We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: SPOILERS ALLOWED
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Here's one on We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, which many members have been reading.
For those interested in the emotional lives of animals, there was an interesting piece in the NYT magazine today that relates to some of the themes of the book:
I loved We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves though again, not a particularly happy book. I especially liked the fact that Fowler manipulated me into really disliking the dad before she showed the whole picture. Perhaps I'm slower than others, but it also took me a while to realize that the sister was a chimpanzee. I like that kind of slow reveal, at least I did in this case.
I also loved that the narrator did not think of herself and her sister as two different species, which is exactly what I think would happen if raised the way they were.
You have to hand it to Fowler, she handled the whole subject so subtly, so completely that she made her point without pontificating.
People have told me that the Nazis, intelligent and refined as they were, could treat the Jews so inhumanely because they really didn't think they were human, and I've always resisted that argument. If a creature acts human then it should be treated humanely, no matter how you classify it. But from the article, even sand crabs and octupi whom no one would mistake as human seem to have consciousness characteristics similar to humans. How can calling Jews rats or hutus and tutsis cockroaches mean that you can slaughter them until your arms get tired? What part of a human allowed hunters to shoot buffalo after buffalo, hundreds at a time just because they could?
Have you ever seen "Sports Night"? It's a sitcom that went only two years, quite brilliant, though. There's an episode where a character talks about deer hunting and how you can not possibly misunderstand that a mama deer and a baby deer are "family." I will NEVER understand a person who enjoys killing defenseless creatures.
Have you seen that thing online recently (I saw it on FB), in which a Nazi propaganda poster featuring the "perfect Ayran child" actually showed a Jewish baby? Very telling.
I've heard of the poster. Humans and their prejudices - hard to comprehend.
I recently read Irene Pepperberg's book about teaching language her African gray parrot, Alex and Me, which amplifies some of Fowler's themes in real-life terms. Some of the semantic games she had to play so other scientists would pay attention to her work were funny and sad at the same time.
Interesting side note on Pepperberg's book: Margaret Atwood visited her lab. Can only assume her Maddaddam trilogy was percolating at that time.
(edited to fix a typo I noticed)
I thought it brought up so many interesting ideas about animal minds vs human minds and what is the difference or is there even a difference. What makes one's suffering worse than anothers.
The one part I really didn't understand was the mannequin. Any theories on the importance of it's re-occurrence?
I liked that, too. Very Trollope-y and engaging narrative style.
Rats will forgo food if pressing the food lever gives another rat an electric shock. Resident Orcas in the Pacific Ocean have culture. Examples like this definitely support my own inclinations to regard animals with a great deal of respect and compassion and to value the things they can teach us when we stop regarding them as organic machines.
>12 Helcura: those look like good books. Have you seen the documentary about whales at Sea World? I think it's titled Blackwater. Very powerful.
A few months ago I read a book about elephants, Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison by Michael Daly and pretty much decided both that I can't read anything else about elephants and that Thomas Edison deserves a special place in hell. It almost makes one think humans are a blight on the world.
I think one of the themes that "We Are All ..." raises for me is how "familial" we are/should be with our pets.
When my son was born, I began to see my cats, whom I'd infantilized, in a very different way. They seemed much older, wiser beings, less human, more complex. I saw them far less like babies, and spending time with them was very therapeutic because they were quiet, didn't demand attention, and seemed to give me lots of encouragement but no advice.
One advantage of animals' lack of speach. I wonder if our love for them would decrease if they could give advice.
I wish I'd heard that interview. I did get the idea at the end of the book that she wished she's been more affectionate toward Alex as he indicted he wanted more, and she left him in the care of others or in the lab a great deal of time. Am I remembering that wrong?
I think the fate of chimps like Nim, involved in linguistic experiments, is more the basis for Fowler's novel. Even when our impulses are benign--to better understand animals--we often don't think through what's going to happen to them (and what happens to us, as the Fowler explores) when the animal's natures and ours don't mesh.
WARNING: Nim's story is extremely sad, but you can listen to an interview with James Marsh, who documented the chimp's life here:
Death at Seaworld covers the same story in more depth and with some different prespectives. I think both the documentary and the book were great, each in their own way.
>18 WildMaggie: Ah, that's right. A few years ago an acquaintance of mine was trying to get people to boycott Sea World because of some slight she thought she'd received there, and I thought she was nuts. Who would boycott what I thought was one of the most wonderful places on earth? I'm so glad this story, as horrific as elephant stories, came out.
When I was in law school, my roommate was in graduate school at Tufts University. She was working in something called the Tufts Primate Project. In this project Capuchin monkeys were being trained as aides to quadripeligics. There was a ton of excitement and nothing but enthusiastic praise for this project. For example,
I played with the prototype monkey, named Hellion, regularly. But the project left me feeling very queasy, even more so when I found out that the monkeys' teeth were removed and they wore shock collars to protect the safety of the quadripeligic that they were trained to serve. But what bothered me most was that it WAS involuntary servitude. And although capuchins have long been organ grinder's monkeys, they are not domestic animals, like dogs or horses. They are deprived of companionship of their own kind, and of their own natural pleasures of life. Maybe I saw Planet of the Apes too many times, but I was against the Primate Project from the start. Just a few years ago, the federal government declined to consider monkey helpers as "service animals" under the Americans With Disabilities Act, although some states have expressly allowed them. The Helping Hands Monkey Helpers organization still exists and places monkeys, although my former roommate, who was the Director for a while is no longer with them.
I think that Karen Joy Fowler did a good job with this book. The construction and plot were contrived as they often are in topical novels like this. But she dealt with a difficult subject well, and made the reader feel as well as think.
Thanks for sharing that. Definitely makes me think.
It's difficult for exploiters of other creatures to see the fault in their behavior. Or for people who value their own freedom to see the value of freedom for others.
But then I look at my situation. I have 5 dogs. I control their reproduction, they're all fixed, I control what they eat, where they live, when they go to the dog park. It's all up to me. PETA says that's wrong, and I can kind of understand their reasoning, but that doesn't make me give up my dogs.
You are right about mankind's tunnel vision about anything other than its own perceived self-interest. How people can twist the truth to believe that their victims benefit from their exploitation.
Fanaticism is rarely a good thing.
You may be interested in reading a memoir that I read not long ago entitled Part Wild: Caught Between the Worlds of Wolves and Dogs. The genetics of dogs and wolves are quite close, and for a long time misguided people have been breeding them together to create wolf/dog hybrids (seemingly out of a romantic notions about wolves.) The hybrids are a total disaster, as this memoir illustrates sharply. Artificial selection over millennia changes genetic patterns. Domestic animals and wild animals are worlds apart in everything that matters to living with humans.
I'm not sure I'd want to put the limited experiment with capuchins as service animals in the same category of centuries of slavery and institutionalized racisim.
I also understand it's a touchy subject, but late-term abortions, where the fetus does not have a condition that renders it insensate (say anencephaly) or the mother's health/life is not in danger also strikes me as cruel. Once the fetus has developed the capacity for pain, the whole notion of abortion gets pretty gruesome. (I don't advocate making abortion illegal at any point because I see too many gray areas, but I think understanding that fetuses at five or six months gestation feel pain bears thinking about to anyone concerned with the notion of cruelty.)
I guess the impetus for all kinds of cruelty comes from human chauvinism and ignorance--that some animals and people are more important than others. Humans are notoriously able to rationalize their actions or to fail to think them through to a logical conclusion that makes them look bad.
Which is the big theme in Fowler's novel, as i see it.
Absolutely. After that it is just an issue of where one draws the line. Personally, I think that one enslaved primate is too many. But I am a "pescatarian," and I understand all too well that it is difficult to determine where the line should be drawn. I just read a gleeful article yesterday about a study showing that vegetables feel pain when they are cut up to be eaten.
A secondary issue is whether the end justifies the means in protesting something that you believe is inhumane. PETA, ALF, and some Right to Life organizations, etc. seem to think that it does. I think that that attitude is invariably counterproductive and wrong.
It's easy to talk about the cruelty of spaying and castration if you don't live in an area like mine.
I live in a rural area where people dump off unwanted kittens and young cats. All nine cats I've adopted in the last 20 years just showed up at the door. That doesn't count the ones who were sick with distemper, feline leukemia, or so badly injured in fights or by cars that they couldn't be saved and I had euthanized. It also doesn't count the ferals I feed.
I won't walk by a suffering animal. But that sometimes involves decisions that are pretty damn hard. I've held more animals while they died than I'd like, all the while wishing I could get my hands on the SOB who dumped them on me in the first place.
The exception being pitbulls. Pitbulls are part of a relatively new but entrenched ghetto culture. And no matter how often or how loud the rescue people tell me that it is nurture, not nature, that makes these dogs aggressive, I know too much about genetics and artificial selection to believe that this is completely true. Unfortunately, because of our predominant spay/neuter culture, far too many dogs that families are rescuing are pitbulls or pitbull mixes.
The whole feral cat thing is also interesting. Here we have a trap, spay/neuter and release philosophy, especially where the ferals are too old to be adopted out (too old is 9-12 weeks; having adopted an older one, I agree.) The song bird enthusiasts are appalled about feral cats, citing statistics about the number of song birds that outdoor cats murder every day.
I can see both sides of some these issues and many more. But the not spaying/neutering thing is incomprehensible to me.
About the wolf-dog hybrids, my daughter is a vet tech and has seen more than she wants, and doesn't have a good thing to say about any of them. You're right, it's the "romance" of the wolf that gets in the way, as "romance" seems to ruin any other kind of reasoning. I can see a tendency to "romance" pit bulls after the rescue of Michael Vicks' dogs, but they really are a loving breed desperate to please their owners. That said, the other day at the dog park one bit a little dog's leg and broke it before he could finally be made to release, due to the breed's clamping instinct.
>27 nohrt4me2: Regarding late term abortions, the only thing that can appreciably reduce them (except cutting off access to all abortions, which seems to be the chosen method) is very accessible early abortions and abortifacients.
And I do think the use of monkeys as service animals relates to human slavery in that, as you said, people are so ready to draw the line at exploitation just after where such actions are beneficial to themselves.
>25 vwinsloe: They adopt out very few animals because of their disagreement with the use of animals as pets? So disappointing when your heroes act like your foes.
By the way I'm also a pescatarian and noted the article about plants feeling pain. I hear there are people who eat only fruit that has fallen from trees. It would assuage one's conscience, but I don't plan on joining them. Again, it's about where you draw the line.
I don't know what the issue is with PETA's kill shelters, but I suspect that is the reasoning of hard liners. That "some things are worse than death" belief. I agree with this philosophy when it comes to some so-called rescue organizations that are run by well meaning people who are little better than hoarders. I adopted my feral cats from one such rescue. I was not looking to get into the situation, but when I went to the rescue and saw the conditions there, and learned that the cats had been in a small cage in a dark dirty cellar for 18 months after being trapped in a feral cat colony at about 9 months old--I simply couldn't leave them there. And then the woman running the "rescue" delayed and made it extremely difficult for me to adopt them, and if I hadn't appealed to someone high up in her funding organization, she probably would not have allowed me to take them.
But I digress. The fact that so many no-kill shelters are being very successful in propagating the "adopt, don't breed or buy" message makes PETA shelters look very inhumane indeed. I found out about this scandal on an equestrian bulletin board that I frequent, and the story that insiders tell is uglier than the NY Times article. Apparently, PETA was taking healthy animals that had been surrendered and euthanizing them within hours or days after promising to find them homes. So I can think of no reason other than a belief that it is better to be dead than to be someone's pet. Which in the case of domestic companion animals is very twisted indeed.
I've also heard of non-kill shelters that perhaps subject its animals to a fate worse than death. Again people can become so blinded by their ideals that they can't see reality - a stance I frequently see myself approaching and am constantly trying to avoid.
I think someone has told me I over reacted to this, but I can't remember what the explanation was. Feel free to remind me if you have one.
Anyone read Hustvedt? Sounds interesting.
>43 vwinsloe: Thanks for the post.
By the way, this was posted to Facebook by Mary Doria Russell
Of course, I had to look that up. It looks like they do have the capacity to make facial expressions and that they do show emotion through facial expressions.
So maybe the gorilla in Citizenjoyce's video is making an expression?
Facial structures of chimps and humans have been compared, and they differ from humans in the cheek and lip areas, but they share many similarities.
Do emotions involuntarily trigger the same facial muscles in primates and humans?
Researchers warn that just because some primate facial expressions look like human ones, the meaning of those expressions needs more study.
I also expect that other primates may have "cultural norms." For instance, in our culture it is less common for men to cry. Americans, especially in the customer service industry, are taught to smile frequently, while service in Europe is offered with a certain gravitas. (When I worked for an international company, European visitors often found the American habit of smiling somewhat creepy.)
Might primates have similar behavioral norms? Any animal in the wild might have an edge if it can develop a good "poker face."
I've also noticed that intense staring between cats can be an invitation to a fight ... which can also be aborted if one of the cats looks away and reclines or turns its back. Some kind of detente has been achieved or a pecking order established, though it's not always clear to me who "won."
Thanks again for the heads up on this.
I always wonder how it happens that several books come out around the same time with the same or similar theme.
I've seen movies about the movie and TV projects being pitched when there are several on the same subject. I also wonder how that comes about. Maybe they've all seen the same news item at the same time and decided to run with it.
Very, very close to humans, indeed.
It almost makes one think humans are evolving to be more humane.
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