Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Thoughts on Animals' Lives and Deaths

We humans enjoy a certain degree of supremacy on Earth. We’re not the biggest, strongest or fastest animal (and I often doubt that we’re the smartest), but we are the most powerful. We have tools and weapons and a boundless capacity to imagine which has led us to dream and create and take over the planet.

I don’t think it’s unnatural for us to care most urgently about the lives of humans, our own kind, and to be inclined to value them more highly than those of other creatures. Just like how I’d be saddened more by a death in my family than a death in your family, and no one could fault me for that – it’s proximity to each of us as an individual that makes the greatest impact. But, as any animal rights advocates reading this will certainly agree, the lives of other animals matter too. I say other animals, as we, after all, are also animals. Their lives matter a lot, and should be valued, respected, and protected. We should be using our power to protect and fight for those who can’t fight for themselves.

I am saddened and sickened by the two, seemingly intentional, barn fires that occurred yesterday in the Goulds. I was so relieved and grateful to hear that all the animals – horses and dogs – that were caught in the first barn fire managed to escape unharmed. Then I heard there was a second barn fire – in the same area, on the same day – and this time, all animals were killed. That’s seven horses and three goats that burned to death in the blaze. People are upset and appalled and saddened, but it has occurred to me that it would, of course, be a much bigger story if 10 human beings had been killed in a fire in St. John’s last night. And I want to try to understand why this is.

Like I said, it doesn’t seem unnatural to me to be more upset by human death because we are humans and we connect deeply on an emotional and psychological level to other humans. But are we upset enough about animal death? Particularly in this kind of incident, where it appears like a human being willfully set a barn on fire, likely being fully aware that there were innocent living creatures inside. Some people are relieved no people were killed, but what about the ten lives lost?

My feelings about how we psychologically relate to animals and value their lives isn’t restricted to domesticated animals and animal companions like horses and dogs. Something that really upsets me, that is very regionally specific to Newfoundland and Labrador, is our relationship to moose. I care about people, and I don’t want anyone to be in a moose-vehicle collision. I fear being in an accident, and I am ever vigilant for moose on the highway. But the attitude that some people have about moose is troubling.

My occupation allows me to interact with a lot of people, including a lot of strangers on the phone. I spoke with a woman recently who actually thought the moose should be eradicated, because they are such a problem on the highways and because “we don’t need them.” Lady, moose have just as much a right to live on this island as you do. Of course we don’t want any people losing their lives on the road because of accidents, but more times than not it’s the moose that is killed. A moose that is someone’s mother, or father, or baby.

The argument that it’s OK for moose to die because the population is “out of control” doesn’t sit well with me. Isn’t the population of humans on the planet the most out of control? Aren’t animal species everywhere becoming endangered and extinct while human populations surge? Moose populations may be out of control, but maybe if we hadn’t exterminated the wolf population 100 years ago, it wouldn’t be an issue.

Something good: The man and woman charged with animal cruelty, for the suffering and death of their dog, Max the German Shepherd, were found guilty.

“The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.” 
- Leonardo da Vinci

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Christmas Conundrum: Enslaved to Tradition

“There are only 22 more days to shop before Christmas!” As I continue to hear this kind of sentiment, it increasingly agitates and baffles me. As children, we tend to accept the world around us as inevitable. Certainly as a little girl in Newfoundland, an environment predominately saturated by Christian culture, I never questioned Christmas. It seemed like an inevitability, a non-optional custom regardless of one’s actual religious leanings.

Can you opt out of Christmas? Not all of it, but the parts you dont like and enjoy. I think, yes. Of course, if you actually enjoy the season and the traditions and the increased emphasis on certain values, then why would you want to? The sad thing is, so many people seem to hate, or at least feel indifferent towards, Christmas, and yet they still grudgingly participate.

Advice articles on how to deal with Christmas: Why is this a thing?
And from the outset of this blog, let it be known that I love shopping. I love clothes and accessories and knickknacks and buying things. I’ve even gone through periods of what can only be described as shopaholicism, in which I’ve recorded all my purchases in an effort to curb the habit. 
 I’ve also always enjoyed, really enjoyed, shopping for Christmas presents and I’ve always loved - and savoured - a lot of aspects of the Christmas season. This isn’t about disliking Christmas. I’m also an atheist, so the secularization of religious holidays doesn’t bother me. This has nothing to do with the absence of Christ in Christmas.

Merry Christmas.
What bothers me is how much so many people seem to resent Christmas. My whole life I’ve witnessed Christmas discussed as a mutually agreed upon topic of commiseration. “I’m not ready for Christmas.” “I have so much to do before Christmas.” “I hate you for having all your shopping and wrapping done.” The question “Are you ready for Christmas” has started to sound a lot like “Are you ready for Skynet to take over and the machines to rise?”

Christmas is discussed, especially in polite small talk, as a communally experienced doom, something that becomes increasingly stressful as we get older, and we succumb to the pressure of entertaining and facilitating the charade of Santa Claus. The shopping for many people isn’t fun and enjoyable – it’s a burden. They spend more than they can afford and go into debt to give gifts they feel pressured to give. They worry about getting “enough” and getting “the right things.” And this isn’t just some toys for some Santa-fearing children, but for everyone.

I understand that I’m not a parent, and so there are aspects of the “pressures” of this custom that I have not yet confronted. I have thought for years now that, when I become a parent (and I intend to), I will not reinforce the idea of Santa Claus. I should mention, I told this to my class in high school and it was, especially at that age, a controversial idea for which I took a lot of criticism. It’s not that I dislike the core idea of Santa, or want to “kill the magic” for kids – not at all. I just want to raise my kid(s) from the outset to see Christmas as more than a chance to write a huge list and demand things from an imaginary man, or to behave so Santa doesn’t put them on the naughty list.
Christmas is a time for watching A Muppet Family Christmas.

People need to remember that at the root of all this shopping and decorating and stress is an optional social custom.

(My devil’s advocating, sociologically inclined boyfriend would here say something about how such deeply entrenched and reinforced – and socially policed – customs and traditions become non-optional, or at least they come to feel that way. OK, point taken.)

If the build-up to Christmas, and the holiday itself, is a pleasurable, fun, meaningful experience, that’s great. I’ve personally always enjoyed and embraced the Christmas season and really enjoyed gift exchange and celebrations, however arbitrary they have become in terms of the secularized Christmas I “observe.” But the stress, the debt, the complaining of having to clean your house for company – it’s not worth it. If the cleaning and cooking is so frustrating and annoying, don’t entertain! Let someone else host the family gathering.
At the end of the day (and for the next 22 days and beyond) we should all remember that, regardless of how you were raised and how you were cultured to experience Christmas, your psychological relationship to this holiday is malleable. You can change what it means to you and how you experience Christmas, the good and the bad. Don’t blindly and unquestioningly follow the socially reinforced pressures if, at the core, you don’t enjoy the rituals.

The “true” meaning of Christmas is a lot of different things to different people, but I don't think anyone would insist the true meaning is forced consumerism, ensuring non-needy children get more toys, and being stressed.