Friday, August 10, 2012

Confessions from a Sanctuary

I've never shared impromptu thoughts and feelings on this blog before, but tonight is not like all other nights.

HEALTH originated out of a desire to continue my scholarship and advocacy outside of the university. While in graduate school it then became an outlet for personal research and stuff that wouldn't make it into a philosophy term paper. Presently, I've been out of school for eight months. The main difference between now and then (four years ago) is that I became burnt out between teaching apathetic students, struggling as a grad student, frustrated as a scholar, and devastated as a friend and a domestic partner. After the final brutal semester of grad school, I decided I needed new direction, one that centered around creativity and embodiment.

Six months later, I've completed a two month excursion across the West through nine of the USA's National Parks and several of its most exciting cities. Just a month ago, I arrived at an animal sanctuary whose vision is that of reciprocal healing (whereby "people" heal "animals", the animals heal people, and both heal the land). When I found it in a catalogue, it sounded like a perfect opportunity to learn more about animal care taking, therapy, and an alternative to incarceration etc. Unfortunately, this has not been so much the case. I'm going to bite my tongue on this topic and instead share something I've experienced that is much more profound and unsettling.

I. Moral Monsters
If you're on the listserve or email trail of some large animal nonprofit, you are well exposed to brutal narratives of animal cruelty. Upon seeing people kick and torment the animals, one is instantaneously engulfed in moral outrage and perhaps tears: "Those sick monsters! Those evil fuckers are going to hell! They deserve to be treated just like they've treated those poor, innocent animals!" These are just some of the reactions I've seen posted  in response to new investigative footage. For a compassionate and righteous person, these attitudes are expressed effortlessly; one must exercise willpower to hold them back.

Those bearing witness are wounded by these recorded testimonies. The trauma they experience is utter powerlessness. The powerlessness and woundedness they experience are their exposure to a will-less identification with the animal others. What makes these narratives so traumatic is the lack of mercy for those perceived as having so little power. Humans have so much power, the animals have so little, and what an injustice it is to see the abuse of human power over animal innocence.

As much as people generally identify with the animals undergoing abuse, few identify with the perpetrators of the violence. Although the purpose of these videos is to evoke empathy for the animals and consequentially political action on their behalf, the disturbing truth is that those committing the injustices are human, those bearing witness are human, and those bearing witness are often financially supporting the companies that employ these "monsters." To realize this would perhaps be another trauma, one that would move one who cared generally down one of two paths: to recognize one's participation and become veg*n or to experience intense cognitive dissonance and convince oneself that everything will be better once one of these monsters is behind bars.

Neither witness, however, is likely to place themselves in that worker's circumstance and potentially risk confronting a terrifying truth about their own nature. I would (hesitantly) agree that many of the folks in these videos who practice the most wanton cruelty are moral outliers in our society. A recent study by Amy Fitzgerald concluded that of all industrial workplaces, packing plants had the greatest rates of crimes per capita in their communities. Fitzgerald speculated her finding is based on the kind of desensitizing work of the slaughterhouse and/or the type of people who are attracted and willing to work there. Regardless, in no way should environmental conditions or personality type excuse such behavior and guard people from responsibility.

It's difficult imagining myself--an 8-year anti-speciesist from an affluent suburban background with a graduate degree--as one of these animal abusers. With all the sympathy I have for animal others, with all the theory I have learned, without any history in domestic (animal) abuse, and with experience at animal sanctuaries, identifying with these detested human beings would be a stretch. At least, so I thought until recently.

II. A Gaze into Death
One of my major chores at this sanctuary is bringing animals in from a far pasture, herding them into a pen, and sometimes persuading them into the barn. The animals (goats, horses, sheep, cows, ducks, and geese) are in pasture because that's where their food is. The animals are locked up at night because some need to take medication in the morning and because the majority of them would be at risk of becoming prey to coyotes, eagles, and cougars.

Within the first week of my stay, a duck had been taken by what we think was a bald eagle. The duck's companions seemed to be unphased just ten meters away from the de-feathered and -organed bird when we found him. The fellow intern and the animal care directer were upset, but more about what to do with his body. I found myself more upset that they were upset than the fact that he had been eaten alive. There was something chilling about the circumstances. Horrific, yet sublime.

It's not very often that I have looked death in the face, especially in the face of someone who I have known (although barely). A being so once full with life, now just a bloody mess of meat and maggots. I searched her beady eye for some way to understand what she had went through, but all I got out of the attempt was a confounded mind. Was she expressing terror, bewilderment, or transcendental shock in her passing moment? Each of these words were only that, a generalized sign to compare to some past experience I've felt or have learned from books and television. I felt like a kid who had just become aware of death for the first time, looking up toward his parent with a sad but wondrous gaze: "I don't understand."

How upset can someone be about something they don't understand? My feeling is that many people don't get upset not because they fail at understanding death and predation, but because they become so accustomed to the idea of its inevitability. Rather than evoking disorientation and wonder, death is a banal, bare fact of existence. This is especially true for individuals of common species and even more so, those humans eat or despise.

I began chasing after the meaning of protecting these birds lives at the sanctuary. They had been "rescued" from a parking lot and had not been under any particular human care so much as dependent on human waste. What were they being protected for and from by being locked up in a shed every night? Many of the birds did not particularly care to go in their sheds, at least not be locked up at at time against their choosing if it were not for food. Were we respecting their integrity, individuality, and autonomy or being kind for some image of ourselves and aspiration for the world? Could we still be a sanctuary that allowed predation to take place? How could we be animal caretakers and tell guests that another live had been taken, not because of our carelessness, but because of our "respect for nature?"

III. A Will of Their Own
The water birds, however, aren't the toughest animals to get into their barn. Usually one, with some technique and speed, can outwit and/or scare them enough into their shed. I write "scare," because that seems to be essentially what we are doing. Why else would they run away from us? But perhaps scare isn't the most precise. After all, when I was a kid I used to run away from my mom when I didn't want to go shopping with her. I wasn't scared of her or a punishment so much as I just really hated department stores and clothing. With the other, larger animals, more coercion is needed. While geese are by no means "chickens," they are not so "stubborn." I use this word hesitantly in this essay, even though it found its way to my lips multiple nights while putting them away.

It's a forgettable and distressing exercise to listen to one's language. For if "language is the house of being," the medium through which we exist as people and not just a communication tool, what we say is often reflective of our relationship with the world. In other words, because most of our thinking takes place in language, consciousness must turn in on itself to be aware of our thinking, and this can be distressing because we learn things about our subconcious subjection to certain ideologies through doing so.

If I were to call geese "chickens" I would be expressing a falsehood about not only the territorial and hissy-fit geese, but also about defensive and feisty hens and roosters. These metaphors often misrepresent animals due to a tradition of disvaluing other species, using their names as slurs. When I say the goats are stubborn, I am assigning a characteristic to the goats in reference to my will. That is, they are only stubborn against my will. I perceive their resistance and indifference toward my will as a negative, a reflection on their "bad" character and "low" intelligence. On the contrary, perhaps their "stubbornness" is reflective of their sovereignty, courage, and conscious resistance. If I am to call the goats "it" rather than "he" or "she" (or some specific, gender-neutral pronoun), I regard them as representatives of some general category, often without reference to or care for their personalities. All these ways of thinking and speaking signify speciesist thought. Needless to say, as an anti-speciesist, it was distressing to catch not only fellow animal care takers speaking as such, but myself in particular.

When you're job requires you to put away the goats after you've worked your ass off tossing hay and digging holes under the cloudless sky on a day near triple digits, all your years of research, writing, and perceptions go out the window. Not all--that would be hyperbolic--, but their star roles in supporting your subjectivity become backgrounded to the duty at hand.  Suddenly, you are no longer working with those innocents you have championed to defend from injustices, but antagonistic adults who have little patience for your paternalism.

It's hard for me to believe that anyone who works with animals on a farm--or perhaps in any context--cannot take seriously their consciousness, emotions, and agency. If they are not indifferent to your existence (and, oh, does that make us anxious), they are inquisitively checking out what you can do for them or just plain resisting your will. To deny their independent minds--to assume a liberal humanist subjectivity for the sake of argument--is to commit some serious disavowal.

IV. Butting Heads with Fritz the Goat
Animal advocates are totally on board with all these ideas: "Of course, animals are individuals with minds, sentient beings who are bullied around by humans." Yet, they under-recognize the underbelly of this claim. Far from being mere victims and slaves to human abuse in need of human saviors, animals (even domestic, tame, and sanctuary ones) are actors in human work places and the history of cultures. Sure, they have been subjected to a disproportionate amount of exploitation, suffering, and  killing than other members of the social fabric, but they have been more than victims. (See Jason Hribal's work for a discussion of technologies invented to contain their agency as well as contemporary demonstrations of animal agency in the entertainment industry).

Acknowledging that animals are agents we must then ask ourselves (especially if we are animal allies) whether it is fair game to submit animals to institutions like sanctuaries where their freedom of mobility, reproduction, and other interests are either very limited or under constant surveillance. Sure they are alive and so they have a future of fulfillment of pleasure and they are not suffering, but is this good enough? If you asked a goat this, he'd probably start chewing on your hat. He doesn't really care all that much about hypotheticals, your lofty ideals, and existential angst. He just wants some more tummy-yummy's, a good head buttin', a place to explore, and some companionship. So maybe all this head-scratchin' isn't worth much beyond satisfying a coherent and innocent vision of the world and ourselves.

Back in the pasture, though, this goat ain't movin'. He's decided he doesn't want to go in, he wants to protect his lady friend Lisette, he still wants to crunch walnuts, and he ain't going to listen to no English. What now? Well, one could leave him be. This is exactly what I'm tempted to do. It seems like the most respectful thing. But he doesn't know how tasty he smells to a cougar, how easy prey he would be all by himself. Knowing "better" than him, should I act on my knowledge, and force him to do what he does not want? This is paternalism not between a parent and a child but an adult human and an adult goat. Should we treat animals like children who don't know any better? Do we indeed have dominion over all the world's creatures for this reason? Or, perhaps, I care about him and want to protect his life. However I may feel, I feel pressure to do my job as a worker on a sanctuary. Regardless of how I feel and think, my responsibility to my supervisor and her values is to barn this goat.

Let me mention again how resistant the goat is to my supervisor's bidding, how long I have already labored under the weight of the sun, and how late it is beginning to get, and how much I want to be finished and not have to put in more time than I'm being credited for. I'm surrounded by pressure from the goat (who is literally pushing back), my supervisor (my super ego), my body (the id), and my integrity. I want to respect my supervisor because I like her and respect her values and work in addition to wanting to do a good job and get a good recommendation. I want to respect Fritz the goat because he is a fellow creature and I can totally identify with his penchant for eating lots of greens. I want to respect my body's limits and integrity because I sometimes care about myself, and hey, I can be a selfish know-it-all like many other people.

After twenty minutes of trying different techniques from hand gestures, to extended gestures with a stick and rope, to shouts, to assistance, and to bribes, Fritz still ain't goin' nowhere, but my temper is. No longer under the yoke of patience, my frustration is unbridled and bucking. The failure of each attempt puts me more on edge, and it does not help when he distributes 50 of his 200lb bulk onto my left foot. I begin cussin' and puffin'. I'm swingin' my "whip"--I don't know what the proper term for it is--to the left and right as hard as I can, discovering that I've defaulted to scare tactics. Oh, the Machiavellian care taker I've become.

After one more failed attempt, I take in a deep breath and think to myself: "What the fuck am I doing? Who the fuck have I become?" Suddenly, things snap and I am identifying with those moral monsters I see in the cruelty investigations. Even a vegan with a shit load of theory and an average temper can suddenly start acting like the world's biggest asshole to animals. Granted, I wasn't hurting or abusing goats to any extent to what is seen in those videos, I was annoying, scaring, uncomfortably checking them against the barn, and pulling them by their horns (sometimes "standard practice" at a sanctuary).

V. The Infrastructures of Subjection
Seen from a distance and out of context, this would all look so cruel. Me, the powerful human, and Fritz, the powerless goat. But Fritz was the one empowered; I was not. My might came from a recognition of the utter lack of power I could have over Fritz. Without the experience and familiarity of working with goats and Fritz, I had not yet earned his total respect (and even if I had, I may still find myself in the same predicament). I resorted to baser tactics because I was not strong enough; I was incapable of lifting him up and tossing him in the barn so I scared him and yanked on him.

There is no excuse for animal abuse, as I said before, no matter the social conditions and personality flaws. Yet, this does not mean we ought to abandon empathy and understanding all together. It is so easy to see the powerful abuser and the voiceless victim all the while forgetting the existential and institutional conditions both are subjected to. Gail Eisnitz, Eric Schlosser, Donald Stull, Steve Striffler and many others have already documented the brutal working conditions in slaughterhouses and factory farms. The bleak, inhuman environment with little sun and feces-saturated atmosphere. Dirty, unpleased, agitated animals in the thousands. Endless exposure to violence and death under an oppressive bureaucratic and racial hierarchy. Fear of injury, losing one's job and family, or being deported. Tension in the wrists and joints from repeated gestures, illness from the filthy workplace and the stress of keeping up with the inhuman rate of slaughter, little recreation time and money to recover from the oppressive work environment. One comes to feel just as much as a "piece of meat" in what Upton Sinclair called "the Great Butcher" of the capitalist economy.

Not only are animal bodies subjugated to the technological machinery and infrastructures, but so too are the human workers. The carnal of both human and animal others are in-incarcerated, as Ralph Acampora says. The unpredictable creative and social drives are locked-up by technical containment. The human and nonhuman animals no longer see one another as social being, but giant tools to hide from or manage.  I was not so much working with  Fritz as I was working on him (a point Donna Haraway misses in her discussion of animal agency in the lab). This was no contingency, but a technical result of commands from above and the infrastructure all around. Together, I become lost in an instrumental attitude, losing my self to my ego. I am tempted to forget Fritz' voice as a voice as well as my own as someone else's. I am subsumed into the role of human master to assert myself over Fritz so that he recognizes me as such. His resistance is aggravating not only because it defies my will but also the present subjectivity I have been subjected to through this technical arrangement.

Fritz eventually complied with my wishes and entered the barn, although we continue to dance like this a couple times each weeks. But after the first time, I came to understand not only the circumstances that lead to the common cruelties in animal agribusiness, not only my potential to become like a monster (in a Stanley Milgram kind of way), but also about the fucked up-ness of (at least certain kinds of) domesticity itself. This is not to say that hunter-gatherer people live in a state of innocence or don't fall under similar pressures or that all of domesticity has been a "war against the species," but to acknowledge what the architectural containment of certain animals and segregation of other animals has done to our collective consciousness.

Sure, having some animals closer has created opportunities for interspecies affinities and under these conditions Haraway may be right that we have never been human, but always fleshy knots of companion species. Yet, has not this infrastructure brought about what Jim Mason calls misothery through a defiance against "uncooperative" animal wills and later denigrating insults? Has it not given humans a sense of existential separation from other species (I've certainly felt this way in my interactions with animals during feeding and resting), opposition, and superiority rather than the becoming-animals found in less technologically structured societies?

Donna Haraway, John Berger, and Richard Bulliet worry that the present "post-domesticity" in Western societies (especially Anglo-American ones) is a dead one with all-too-human ways of relating to animal others. Rather than "returning" to the Pleistocene as Paul Shepard advocates, what way do we have to take us "forward?" Is the sanctuary model the end of (domestic animal) history? It seems to me that vegans and animal rights activists are in need of more inspiring and lively aspirations for our future relations with animal others. Visions of the future which do not categorize animal others automatically as killeable and edible, but neither as poor, innocent, victims of thousands of years of human history who need die-out with dignity or be preserved from the forces of life and death on a sanctuary. I though the sanctuary I'm working on might be it, but it's in its early stages and the growth incentive has gotten in the way of its original and normative vision for human and nonhuman animal healing.

If you liked this rant, you should read the one on my previous sanctuary experience.


Preston Mays said...


I have some problems with one of you major proclamations in this essay: "There is no excuse for animal abuse." While my basic inclination is to agree with you, I must disagree with the universalization of this ethic. You readily admit that you are a privileged white male from a suburban atmosphere, yet I think you too willing to ethically subdue the abuser, even despite your best intentions.

Humans, and our brute animality, sometimes prioritize the economic welfare of ourselves and our families over the animal "others", distancing ourselves from this alterity. While it is simple for us to criticize human acts of abuse upon animals as brutish or savage, I wish to weaken your universal claim made in this essay under a broader context-dependent umbrella. While animals will readily engage other animals in brutish ways for survival, sometimes people that live under the subsistence level will undermine the inhuman exploitation of animals in exchange for the basic means of sustenance.

In this essay you cite studies that attempt to homogenize "mass" animal murderers as criminals, suggesting that crime rates are higher in, or around, meat packing facilities. I will challenge, however, the arrangement of this statistic. Subsistence workers, particularly around the US/Mexican border often find facilities such as these to be the only means of employment. I'm not defending the actions of workers and meat packing facilities; however, I am defending the fundamental decision one must make when making decisions concerning the welfare of ones self and their families.

The argument that the incessant slaughtering of animals has a direct correspondence to violent impulses is not one that I'm arguing, but the necessity of subsistence workers to gain employment in such facilities is something that requires much more empathy than the demonization that they receive for feeding their families. I think its of great sadness that one must disseminate moral sentiments for all animality just to sustain ones being.

Anonymous said...

I tried to comment on this post a few weeks ago, but apparently I fail at technology.

I recently discovered your blog and have found it very inspiring. I want to thank you in particular for your honesty in this last post. As someone who does shelter work, I have had the uncomfortable realization that the frustrations of working with adult animals in a task-oriented job scenario (such as, I have to get all these dogs walked and back in their kennels) can create a situation in which people become abusive very quickly and unconsciously.

I hope you continue your writing and sharing your thoughts with us.

Luella said...

Interesting, as always.

'a defiance against "uncooperative" animal wills'

Does this explain Western desire for dogs and cats as companions over pigs and goats? Or is it more about their historical usefulness as hunters and mice-eaters?