Thursday, May 28, 2009

Cheap Thrills: The Pleasures of Wildlife Voyeurism

Can’t afford cable TV? No problem: just tune in to the real nature channel!

Attempting to console weary souls unmoored by the financial system’s grand collapse, the New York Times is publishing a series of personal essays called “Happy Days” about “the search for contentment in its many forms — economic, emotional, physical, spiritual — and the stories of those striving to come to terms with the lives they lead.” Today’s piece, by award-winning nature writer Richard Conniff, is entitled “The Consolation of Animals” and encourages readers to enjoy the lively inter-species entertainment being enacted right in their own backyards. (Spoiler alert: Readers may be disturbed by Conniff’s focus on his “exhilaration at the close connection to the hunt,” and his admission that he actually killed and ate one of the animals he eyed.)

As a field journalist, Conniff has traveled to the most distant lands (and waters) to write about exotic animals in their native habitats, but he notes that you can find adventure right in your very own neighborhood: in fact, it’s often waiting just outside your door. Even the most common species of urban wildlife — like rodents, birds and insects — are mesmerizing to observe, especially in interaction with each another. Not only is this simple pleasure completely free of charge, but (more importantly) it reconnects us with the solid ground of human existence, planting our metaphysical feet firmly back on Planet Earth.

Animals live very elementally, immersed in a world that is in many ways a more authentic and immediate reality than the media-saturated technocracy most of us modern humans inhabit. That helps explain why communing with other species is considered weird and even antisocial in polite society. “People who do dumb stuff like racing red-throated loons down a beach in the dead of winter are liable to get a reputation for being a little nuts,” Conniff writes, referring to the social stigma attached to his profession. “But I prefer to think of it as what makes me almost sane.”

Diagnosis: Mass Delusion

This remark also holds true for my own values, which is why I’m still perturbed (even after more than seven years as a vegan) that about 99 percent of the U.S. adult population continues to eat animal products — and that most people still think we vegans are the crazy ones! But I ask, in all seriousness, who’s really disconnected from reality here: us peaceful “gatherers” who follow a philosophy of ethical eating, or the “hunters” who stuff their mouths with the fried corpses and reproductive secretions of other species and then stick their fingers in their metaphorical ears whenever someone reminds them who they’re eating?

Personally, my greatest disappointment as a vegan and animal rights advocate has been the realization that most people are unwilling or unable to look at the world from the animals’ perspective. If they tried, and caught even the briefest glimpse of just how vast and horrendous the atrocities we commit against other species are, such an insight might be enough to spark the beginning of a transformation. Sadly, most people seem afflicted by a form of moral blindness that is perpetually reinforced by a lifetime of indoctrination — from the “four food groups” poster on the classroom wall, to the litany of fast food commercials continually inundating the airwaves.

It seems that, as children, we are instinctively enthralled with the similarities and differences between us and other species, but our attitudes about animals are shaped (and usually distorted) by what adults tell us. Remember, people are taught to fish and hunt — even if we use shopping carts rather than hooks or guns to entrap our helpless prey. We learn that in the “natural order” of the world (defined by us humans), our kind occupies the very top of the food chain, and that we must kill to survive. We are told that it is humanity’s God-given right – nay, sacred duty – to subdue all other creatures, to keep them in check and under our control lest they overturn our divinely-dispensed domination.

Incidentally, this anthropocentric arrogance has already caused the extinction of countless species — and will almost certainly bring about our own destruction someday if we don't stop it. Therefore, at this stage in evolutionary history, I believe that appreciating the complexity and intelligence of animals is not only intrinsic to the ongoing process of our becoming fully human, but the key to our very survival. Fortunately, each of us can (and must) do something concrete to bring about this paradigm shift — starting (as always) with ourselves.

Prescription: Animal Therapy

From time immemorial, ancient shamanic traditions from around the world have incorporated animal archetypes into their spiritual teachings and practices, which psychotherapy pioneer Carl Jung drew on for inspiration in formulating his own revolutionary theories of the mind. Later in the 20th century, an ecopsychology subspecialty known as wilderness therapy emerged that maintains watching wildlife is just what the doctor ordered. Today, an array of studies tout the effectiveness of a thriving psychotherapeutic treatment called animal assisted therapy (AAT), which links “therapy animals” (mostly dogs) with people suffering from mental/emotional maladies for the purpose of human healing.

