It was around midnight when I got off the tram at the last stop in Melbourne’s north. As the doors locked behind me, two men, one bare-chested, ran across the street, traffic swerving, and stood in front of the tram, arms crossed. Their eyes were opaque, faces shiny with sweat. “Take us to the city,” one yelled, while the other went around to the driver’s window and started banging on it with his fist.
“This is the last stop,” the driver pleaded through his microphone. “Please, this is the last stop. Let me finish.”
The shirtless man reared up, kicking the tram. “I said, take us to the city!”
In the shadows, I weighed it up. The driver was safe inside the tram; he could phone for help. I, however, was on the outside with them. If I called them off, they’d start in on me.
I slipped away, leaving the yelling men and the tinny “Please move away from the tram” behind me. This is not who I wanted to become, someone who measures the weight of an injustice before intervening, but cities can do that to a person. Walking beside the train tracks to my home, I was unusually nervous. A couple of months earlier, a girl’s throat was slit near here, and last week a pack of guys attacked three girls on a street corner close by. Then, on the footpath ahead of me, a large black dog appeared, bright red collar around its neck. No owner to be seen. It must have slipped out of its backyard for a midnight sniff around the block. As I approached, we cocked our heads at one another and then the dog picked up my pace and trotted alongside. Together we walked, its nails clopping on the cement. When we got to my gate, I unlatched it and closed it behind me, leaving the dog on the footpath. I dropped my hand over the fence, scratching its head, and for a minute we stood like that. Then, with a nod, we went our separate ways.
It was the smallest thing. And I know it could have been the other way around: I could have come across a snarling dog, or those two men at the tram could have had an equally vicious hound with them, and then a nice young man could have appeared out of nowhere and walked me home. But that’s not what happened. I met an amicable creature in a hostile night and that creature was a dog.
A few years ago a letter was read out on America’s National Public Radio about a stray orange cat that wandered into a Michigan prison where many of the male prisoners were serving life sentences. Troy Chapman, the inmate who wrote the letter, said that when he knelt down to pat the cat, it was the first time in twenty years that he had touched an animal. He described how, over the next few weeks, the cat broke down the tough prison culture. Men who had never exchanged words chatted while they petted the cat; one groomed the animal and pulled burrs from its matted coat; others smuggled saucers of milk and scraps of meat from the dining hall and prison kitchen to it, carefully placing the scraps under the dumpster so the seagulls couldn’t reach them.
“There’s a lot of talk about what’s wrong with prisons in America,” Chapman said in his letter. “We need more programs; we need more psychologists or treatment of various kinds. Some even talk about making prisons more kind, but I think what we really need is a chance to practise kindness ourselves. Not receive it, but give it.”
I read this letter, written by a man incarcerated for life after being convicted of second-degree murder, many times while writing this essay. I read it when my confidence wavered, when I wondered about the seriousness of my arguments. This happened quite a lot. I mean, really, a Quarterly Essay about animals? In a series of intelligent analysis that has looked at the looming superpower that is China, the origins of conservatism, the history wars, indigenous Australians, climate change, American and local politics – here I am, writing about animals?
Last year, in Fairfax’s Good Weekend, the novelist Charlotte Wood wrote of her discomfort with people who gushed over animals and a society that humanises them beyond recognition. “Our culture is drenched in anthropomorphic slush,” Wood wrote:
But I find most of it troubling because it seems so disrespectful. Denying the creature’s essential nature – its very animality – is surely an act not of admiration, but subjugation. To downplay the differences between species is to promote the assumption that “humans will only accept what is like themselves,” as American scholar Shelly R. Scott puts it.
The more we sentimentalise animals on the one hand, Wood suggested, the more we brutalise them on the other.
Everywhere you look in our society, there are animals. Well, not actual animals, but caricatures of animals selling us mobile-phone plans, toilet paper, cars, interest rates. As projections, animals proliferate in the flat-screened zoos of cinema, television, YouTube and screen savers, trapped in Pixar worlds, serving as light relief at the end of the day. In shops, you can buy animals cast in clay, plastic, porcelain, and you may hold your new purchase close, cradle it on the way home and place it carefully on the bookshelf, a tiny guardian to watch over your world. Hell, animals are even in our dreams – we wake up talking of lions, snakes and wolves, wondering what they could possibly mean.
2011 was a big year for animals. Asian manufacturers flooded the Western fashion market with leopard-print garments; hipster bands named themselves after birds, deer and horses; and in America the Wrangler Jeans’ “We Are Animals” campaign featured moody photos of muddied models, wearing denim jeans, strewn like seaweed across boulders, creeks and roads.
Locally, Kevin Rudd underwent intensive heart surgery. “Time for a bit of a grease and oil change myself; I’ll be having aortic valve replacement surgery,” said Rudd to reporters. “The docs have said, ‘Kev, it’s time for a new one.’ And so, being the obedient soul that I am, I’ve decided to take their advice.” Rudd emerged with a cow valve inserted inside his chest.
At the MCG, the Australian Football League trialled the use of two wedge-tailed eagles to deter seagulls from hobnobbing on the brightly lit oval during a semi-final game.
In a ceremony on the lawn at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, “Sarbi,” an explosive-detection dog working with the defence force in Afghanistan, was awarded a Purple Cross bravery medal. “For the courage she has shown while serving her country during her time in Afghanistan,” said the president of the RSPCA, Lynne Bradshaw, solemnly hanging the medal around the black labrador cross’s neck.
Around the world, footage of laboratory chimpanzees setting foot outside on grass for the first time became an internet sensation. For over thirty years, the chimps had been kept in laboratories and injected with diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. The images of the primates clustering around the open doorway of their new sanctuary, hugging (yes, hugging) and then running, whooping, across the lawn could unnerve even the hardest of pro–animal testing hearts.
Then, one evening in Melbourne’s western suburbs, a pit bull mastiff cross ran up the driveway of a St Albans house, chasing the occupants inside and following them into the lounge room, where it mauled four-year-old Ayen Chol to death. “These types of dogs have lost their right to exist in Victoria,” said the state’s agriculture and food security minister, Peter Walsh, after the tragedy.
And, finally, the cows. In May, in its program “Bloody Business,” ABC’s Four Corners aired footage of Australian cows being grossly mistreated in eleven Indonesian abattoirs. The wave of revulsion that followed – the inundation of the news media, the overloading of the RSPCA and Animals Australia websites within hours of the report, the thousands of protesters taking to the streets, MPs calling for a conscience vote or threatening to revolt against the party line, and airwaves blocked with people calling for a ban on the trade – forced a ban on the live export of cattle to Indonesia. The veteran political writer Michelle Grattan described parliamentary debate after the screening as the most passionate she had seen in years.
The public response seemed a clear assertion that what had happened was wrong and intolerable. But the story of the live cattle trade is more complex than it seems. And so too is our nuanced and often contradictory relationship with animals. It seems most of us have a minor clause inside us on the treatment of animals – a “that’s not allowed” but “that’s okay.” We have our limits and our permissions. But the categories are becoming more and more blurred. After all, how can we allow one act and not another?
For example, the cattle slaughtered in Indonesia are, to all intents and purposes, objects. “Things” that suddenly became subjects in the glare of a video camera. And to what end? For killing standards to be raised to Western-approved levels so that cattle can safely become objects once more?
Let’s just say this recent controversy succeeds in raising the bar, that slaughtering in Indonesia and the other thirty-odd countries to which Australia exports live animals, either by ship or plane, becomes “world standard.” Death by stunning is implemented across the board. There is Meat and Livestock Australia’s “in the ute, not the boot” campaign, launched in Egypt after Animals Australia (yes, the animal welfare group does seem to be the regulator here) brought back footage of men stuffing sheep into the boot of their car or tying them on the roof rack; the many temporary export bans; the thirty-odd years of intermittent political scrambling followed by political and public amnesia; the Memorandums of Understanding and minor adjustments to the trade – let’s say all this sinks in.
Animals around the world are not kicked or gouged, cows do not – as one Indonesian abattoir was found guilty of five years ago – have hoses shoved in their mouths and anuses before slaughter, filling them with water so the meat will be heavier and sell for more at the market. Instead they’re calmly led to the killing floor, stunned and killed on the first cut. Will that quell the growing unease among many Westerners, a nagging sense, as the Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald late last year, that “Something has gone badly wrong in relations between human beings and other animals”?
Even people who take their lead from Genesis, from its assurance that God has granted us dominion over the beasts in order to feed ourselves, suffer nagging doubts whether factory farming and a food industry operating on an industrial scale to turn living animals into what are euphemistically called “animal products” are quite what God had in mind.
“In the eyes of a butcher a horse is already dead,” wrote Georges Bataille. When I read this, I was reminded of the opaque eyes of the men who accosted the tram driver. Cold slippery eyes that didn’t see people, eyes that, for whatever reason, held no warmth and saw the world, the rest of us, as being at their service. What happens when we turn this look, this strangely blind and indifferent gaze, into an industry?
How can we maintain that animals are things but also beings?
By law in Australia, as in much of the world, animals are “things” and yet they are things with welfare legislation – although some animals enjoy more comfort than others. Livestock, for example, numbering around 500 million in Australia, do not enjoy the same level of protection as companion animals – they are often exempt from rulings on access to sufficient exercise and natural light.
In 1992, Switzerland amended its constitution to recognise animals as “beings” rather than “things.” The amendment, however, was short-lived after the entire constitution was rewritten to leave animals in a kind of status limbo. And two years ago in Spain, higher primates such as apes, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans were granted certain “rights” by the Spanish parliament, the first national legislature to do so.
“This is either a ridiculous society or a dislocated one,” the archbishop of Pamplona told Time magazine in 2008, reiterating the Catholic Church’s argument that the move to grant apes fundamental rights eroded the Biblical hierarchy which gives humans dominion over the earth. “Asking for human rights for monkeys is like asking for bull rights for men.”
Bull rights? Well, not yet, but last year Catalonia staged its last bullfight.
“The fact that some people are silly about animals cannot stop the topic being a serious one,” wrote the philosopher Mary Midgely. Animals are like poetry – supple, simultaneously cryptic and revealing. They are like a patch of sunshine in a garden, on your bed, in a fading afternoon. And like poetry, there’s also a whole lot of crap involved. For one, they’re not poetry.
But we’re drawn to them, and in many ways they’re drawn to us – and this essay is a meditation on that meeting point. “As with most things that confuse me,” wrote Charlotte Wood,
I suspect simply paying closer attention might unlock the puzzling nature of human–animal bonds … for one species to trust another enough to lie down together and sleep – not because of their similarity but despite their difference – is, when you think about it, awe-inspiring. And perhaps it’s in this quiet space that things might be revealed.
I once saw a fox wander down Swanston Street at 4 a.m., its red flame of a tail hovering like a healing hand over the city gutter. And yes, I know it is the wrong type of animal. A pest. But something in me swelled for it.
Another time I watched a tough and tattooed security guard at a XXX club feed the pigeons, those “rats of the sky.” They were cooing around his sneakers, a couple even flying up to his outstretched hands, perching on his fingers. It was as if his face had cracked open to reveal an exquisite kindness, his immersion letting him forget the men down in the den behind him, slotting $2 coins to see naked girls behind a sheet of glass, a box of tissues beside them.
I’m afraid I never really grew up. I never got to that grown-up way of thinking that animals – be it in stories or in life – are either surrogates for humans or things to be used. And that is not to say that I don’t eat them, don’t wear them, don’t ingest pills that have been tested on them. I have done all these things. I am not weighing up whether our treatment of animals is just, because it isn’t. That age-old debate is a farce – deep down we all know it.
The real question is, just how much of this injustice are we prepared to live with?
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY