Anna Krien’s brilliant essay, Us and Them, plumbs the depths of three kinds of contact between us and other animals, which she calls killing, testing and hunting. All involve one-on-one violence and are a stark contrast to the empathy which many feel with the companion or other animals they meet. But as I read the essay, a couple of questions relentlessly hunted, tested and sometimes killed my attention. The first is about eyes. Do killer-tester-hunters look their victims in the eye? Krien gives eyes many a mention. They are gouged and poked, they dart and observe. But they are looked at rather than into.
Perhaps it’s the very intensity of the interaction that makes eye contact considered rude in some cultures, but in the West it’s what we do. Film plots frequently turn on eye contact. The clichéd lovers across a crowded room, the villain realising he’s been glimpsed in the act, or the riveting eyeline through a rifle scope in the unforgettable jungle confrontation between good and evil in Platoon. Physical contact beyond a handshake is generally reserved for a small inner circle of friends and family, but eye contact involves us in interpersonal relations with vastly more people. Can we trust a person who won’t look us in the eye? Perhaps that depends on whether we ourselves can lie with a straight gaze and steady voice. Is eye contact more revealing of intent than praise, a caress or a gift? I suspect so.
And with animals? What about eye contact between us and them? Krien has missed it. Eye contact doesn’t happen with all species, but when it happens, it can transfix. In any event, it’s all you will get from a wild duck. I had a lesson about ducks and eye contact in my first days of rescuing the wounded victims of duck shooters over twenty years ago. A friend with years of Fauna Rescue experience told me that avoiding eye contact was the key to getting close enough to have a chance at rescuing the injured birds. Ducks with shotgun injuries sufficient to stop them flying will hide where they can. In swamp vegetation they can easily become invisible and they know it. You can walk within a metre and be oblivious to their presence. But make eye contact and they will be off. Diving and swimming and popping up in another clump of vegetation in some random direction. Broken legs won’t stop them. Broken wings won’t stop them. They are fleeing as if their life depends on it, because it normally does.
Perhaps our capacity to recognise eye contact so well stems from the same place as a duck’s. For millions of years before we added prostheses to our limbs and learned to kill with intent, we were cat food. The predator that fails to recognise having been seen will miss a meal, but the stakes are higher for prey.
I was sceptical that a bird with a brain the size of a walnut could decipher eye contact with a person, but a duck does. The trick is to scan with a panning motion and try to keep any duck you glimpse on the edge of your vision. Then walk towards a point a metre or so to one side. Pounce when close. Don’t be diffident.
A thousand years ago another Anna Krien, or more likely a male counterpart, could have written a similar essay to Us and Them, but about slaves. They were hunted like ducks, for pleasure if not for food, and they were sold like cattle. The same was still true 160 years ago, but the tide was turning. Gentlemen slave traders with silken manners and a horde of bastard children felt the need to try to justify their activities. We still have slave traders and flesh traffickers, but these days they make no pretence of civility. The evil is naked. Bald of face and steady of gaze, it looks its victims in the eye without flinching. Probably because evil looks at eyes and not into them. Perhaps in another 200 years, people will still be killing and hunting animals but there too the pretence will have vanished. Gratuitous killing will be seen for what it is.
But there are also relationships with animals well beyond the intimate. They were the second shadow that plagued my reading of Krien’s essay. They are beyond eye contact and beyond the nuzzle, pat and stroke. These are missing from Krien’s very personal essay. Just as there is a split-second when both parties realise eye contact has been made, there is a similarly brief but one-sided instant when our reasoning crystallises an idea. When the complex becomes blindingly obvious. In the quantitative sciences, it is called an Aha! or Eureka moment. Some borrow the word epiphany from the religious lexicon.
“Cold hard facts” is a loathsome expression for stuff which matters. What kind of person is moved by eye contact with a single distressed calf but unmoved by the knowledge that a million are taken annually from their mothers at birth and trucked long distances to slaughterhouses?
A study in the mid-1960s estimated that the weight of livestock on the planet was nineteen times that of wildlife. A more recent study estimated that it takes about ten tonnes of herbivore to support a ninety-kilogram carnivore. What has happened since the 1960s? Wildlife habitat has shrunk still further, while the realm of livestock has expanded. We are now in an era where the relationship of “us” to “them” isn’t revealed by eye contact but ratios.
Put the jigsaw together and you may or may not say “Aha!”, but you should at least understand why your choice to eat animals comes at the expense of not just the animals eaten but the entire web of wildlife that used to populate the planet.
The bulldozers that dragged the first spiked balls through primary Queensland rainforest on the Tully River in the 1960s killed and displaced wildlife en masse. There may have been an Aha! moment for the person who first realised that if you insert a huge spiked metal ball into a heavy chain using swivel hinges and drag it through the forest, the spikes will dig into the trunks of trees, the ball will climb and the resulting leverage will allow even huge trees to be felled with relative ease. The first Australians used fire; the first white Australians used ring-barking and later dynamite. But bulldozers and spiked balls made deforestation faster and cheaper. “Faster”and “cheaper”: these are the drivers of history. We might wish “eye contact” was a driver, but it is so easily avoided.
The beginnings of the modern environmental movement in Australia are sometimes traced back to the Builders Labourers Federation’s green bans around four hectares at Kelly’s Bush in 1971. This was in the heart of Sydney’s northern suburbs. Many people could eyeball those four hectares in a way that wasn’t possible with the 20,000 hectares cleared to grow cattle on the Tully River. They could eyeball the bush, perhaps even make eye contact with a bird or two from twenty metres with a pair of binoculars. Did the Kelly’s Bush campaigners hold barbeque fundraisers with cheap beef snags from Queensland? More than likely.
Be it biodiversity or climate change, we are constantly hampered by an inability to be moved by cold hard facts. Just like a duck, we need eye contact with impending disaster before action. Until that arrives, we sit quietly and hope our cloak of invisibility is sound of seam.
Krien’s essay is beautiful but dominated by the middle of the relationship between us and them. It focuses on the space between intimacy and cold hard facts. Intimacy dominates in the halls of welfare groups and pet owners, but cold hard facts have to assert themselves to give us a chance of reducing our damaging dominance over the planet.
Geoff Russell is a mathematician by training, a long-time member of Animal Liberation in South Australia, and the author of CSIRO Perfidy (2009).
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 46, Great Expectations.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY