Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Ultimate World War: Animals Against Humans

Sudden increase in animal-on-human attacks may be revenge-motivated, say some scientists

I know it sounds like I'm making this up, but I'm not: some scientists now actually believe that drastically rising incidences of animal-on-human violence around the world are due at least partially to a concerted effort by various members of the animal kingdom to exact vengeance upon humanity for all the atrocities we have committed against them. A radical shift in how animals interact with humans is taking place, they say – and it may be because other species are becoming aware in some new way of their mass-enslavement and victimization by none other than the human race. I have hazy childhood memories of a badly-acted made-for-TV natural disaster movie from the late-seventies in which this was actually the plot: who would've predicted back then that this schlocky premise wouldn't necessarily turn out to be so farfetched after all?!

I learned about this zoogenic conspiracy from a fascinating article entitled “Mad cows (and livid lambs)” that appeared recently in the Telegraph, a British newspaper. Citing the statistically-astonishing rise in animal attacks on humans over the last few years—ranging from elephants, chimpanzees and sharks to dogs, mountain lions and badgers—journalist Will Storr bolsters the assertion that nature may be turning on us by including informed observations from respected field researchers and numerous stories of real-life animal attacks. He also clearly conveys what is perhaps the most crucial component of this equation, which is that modern scientific research overwhelmingly indicates animals are far more intelligent and aware than even most animal lovers had assumed.

Meaning, significantly, that before scientists could even consider the possibility that other species may be revolting against us for destroying their habitats and slaughtering their families en masse, they first had to give animals credit for being smart enough to recognize the cause of their suffering and where to seek retribution. Logically, the theory implies that animals must have complex thoughts and emotions – an intricate inner life from which they respond to the outer world. Someday, when researchers conclusively prove this to be true, it will radically transform humanity's view of animals – and, hopefully, our treatment of them.

One of the leading voices in the scientific movement towards getting people to recognize the depth of animal consciousness is vegan ethologist and author Marc Bekoff, who is quoted extensively in the article. Bekoff (a Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder who has collaborated with Jane Goodall) says that animals are almost certainly motivated by revenge in some situations. However, judging from the article, he seems to approach cautiously the idea that a pan-species rebellion is underway across the globe.*

But this is precisely what some scientists are suggesting. Gay Bradshaw, a world-renowned elephant expert and director of the Kerulos Centre for Animal Psychology and Trauma Recovery, believes that “What's happening today is extraordinary. Where for centuries, humans and animals lived in relatively peaceful co-existence, there is now hostility and violence.” The evidence presented by Bradshaw and her colleagues that recent elephant rampages are tied to the species' psychological traumatization has gained some notable interest from animal researchers and even the general public. Bradshaw and other researchers simply expanded their perspective beyond marauding gangs of juvenile-delinquent pachyderms as the number and range of animal attacks from across the species spectrum rapidly accelerated.

“Animals have the same capacity that we do, in terms of emotions and what we consider to be high-mindedness and moral integrity,” she said. “In fact, I'd argue they have more, because they haven't done to us what we've done to them. That's a sobering thought. It's amazing that all the animals are as benign as they are. It's amazing their restraint. Why aren't they picking up guns?”

Ironically, this sentiment is consistent with what the National Rifle Association (NRA) suggested could happen in an illustration from one of their fundraising booklets, which I addressed at length in January 2007 right here in this very blog. "Even though the picture is pure fantasy," I wrote, "I think it is an accurate rendering of the NRA's deepest fears: that the future holds wild packs of pissed-off animals roaming the post-McDonald's® wasteland seeking vengeance against their bipedal oppressors. Obviously, once animals are freed, they will kill and enslave humans in retribution. Kind of like the old adage that if we didn’t hunt, eat, experiment on and otherwise torture and kill animals, they’d all either die of starvation or take over the world…"

So it seems I may have gone off a little half-cocked there in mocking the NRA's potentially valid fears. For, as Storr points out in the Telegraph article, "Stories like these remind us that there are millions of beasts armed with teeth and stingers, who can out-sniff, out-run, out-fly, out-fight and out-bite any of us. The eerie truth is that, right now, we're surrounded. As a species, we've been at the top of the food chain for so long, we've forgotten that 'humans' are mere anthropoid apes and, in distant millennia, we had to fight the feral armies to get here. In our hubris, we imagine we're an animal apart."

If it turns out animals are attacking and killing humans as retaliation for our arrogant attitude, my fear is that people will see this as all the more reason to massacre them in even greater numbers. When humans feel in immediate danger, their capacity for reflective thinking basically defaults to the "fight or flight" instinct—it's me or him, us against them—rather than compassion. Consequently, people may not understand or care that we humans are causing this aberrant violence by abusing animals so terribly, and that we might therefore be able to reverse it by treating the planet and its inhabitants decently.

Humans too lash out with lethal force against other humans who they perceive to be oppressing them: we generally call these people terrorists. And what have their horrific suicide bombings and televised beheadings of infidels wrought? Panicked, we Americans forfeited some of our most precious civil liberties in the name of safety, and our President initiated a preemptive war based on falsified claims that has cost thousands of lives, trillions of dollars and our moral standing in the global community. The question is, has all this destruction brought us closer to peace and security or mutual annihilation?

For myself and others, 9/11 was a wake up call that signaled a desperate need to prevent future tragedies by questioning what drives terrorists to take up arms in the first place. Could America's oil-dominated economy (which necessitates a foreign policy of kissing up to Middle Eastern dictatorships) have some role in creating the horrendous living conditions endured by millions in the Persian Gulf? Does our country really respect the peoples of the Middle East, or do we undermine their freedom by financially and politically supporting harsh regimes where dissenters are systematically imprisoned, tortured and executed for speaking truth to power?

Likewise, given all that we do to animals, it should not surprise anyone that they'd want to take revenge on us: the real question here is, do they have the ability to knowingly and collectively strike back at humans based on this motivation? If the answer is yes, then this war between us will only escalate, because it seems unlikely that humanity will be accepting animals as equals on this Earth anytime soon. Therefore, consider: if animals and humans really do start fighting an all-out war against one another, which side will you be on...and, as a human being, will you even have a choice?

* Bekoff's response to this blog entry is included in the Comments section below.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Obama vs. McCain on Animals & the Environment: Round 1

Barack Obama: Democratic candidate for President of the United States of America

After my last post regarding Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin's record on animals and the environment, I figured I should take a broader look at where the two Presidential candidates stand on animals and the environment, because of course the top of the ticket is really where it's at. Basically, I am concerned with whether Obama or McCain would better serve the interests of other species, from farm animals to wildlife, if elected. (In the interest of journalistic credulity, this is a good time to mention that I support Obama, but that I nevertheless strive to objectively convey my take on the available facts.)

I'm currently reading the recently-published Obama campaign book Change We Can Believe In: Barack Obama's Plan to Renew America's Promise, which is basically a blueprint for what he wants to do as President. Here's one excerpt that is worth the consideration of animal welfare advocates:

“Give Family Farmers the Stability They Need to Thrive"

"Barack Obama believes that our farm programs and supports should go to help family farmers—not large agricultural companies—survive and thrive. As President, he will fight for farm programs that are targeted directly at family farmers, giving them the stability and predictability they need to succeed. An Obama Administration will support an effective payment limitation of $250,000 so taxpayers aren't underwriting big agribusiness. Most important, it will close the loopholes that allow mega-farms to get around the limits by subdividing their operations into multiple paper corporations. Finally, an Obama Administration will make agriculture disaster assistance permanent.”

Helping small-scale family farms by withdrawing the unfair advantages that have allowed agribusiness conglomerates to dominate the marketplace for decades would likely lead to improved animal welfare, as much of the suffering on factory farms is due not only to their standard mechanized production methods, but also their size. That is, factory farms are not only more likely to use battery cages and gestation crates, for example, but their massive scale inherently devalues the lives of individual animals, who, for “practical” economic reasons, are therefore much less likely to receive veterinary care than those raised on smaller family-owned farms. Statistically speaking, factory farms are responsible for a lot more animal abuse, cruelty and suffering than family farms that, comparatively, at least remain rooted in some semblance of traditional animal husbandry.

Leveling the playing field will also help family farms to compete successfully without being forced into adopting intensive factory farm methods by a fixed market system that rewards the biggest producers (simply because they can afford to hire lobbyists), a development that most animal protection advocates would support. However, some are uncomfortable choosing sides here because both of them are essentially exploiting animals for profit, even as many more animal protectionists have already aligned themselves with family farmers against some of factory farming's worst abuses. A prime example of this is Prop 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, which is endorsed by numerous family farmers, and will be on the ballot in California this November.

Further on in the book, a section entitled Safeguard the Environment for Future Generations begins:

“Just as it's critical that we stop the planet from warming, it's also important that we protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soil in which we plant our crops. Doing so is the basis of a sacred trust we must safeguard for our children and grandchildren; their health and their well-being depend on it. For too long, too many in Washington have sought to divide us over these issues, arguing that we could only either protect the environment or grow our economy. Barack Obama rejects that false choice.”

In addition to explaining how Obama plans to clean up America's air and water, this section addresses restoring wetlands, helping Western states meet water demands, reducing poisons like mercury and lead, holding polluters accountable, and environmental justice. Obama’s energy and environment plans are also laid out in detail on his website.

Killer Conservation

However, most animal advocates will be disappointed by the following section entitled “Honor Sportsmen and Protect the Great Outdoors,” which speaks of “the great conservation legacy of America's hunters and anglers.” The section goes on to support Second Amendment rights, expanding access for hunters and anglers to public lands, and preserving habitats for “sportsmen” – and animals, by proxy, so these self-styled “athletes” can have someone to “compete” against (i.e., kill).

OK, so Obama's not exactly the ideal animal protection candidate, but at the same time, realize that Obama has never himself gone hunting, and that not all hunters are the same: meaning—no matter how hard it may be for us animal advocates to accept—many hunters do genuinely care about conservation. At least these “moderate” hunting advocates enter the wilderness with some pretext of responsible stewardship – especially when compared with their much more extreme counterparts.

For example, the hunters Obama refers to are those who would ostensibly abhor the aerial hunting of wolves in Alaska, canned hunts and the delisting of polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. Aside from their penchant for shooting innocent wild animals, these hunters share some crucial common ground with animal advocates and environmentalists in that they want to preserve wildlands (even if it is, primarily, to satisfy their own violent recreational desires) and reject the worst excesses of those hunters who (like McCain’s running mate, for instance) glory in the most abjectly cruel types of animal slaughter.

Oil Under the Ice

Notably, as far as oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is concerned, Obama says he would consider "a careful, well thought-out drilling strategy that was carefully circumscribed to avoid significant environmental damage." Many critics of oil drilling in ANWR argue that it won't lower gas prices but merely despoil one of America's greatest natural treasures at the behest of oil profiteers. Already, over 500 toxic spills occur in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay oil fields and pipelines each year: do we really want to expose one of the last remaining truly pristine places in the US to this?

Also notable is that Obama's position is actually the moderate one in this Presidential race. Considering the possibility of resource development in the ANWR is a world of difference from the unofficial slogan of the Republican National Convention, where chants of "Drill, baby, drill!" broke out amongst the crowd. Kinda ironic, actually, since, as of press time, McCain opposes drilling in the ANWR, but his VP pick who governs the state it's in wants to drill the hell out of it. What it basically comes down to for me is, I'm on the side of the polar bears, birds, caribou, and other animals living in the ANWR who obviously wouldn't want people and machines invading their habitat and leaving poisons in their wake.

Dog Due Do

When asked by a woman at a Las Vegan town hall meeting about his stance on animal rights, Obama quipped that he cares very much about them, and “not only because I have a 9-year-old and 6-year-old who want a dog.” A flip answer, to be sure, on a serious topic that has never really been part of any election year dialogue, but at least he had a positive response and seems open minded about the concept. Even so, his reference to children and dogs also raises the question of whether Obama fully understands the true meaning and full implications of animal rights, and what his stance would be if he did.

Anyhow, the Obamas, displaying responsibility as parents and impending guardians, promised their daughters a dog after the campaigning is done. More than 42,000 people cast their votes for what breed they thought would be best for the family, and the poodle won. Whatever breed the Obamas do choose to adopt come November, the American Kennel Club has offered to “assist them in responsibly acquiring a puppy or adult rescue dog.”

Some animal advocates started campaigns to encourage the Obamas to adopt a mixed-breed, the biggest dog on the animal rights block to do so being PETA president Ingrid Newkirk. In a letter to the Obamas, she wrote that “This country is proud to be a melting pot, and there is something deeply wrong and elitist about wanting only a purebred dog." Obviously, she’s got a point there. After all, “Millions of Great American Mutts—the dog that should be our national dog—are set to die in our nation’s extremely overcrowded pounds and shelters for lack of good homes."

(On a side note, the Palin family also lacks a dog, so maybe someone will start a campaign recommending the breed that best fits her particular personality…ok, all you canine cosmetologists out there, I assume you know where I’m going with this, so I’m gonna stop now...)

Obama’s Other Animal Actions

According to the blog Vegan Soapbox, Obama “is considered a strong candidate on animal rights issues.” For example:

- As a US Senator, he co-sponsored legislation to stop horse slaughter, saying “I think how we treat our animals reflects how we treat each other, and it’s very important that we have a president who is mindful of the cruelty that is perpetrated on animals.” He also voted to upgrade federal penalties for dogfighting and cockfighting, and to criminalize possession of fighting dogs as well as dogfight attendance.

- He signed a letter requesting increased funds for enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act, the Humane Slaughter Act and federal laws against animal fighting. He also wrote a letter to the National Zoo in Washington, DC expressing concern for the health of Toni, an elephant who was subsequently euthanized in 2006 at the age of 38 due to captivity-related causes.

- In his response to a questionnaire by the Humane Society Legislative Fund, Obama pledged support for almost every animal protection bill currently pending in Congress, and says he will collaborate with executive agencies like the USDA to make their policies more humane.

In Conclusion

I still plan to write Round 2 of this entry – that is, an analysis of John McCain’s record on animals and the environment. Sorry to be a spoiler, but I’ve already absorbed quite a lot of information about the candidates (from partisan, bi-partisan and non-partisan sources, as well as the two competing campaigns), and feel confident in saying that the animal advocacy and environmental movements will be much better off with the Democrats in this election cycle. Legislative report cards based on the candidates’ records and positions seem to bear this assertion out:

- On the Humane Society Legislative Fund's most recent Humane Scorecard, Obama got a rating of 75 (as did Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Joe Biden), whereas McCain got a 25.

- The League of Conservation Voters, on their 2007 Congressional Scorecard, gave McCain a score of zero for his voting record in the Senate on environmental issues, whereas Obama scored 67 out of 100.

- The Sierra Club strongly endorses Obama over McCain in the election, and released a Presidential Scorecard that provides a side-by-side comparison of the candidates on energy and the environment.

- The Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund officially announced their endorsement of Obama/Biden with a scathing press release blasting McCain for picking "the notoriously anti-environmental Palin" as his running mate, and calling his conservation voting record "mediocre at best, often erratic, and clearly inferior to that of either Obama or Biden."

Across the board, actually—from the economy and the war in Iraq to foreign policy and civil liberties—Obama is the clear choice in this election for progressives (and anyone else who's still sane after two Bush terms) …unless, of course, you want to go third party (and hey, I readily admit, I’m a registered Green who voted for Nader/LaDuke in 2000). If you live in California (or any other sure-shot Blue State), your vote pretty much doesn’t count, given the Electoral College system, because (fortunately) Obama’s gonna kick ass in our little corner of Neverland. But if you or someone you know lives in one of the swing states, please—I beg of you!—vote or urge your friend to vote carefully in full consciousness of the consequences for the animals, America and the world.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Palin's "Polar Express"

To McCain’s rootin’ tootin’ VP pick, wildlife is for shootin’ and the planet is for pollutin’

Clearly, there’s something about Sarah Palin that places her a cut below even most other far-right-wing politicians when it comes to animals and the environment. An avid moose hunter and lifetime member of the National Rifle Association (NRA) who, as Governor of Alaska, actively promotes the aerial hunting of wolves because they prey on the big game that hunters like to shoot, Palin also filed a federal lawsuit last month to keep polar bears off the Endangered Species List because it would allegedly harm the state’s "oil and gas...development" prospects.

Even though a 2007 US Geological Survey report warned that two-thirds of all polar bears could be wiped out by 2050 if Arctic ice continues melting at the rate predicted by scientists, Palin sued the federal government for daring to protect this increasingly vulnerable species and their delicate habitat. The Bush Administration has been trying to neutralize the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for years, so it was probably no coincidence that, just one week after Palin filed her lawsuit, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne ran a new rule up the flagpole that would essentially allow the very federal agencies proposing and carrying out government-funded projects, rather than Fish and Wildlife Service scientists, to decide for themselves whether their development plans threaten the survival of endangered species. Such a change would essentially disable the ESA as the guiding force in US environmental policy that it has been for the last three and a half decades.

With approximately 30,000 species going extinct every year, never to exist again, the Earth cannot afford such narrow-minded, short-sighted policies, yet Kempthorne's proposal is expected to pass. The public comment period for the rule change expires on Monday, September 15, so if you care about polar bears and other threatened and endangered species, now is the time to let the US Fish & Wildlife Service know how you feel about this plan.

If the new rule is enacted, the next administration to take the White House could choose to reverse it and return things to the way they have been since the ESA became the law of the land in 1973. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama swiftly condemned the proposal when it was made public, so there is a good chance he will rescind it if elected. Republican nominee John McCain did not comment on the plan, but based on his choice of Palin as a running mate, it seems fairly certain that the rule would remain firmly in place under their watch.

Put some of the puzzle pieces together, and it isn’t too hard to see a disturbing pattern of violence, ignorance, intemperance, and just plain meanness emerging from the details of Palin’s life and politics. Blatantly disregarding overwhelming scientific evidence and consensus, she still doesn’t believe there’s a direct correlation between human activity and global warming (confirmed once again by her evasive answers to Charlie Gibson's questioning in yesterday's interview on ABC News), and consequently opposes protecting an irreplaceable apex species whose icy habitat is steadily melting. She kills free-living moose for fun and makes stew from their carcasses, and spent $400,000 in tax funds on a campaign to promote the unsportsmanlike practice of gunning down wolves from low-flying airplanes simply so she and her NRA buddies can have more living targets to shoot at on their lethal recreational outings. She wants to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) (which happens to be in Alaska) to oil company drilling, exploitation and profits, despite the real and present danger this would pose to the fragile ecosystem and its native and migratory inhabitants, from polar bears to bowhead whales. She is also a religious fundamentalist who doesn't believe in evolution and wants public schools to teach creationism.

What we see from these examples (as well as many others comprising Governor Palin’s record) is that she is out of step with the great majority of Americans, who:

- Generally don’t hunt animals, and see the aerial hunting of wolves as viciously cruel;

- Overwhelmingly accept that human activity is the cause of global warming;

- Oppose oil drilling in the ANWR because it's ecologically reckless and won’t relieve our dependence on foreign suppliers;

- Recognize the scientific validity of evolutionary theory and that creationism is nothing more than a religiously-driven doctrine extrapolated from Biblical mythology; and

- Want strong protections for threatened species like polar bears under the ESA.

If Sarah Palin becomes the next Vice President (or, heaven forbid, President of the United States, should 72-year-old cancer patient McCain die in office), expect to see a radical shift in government policies towards anti-animal and anti-environmental extremism over the next four (or more) years—both Man and Woman against Nature—that will surpass even the Bush era's mighty excesses. I dearly hope, for the sake of our country and the world, that American voters who understand what is at stake—from animals and the environment to the economy, the Iraq war, foreign relations, and civil liberties—will not let that come to pass.

p.s. If (like me) you are somewhat flummoxed by Sarah Palin's appeal to voters, read this insightful essay by cognitive linguist and political analyst George Lakoff for an enlightening perspective on the importance of "emotional symbolism" in political campaigns.

p.p.s. Animal advocates may be greatly disappointed to learn that Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech for the Republican Vice Presidential nomination was penned by none other than key Bush speech writer Matthew Scully, author of the bestseller Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. I find it hard to understand how Scully can reconcile the contradiction between the trigger-happy Palin and his righteous contempt for those who shoot innocent animals (as quoted from page nine of his book regarding hunters):

“And to me it has always seemed not only ungenerous and shabby but a kind of supreme snobbery to deal cavalierly with them (animals), as if their little share of the earth’s happiness and grief were inconsequential, meaningless, beneath a man’s attention, trumped by any and all designs he might have on them, however base, irrational or wicked.”