspots on the planet. As a matter of urgency everyone who lives here should join the global trend to participate in collective action to protect and nurture our natural heritage. As custodians of this pristine land farmers are able to pioneer innovative measures, leading the way together with Nature Conservation in keeping the balance between preserving our unique plant and animal life while maintaining food security.
When the tension gets too much or when there is a severe blow to the body and something snaps, it is sometimes the living tissue we refer to as bone. Skeletons don’t break spontaneously unless there is some underlying weakness or pathology. A traumatic fracture is accompanied by damage to the softer supporting tissues like tendons, ligaments, muscles, blood vessels and nerves. Bone heals well when the pieces are aligned and immobilized. The callus is often stronger than the original continuity because of increased thickness in the area. The same is not true of muscles, tendons and ligaments and other tissues, which take longer to heal and often remain weaker where they were injured. When we have erred or overexerted, sprains and strains with their associated pain remind us to favour the affected area for the delicate, spontaneous process of repair to occur.
A broken bone in a large or wild animal means almost certain death if left to fate. Recently when something unnatural snapped bones in both legs of one lanner falcon, a team of responsive humans came to his rescue. This raptor, normally the epitomy of airborne speed and grace, was unable to lift off, and calmly allowed caring intervention, from the species that break down and patch up life in the most chaotically inconsistent ways.
Early morning roadkill sighting: a kudu bull with both forelimbs smashed by a vehicle traveling at high speed in the night leaving him flailing along the verge where his majestic horns became entangled in a barbed wire fence. There, clinical shock, nature’s blessing, laid him to rest where his serene world had been so violently disrupted.
In spite of his devotion, a dog can be a target of displaced anger. Sometimes the beatings cause fractures such as occurred in a six week old puppy that presented with a broken back after a neighbour had allegedly thrown it against a wall. The thud and screams were heard but evidently only visual witness is valid for making a case in this case. The permanently turned blind eye juxtaposed with unwavering canine loyaly was poignantly highlighted by a courageous child who graciously made the laudable effort to seek the right help.
Neighbours often have a lot to answer for: In one instance a beloved cat who roamed a little further than usual one day, extending his own boundaries, found himself caught at the ankle in a gin trap meant for some other equally unsuspecting creature of the earth. The bone shattered on impact and during the ensueing struggle skin, tendons, nerves and blood vessels were severely damaged. Miraculously this individual got free with his foot still intact suggesting that someone in the know actually released the iron jaws.
The hallmarks of abuse are clear as broken bones. Emotional scarring also physically alters the body and brain permanently. Physical or psychological trauma can be observed in all our domestic animals as fear, manifest in different ways depending on the personality, veering from excessive timidity to outright aggression. One painful incident can inflict a lifetime of torment, and a lifetime of suffering results in numbness, a lack of feeling, inability to engage with the world, a dysfunctional withdrawal as blatent as a suppurating wound visible in victims, and reflected in perpertrators: human and non-human animals alike. The healing lies in recognition of the insult and activation of the compassionate instinct through uninhibited verbal and non verbal communication. The solution is a commitment to non-violence in thought and action, which is acknowledged and respected by all living creatures.
The natural virtues can be found in the least human of beings under most circumstances. We have the power to allow the strongest connections in the sentient world to manifest their life force, or looking through a glass darkly, sever the ties that bind.
Bart and Lady both know how it feels to be abandoned. Bart was rescued from an animal shelter and Lady saved from severe neglect. These dogs discovered a loving home where their romance is very clear. The pair has become inseparable. When sleeping there is always physical contact even if it’s just a stretched out paw, reassuringly touching the other. Bart is the ultimate gentleman: kind, gracious, and chivalrous. Lady is feisty, impetuous, demanding and affectionate. They complement one another in the most charming way, which enhances their relationship to the delight of their caregivers.
A typical horse farm has a prized stallion, an enforced bachelor who covers his seasonal quota of mares. Local stud Stallone, however, cohabits blissfully with life partner, Matisse. During the breeding season he goes out to flirt with other mares gallantly fulfilling his role, always returning to resume the amour. Even so, for ten years Matisse couldn’t conceive, but in her twenty first year she surprised everyone by giving birth to a beautiful filly. At about this time Stallone was diagnosed with a degenerative ocular disease making him go blind, and it is strangely his daughter who, through the strength of their bond and understanding, has become his eyes.
Endearing feline heartthrob, Narcissus, gazes at his reflection in the pond ostensibly catching fish, of which there are plenty in this sea. He is compelled to turn away momentarily, grooming his gleaming coat in an act of adoration that enhances his handsome appearance. The screaming queens preen and cajole, voluptuously visible, seductively averting their gaze. He is saving himself for that special pussy who needs to be more pleasing and available than the virtual aqueous veneer of his dreams. His conquests plead in vain for revelations of his mercurial soul, which lies at the heart of very deep water where even he won’t venture to tackle.
The Pig is a fun and enlightening personality blessed with patience and understanding. Pigs enjoy life and all it has to offer. They are honest and thoughtful and expect the same of other Pigs. Not only intelligent and cultured, the Pig also has a streak of bawdiness and earthiness – they delight in the stimulation of the senses. Pigs adore food, and often over indulge. Pigs are loving and loyal to their mates, and caring and considerate towards those they love. Pigs are sincere, sensitive and sweet, but naive. She allows herself to be duped easily, and is always disarmed by the bad faith of others. The Pig, defenseless, discreet and shy, will never ask anybody else for help; she’ll try to get out of the crate by herself. Her reticence in this respect may do her harm, for nobody will even suspect the torment she’s going through.
Motherly love is a phenomenal binding force as many mothers will affirm. After nine months’ pregnancy, the infant is born into a less perfect world and very soon a strong bond grips them both. Science has proven that it’s less traumatic to remove the calf from the cow before it is three days old rather than leaving them together for longer, diverting total milk yield for profit. She must go on to deliver a calf annually in order to maintain maximum milk production for her life’s duration.
Naturally free ranging hens adhere to a strict hierarchy that keeps the peace in a mutual agreement to live together harmoniously. There is no order to the pecking that ensues in the cramped battery cages where millions of hens find themselves incarcerated to produce sterile eggs with no hope of sanity. Frustrated hens resort to ‘cannibalism’ which is ‘controlled’ by searing their beaks and snipping off their toe tips on the day they hatch, vulnerable after the quiet security of the shell. The fate of these jailed birds is a damning representation of man’s unmitigated greed for luxury goods.
Although agape love also exists in the animal world, even between species, it remains man’s interpretive prerogative. If compassion means acting on feelings of empathy, human beings can improve on animals although they do not always do so.
So 2012 has come and gone. Another year commences and we can all breathe a sigh of relief, rapture, or resignation that life will go on regardless in its messy, haphazard progression despite the presumed failure of a faux chattering class cataclysm. There is, however, a true feeling of renewal, tangible for those who refuse to give in to the realities of destruction of the world as we know it. We only have to look to the other animal species that demonstrate remarkable perseverance, whether they are living in green fields of heaven or hellish incarceration.
Those who have time and headspace to read this will rest assured that we still exist in a bounteous, productive and supportive place, reinforced by selective tuning of our deceptive senses. We are appeased by our ritualistic customs for facilitating the expression of emotion. Arranged celebration, jollity, reverence, protest, mourning, and relaxation, are essentially human habits compared to the spontaneity of similar responses in the rest of the animal kingdom.
You have just shopped at the local supermarket where almost everything your heart desires finds its way into one of the trolleys provided for big spending. The bulk is non-essentials such as toilet paper, cleaning products, fruit juice, coffee, magazines, biscuits, stuff the majority of people in town wouldn’t even consider and therefore don’t even see, ignored much in the same way that some animals are left to suffer. Nevertheless, things many of us can’t live without, including the remains of dead animals, fill the bags, pack the car, and accumulate in the fridge and pantry. At the axis glimmers of the other side threaten to burst the fragile bubbles of perceived worlds in the gauntlet between cashier and private mobile oven that can whisk you quickly away to the cool oasis behind the walls (previously hedgerows), under the trees, comforted by a semblance of exclusivity.
Just as applicant number five hundred and eighty four has registered as unemployed in order to receive a meagre sum that barely feeds the family and a bad habit, a series of champagne corks pop marking an arbitrary date in the universe. Now a regulated starting point for new beginnings, inclusivity, community, abundance, enlightenment, progress, promises, vision, and hope, all embarrassingly short lived through an obligatory display of bravado and fake determination. Transient solace settles when turning over the proverbial new leaf in a book of many pages. But long before the Ides of March the gym subscription gets shelved; the puppy is older, demanding, less cute, a nuisance; salads have gained flesh, loaves, and gravy; and good intentions give in graciously to convenient collapse syndrome.
The shining concept of renewal sparkles like a jewel in murky quagmire status quo. While attempting to identify what truly transcends the barriers towards positive, inclusive and life affirming action, nature is our only inspiration. The water snake emerging from its old skin a bigger, bolder, more intense and focused being. Or even more radically, the butterfly that undergoes a complete transformation of body and mind, diet, movement style, sexuality, and defies all that it assumed to be true, notwithstanding the law of gravity. Like the moulting of feathers or fur in higher animals, sometimes the process is slower, but the shedding of the old, and the welcoming of the new provides vigour and expectation that we will triumph though the shift into a pristine paradigm of a brighter future for the residents of planet earth.
Our current Gregorian calendar year was later a unilateral decision designed to facilitate Northern Hemisphere behaviour patterns by officially ending at the lowest ebb of winter so that people could enjoy a momentary blip of elation during the prolonged period of natural slowing down that brings about retreat from worldly activities. This cold yet cosy contemplation time suited to refocusing becomes the embodiment of emerging spring. Whilst here in the south frustration from enforced disruption of searing summer enterprise midst the seasonal bounty recurs like a nightmare. And again, as the birds and wild creatures withdraw into the balmy shadows at midday, we cringe for doomed domestic animals languishing in the blazing sunshine because nobody has bothered to plant trees or rig up shade cloth.
The smoke and mirrors game of survival impels cautionary assurance of taking nothing at face value in order to thrive in a world where nothing is as it seems. When we scratch the surface, probe, try to find out the truth about something, the response is often linked to a personal agenda. Or has the revival of altruism been predicted in the wake of wikileaks, the exposé on global deception, and the formal recognition of animal sentience by the scientific establishment?
Mitigating perceptions prevail particularly when modified to appease conscience. Whatever is thought to be most delicious must be defended at all costs. Fun spoilt for making a rotten choice in luxury goods is taboo. Perpetrators haunted by the repercussions of ignorance, turning a blind eye, telling a white lie, glossing over, rolling over, however, become heartened as the veil drops when the chickens come home to roost.
The fragile marvel of an egg is handled with infinitely more care and deception than mother hen, later appearing incognito in pastries, cakes and lining of arteries. In the same vein, any concoction smothered with lashings of cream has a ring of decadence, but with depravity at its origins, and a mean end. Bring on the healthy equivalent from the germ of coconuts or cashews – news welcomed by slimmers and protein junkies.
The pitiful folly of foie gras festers as the epitome of imposed gluttony – prized fatty delicacy derived from restrained ducks coaxed through a coarse stratagem of forced feeding as you like it – or knot in the stomach.
Uninvestigated little canine ruse of perfection with its doe eyes, soft coating, and comic cuteness causes smiles now, and tears later. For inbreeding has resulted in deafness, blindness, a feeble heart, weak skin, faulty joints, and a bad back. None of which are apparent until there is a firm bond of mutual affection, by which time it is too late to admit defeat.
Virtual turkey would make a welcome gimmick at Christmas dinner table avoiding the obligation of pretending to savour the sawdusty flesh, and relishing the opportunity to be more creative with cranberries.
Available in a rainbow of alluring colours the party jelly artifice of remolded ground piglets’ feet is a sombre jest. While the mainstay medium of laboratory experiments in cellular growth, agar gel, is at last making culinary inroads into kinder cuisine.
‘Oh but it’s Italian!’ this shoe/bag/wallet/coat/belt: patently conjured from the superficial remains of clubbed seal, gassed mink, slain leopard, or crucified crocodile. Favoured among fascist fashionistas guising for recognition, stature, snobbery, but considered distinctly déclassé among friends of the earth where durable hemp, organic cotton, and softer, warmer, cooler, kinder acrylic equivalents are de rigueur. It looks the same but does it feel like the real thing?
On a lighter note, down is upmarket and a dearer insulation ploy because it comprises fine pubic fluff painfully plucked live back stage from the whitest, most sensitive birds kept in the wings. Geese get their own back on the allergic set, and burst water bed wrecks.
The imposture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing manifests as the benign dictator, a fat cat, feeding on fatal food additives from GM to organochem, indiscriminate distribution of lethal poison bait, or the caged bird singing freedom songs hopelessly misinterpreted as odes to joy.
And now the seriousness of the silly season is taken to the limit with advertising that sells us down the river of returns for what we thought we’d ordered, but turned out to be inferior, fake, and futile attempts at supplying what we want in life.
Captivity has become a natural predicament for our domestic animals. They have devolved through their association with man to become completely reliant for all their needs. We gain insights into their optimum physical and mental health because we know how wild animals thrive. Our own basic needs are virtually the same as those of all non-human animals. We understand that access to food, water, and a comfortable place to sleep are essential. Ample space for movement and to engage in normal behaviour are also highly desirable in order to preserve their dignity, but we often choose to ignore this aspect of their wellbeing.
The paradox of freedom for the domestic animal must be achieved by incarceration. If animals were to be released from our prisons, life would be very difficult. Of course there are exceptions where certain populations of feral cats, wild horses, mutinous pigs, or stray dogs prevail because they can survive without relying directly on humans. Remaining in captivity can be bliss for some, but excruciating for others.
Jock had been permanently tethered by a rusty chain since he was very young. He was kept out of sight behind the house, away from human interaction ‘to make him aggressive’. Over the years the tight fitting collar fabricated from nylon rope had made rough scars where it had cut into his soft neck skin. His diet of meagre scraps had left him undernourished, revealing the bones of his back, ribs, and hips. His mangy skin was covered in sores where he had scratched himself raw. The vacant look in his eyes indicated that he’d given up hope of expecting any attention. He cowered whenever anyone approached him. A bed of old cardboard supplied little warmth in winter, and a scrap of corrugated iron shelter cast shade in summer, but also intensified the ambient heat. One day a link in the chain broke and Jock broke free. He ran from the yard and continued along a dirt road faster, and faster. By the time a car pulled up beside him he was completely exhausted, and collapsed in the dust. A stranger picked him up and started caring for him. Only then could he experience the innate relationship of his longing.
Freedom is always relative but it’s something that every living creature seeks in some way. The urge to flee and explore the unknown is satiated when love conquers fear. A sense of belonging beckons: estrangement repels.
Animals, like most humans, remain strangely spellbound by their circumstances finding it almost impossible to escape the status quo. The certainty of daily routines gives comfort within that predictability. An outward form of imposed captivity reduces one’s options and is usually readily accepted, often providing contentment, while the possibilities of apparent liberty are relinquished. The unknown is then avoided lest it is worse than pain currently endured, or pleasure relished.
Sometimes, against all odds, individuals break free. There are countless stories of the one that got away: a bullock baling out of the slaughterhouse bound truck on, a bird finding the flight gap, fish slipping the excruciating hook… the one that got away, even if only for a temporary respite. These individuals have occasionally become national heroes and attained special status because of their apparent defiance of their imposed sentence. Such stories appeal to our sense of autonomy triumphing over servitude, and we are compelled to offer compassionate recourse.
For the masses of animals that remain trapped within their illusions of freedom, we appease ourselves with the delusion that they are somehow deserving of their lot.
In July 2012 a significant group of prominent scientists signed ‘The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness’ in which they are openly proclaiming their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are. How can it be that this fact has apparently not occurred to the majority in the human race? And how will we react when ‘they’ discover that many animal species are more conscious, more aware, more evolved, and more adapted than we are, and that we have found no way of trying to understand or learn from them?
The implications of this scientific acknowledgement are far reaching. We can assume that until now these (and other) scientists did not support the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are. The majority of people who have anything to do with animals automatically perceive their sentience. But we bizarrely require verification from scientists, the gods of the destructive western cultural phenomenon, before we are willing to truly believe it. Although action is required in the light of the declaration it is highly unlikely to occur in any significant way because of the potential impact on our own sacred lifestyles.
The next logical step would be for governments to declare that animals are indeed sentient and therefore no longer considered ‘property’. This would mean, in effect, that animals could no longer be used for our pleasure in any way from vivisection to veal. As many countries are still grappling with the idea of human rights it seems unlikely that animals will be conceded consciousness in that realm.
Certain species are already regarded by many to be more conscious than others. We have attributed ‘mind’ to dogs and cats as they are regarded as companions, while other primates are obviously akin to man. Animals raised for food such as sheep and chickens are often seen purely in physical terms and routinely treated like objects. Elephants are known to grieve the death of a family member, and cows mourn the abduction of their calves; dolphins play joyfully in the waves, and pigs take pleasure in mud. But these expressions of emotion have always been conveniently described as ‘behaviour’ which makes them more like instinct than feeling, reaction rather than consciousness.
Research shows that it is easier for people to eat an animal that they have decided has no mind, or one they haven’t met before or seen in a form resembling an animal. Sometimes individual animals of a species normally considered to be food are given names because they have been raised as pets, and this makes it difficult for their human caretakers to slaughter and eat them. Animals given names are attributed a greater degree of consciousness.
Familiarity and recognition command a certain respect. Anyone who sees ‘the other’ and recalls the golden rule ‘One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself’ would naturally avoid doing harm. By failing to notice, one lingers in the shadows of life, allowing untold suffering.
A conscious creature imbued with beauty and grace can inspire admiration or destruction. One person will take a photo while another will take a life. Behind the wheel one driver will smash a tortoise crossing the road as easily as another will give way.
So although we are capable of expanding and understanding consciousness we are also given the choice of how to use it.