The point of all these examples is that humans have always looked to animals as a way of figuring out who we are and how to live, and becoming more familiar with the ways of animals has proven an invaluable method of mending the rift we’ve created between ourselves and nature, the symptoms of which manifest in both the wounded environment and the alienated human psyche. But one need not hire a counselor or medicine man to benefit from “the consolation of animals” — just go anyplace there are critters living free (like your backyard, a neighborhood park, a wilderness preserve, or a marine ecosystem), and have at it. You may want to bring a camera to capture all the action!

And, if you can, visit a farm animal sanctuary, where you can meet animals who were raised as “livestock” for slaughter but rescued from abuse, suffering and a horrific death. Ultimately, animal advocates’ best hope for changing the world may be to provide people with unique opportunities to unlearn speciesist beliefs and embrace new values based on our original fascination with all of creation’s creatures. So be sure to bring along a friend (or your sweetheart, if you have one) to share this special experience!

Monday, May 04, 2009

Vegan Vulcan: "Live Long and Prosper – Go Veg!"

A tribute to TV's first vegan character, Star Trek's Mr. Spock

With the much-hyped Star Trek prequel set for an international summer blockbuster premiere in theaters this weekend, I figured this would be a good time to honor television's first vegan character — Mr. Spock from the original Star Trek series, which aired from 1966 to 1969. As an imaginary avatar from a more peaceful, enlightened world (that I'd still like to think is not unthinkable), Spock inspired legions of unrepentant nerds (myself not least among them) to re-envision humanity's present plight in light of a more promising future.

Illustration by Mark Middleton
For those unfamiliar with classic Star Trek lore, Mr. Spock (portrayed by vegetarian actor Leonard Nimoy) was the Science Officer aboard the United Federation of Planets' starship Enterprise in the 23rd century. He was born to a human mother and a father who was Vulcan (i.e., a race of pointy-eared humanoid extraterrestrials dedicated to living strictly by the laws of logic). The Vulcan way of life also incorporates an ideal towards non-violence: as succinctly expressed in the words of The Master himself, “It is illogical to kill without reason.” As such, a central tenet of Vulcan philosophy includes commitment to veganism (though hardcore Trekkers will surely protest that some Vulcans were pescetarians).

As a Vulcan serving aboard the Enterprise, Spock was second in command only to Captain James Tiberius Kirk, and superior in physical strength, as well as mental acuity, to his human shipmates. Spock also possessed uncanny psychic powers that allowed him to “mind meld” with others, giving him direct access to people's thoughts, memories and experiences. Notably, this unique ability parallels the characteristic empathy that many vegans display in their choice not to eat their fellow planetarians. To quote Spock yet again (from the novel Spock's World), "I would remind you, though, that the word for 'decide' is descended from older words meaning to kill; options and opportunities die when decisions are made. Be careful what you kill."

Several years ago in an article examining the potential sociological implications of lab-grown meat, I wrote that, “As a literary genre, science fiction often attempts to envision realities before (or as) they come into being. While most of these futuristic visions remain in the realm of pure fantasy, some prove eerily prescient.” Similarly, veganism has often been presented in the universe of Utopian science fiction as the preferred diet of the most advanced species and societies, whether human or alien (with Star Trek being perhaps the most well-known example of this). So, fellow vegan travelers, take heart in knowing that many of the world's most forward-looking sages have foreseen an animal-friendly future — and I'm not just talking about science fiction writers, but some of the most influential figures in all of human history.

For example, over twenty-five hundred years ago, Pythagoras (who was the first philosopher and vegetarian in the recorded history of Western Civilization) said, “For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love.” Centuries later, the quintessential Renaissance Man, Leonardo da Vinci, was famous even in his own day for being far ahead of his time — and for refusing to eat meat on ethical grounds. With such an auspicious lineage, we vegans today are the inheritors of a long and proud tradition that stretches back many generations into the past — and, perhaps, into the distant future, with Mr. Spock guiding us toward a bold new frontier of compassion for all species.