Back in the 1970s, when I was doing Year 12 biology, we studied a famous experiment. Apparently, baby rhesus monkeys deprived of a mother would choose a fur “mother” that they could cuddle over a metal “mother” which had milk to feed them, even if they starved to death. When spikes were hidden in the fur, inflicting various forms of distress on the babies, they would still attempt to cling to the fur mother. It was only a few years ago that I began to wonder: why was this experiment considered necessary, given that what was proven was what most of us would assume? And who came up with the idea of putting the spikes in the fur?
In China Miéville’s novel The City and the City, two distinct cultures and cities survive, in the same geographical location, by “unseeing” the other. “Seeing” is a form of heresy. Anna Krien’s Us and Them is an exercise in a similar heresy as she opens her (and our) eyes to look directly at the lives of the animals that live with us and around us, that are bred by us and killed by us. She’s not the first writer and thinker to do this, and she won’t be the last. But each time an essay such as this is written, it becomes harder for all of us to “unsee” the plight of animals.
There are many confronting moments in the essay, too many to list here, but Krien doesn’t just rely on images of violence to make her point. She also refers to the biologist Edward O. Wilson’s description of the period that will follow the massive extinction of species that is currently taking place as “The Age of Loneliness,” which is the kind of phrase that chimes out, and then leaves a hollow silence. Reading Us and Them is an emotional business. Indeed, Krien encourages emotional responses with an approach to her subject that is personal, not abstract. As a writer she’s made the right decision in doing this: the reason that our killing and sometimes torturing of animals on a mass scale has been normalised is because of our refusal to connect to the subject on an emotional level. Abstraction is, if you like, another form of “unseeing,” or, perhaps, “unfeeling.”
The other night, at the end of a long, sad day during which I read Krien’s essay, I was listening to the radio news as a particularly grisly war crime was being reported on. How do people let this happen? I thought. Why are they unable to speak up? I was thinking about collusion and the way it allows so much horror, violent and otherwise, to be visited upon human beings. And then a flash of the footage of cattle being slaughtered in Indonesian abattoirs came into my head. It was this same footage – shown on Four Corners almost a year ago – that led Krien to visit Indonesia and consider the plight of the cattle and the workers, and the machinations of the beef industry. Then an older memory returned, one that’s haunted me on and off for some twenty years. I was in Sapa, in Vietnam, in the early ’90s, and I saw a group of men kick a pig to death in the village square. It happened because the pig had struggled and escaped when it was being forced into a cage on the back of a motorcycle. As it was kicked and punched, it screamed in terror and in pain (sounds that were uncannily human, I must say) while I, and other tourists, stood and watched, uncertain as to what to do.
In general I’ve been finding that the boundaries I’d put up between different parts of my life have started falling away as I’ve grown older. I can’t eat a plate of slow-cooked lamb without wondering about the treatment of the lamb when it was alive. I can’t avoid thinking about the fact that the attentive, loving and curious intelligence of my cats is not a quality I have given them – it’s a quality that they brought to our relationship and that they share with most animals. They are, to be blunt, my intimate friends, so what does it mean when I eat creatures similar to them? Creatures similar to me?
After decades of holding these thoughts at bay, they’ve lodged themselves in my brain and there’s no shaking them. It’s an awakening of sorts, and while it’s been in train for a long time and influenced several writing projects, it was Us and Them which meant I couldn’t, for a moment longer, escape the following admission: I collude, all meat eaters collude, in an industry based on the suffering and terror of fellow beings. The fact that these beings aren’t human doesn’t change that, and nor does the spurious notion that a human being’s life is worth more than an animal’s. I’m ashamed it’s taken me so long to allow myself to accept this.
Krien seems to know such realisations take a long time, and the essay ends on a poignant note of fragility, age and understanding. The implication is that as you get older, you start to understand that your body may fail you at any moment. As a consequence you see animals as kin and there is the realisation that there is no us and them. There is only us.
Sophie Cunningham is a writer, editor and publisher. Her most recent book is Melbourne (2011).
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 46, Great Expectations.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY