I’ll admit it right up front, I am not a vegetarian or a vegan. I like to eat meat. I wear leather shoes. I like to think, though, that the source of these products has had a comfortable life and a quick, stress-free death. But I’m kidding myself, I know. And Anna Krien’s essay, Us and them, about the relationship between humans and animals, doesn’t reassure me.
In roughly 25,000 words, Krien, whose Into the woods I reviewed a couple of years ago, explores the complex relationship we humans have with our living, breathing co-inhabitants on this earth of ours. She exposes the underbelly of this relationship but resists simplistically declaiming the abuses and proclaiming that there is an easy solution. We all know there isn’t. As she says in the first section:
I’m not weighing up whether our treatment of animals is just, because it isn’t. That age-old debate is a farce – deep down we all know it.
The real question is, just how much of this injustice are we prepared to live with.
To try to answer this question she confronts the tension that exists in our relationship with “them” which is, as she puts it, the tension between seeing them as “beings” versus “objects”. She asks:
How to ensure that the butcher, the scientist, the farmer recognise that the creature in their care is a being, even as all the while they [and, I would say, by extension we] continue to use it as an object?
This is a well-structured essay. After an introductory section in which she sets the scene and poses her question, Krien explores the issues thematically, through the sorts of “encounters we have with animals”: Killing; Testing; Hunting,
These are, obviously, the encounters which are the most problematic. She spends little time on our positive and generally more mutually beneficial* encounters, such as in their roles as pets, guide dogs, and companion animals. That’s fair enough, given the serious questions she wanted to confront, but it’s a bit of a shame, nonetheless.
I like Krien’s writing. It’s well-researched, informative, and presents unpleasant facts with a light touch. She’s neither didactic nor conclusive but rather writes as one going on a journey with us. And she asks hard questions, such as these ones in the killing section:
- Should Australia remain in the live animal trade and by so doing help other countries improve their animal welfare practices?
- What does it say about our priorities when we have a World Society for the Protection of Animals but not one to protect women?
- How do we explain the fact that more Australians empathised with the cows (being sent to Indonesia) than with people (such as those Indonesians for whom the cattle trade means work and food, let alone the asylum-seekers plying the same seas as the cows)?
She explores the complexities of testing and here again disabused me of my head-in-the-sand hopes. I was surprised to read that the number of animals being used in research and teaching is increasing not decreasing. And again, the difficult questions. Is some testing acceptable, necessary even, and others not? And if so, on what basis do we decide? Why is there a disjunction between what scientists do in animal testing and believe is ethical, and what laypeople think?
In her section on hunting, the focus is not so much on recreational hunting but on the hunting of animal pests – some native, such as dingoes, and some feral. She talks about apex predators, and the environmental impact of removing them. When the top predator goes, the ecological balance is severely disturbed. The loss of dingoes, for example, can be directly related to the extinction of small mammals. One solution to protecting farm animals that doesn’t involve killing dingoes is to use guardian animals like maremmas and alpacas. Hmm, methinks, introduced species aren’t always a good option – think camels, think cane toads – but so far so good it seems.
Late in the essay, Anna Krien writes that many scientists describe our current geological era as the Anthropocene, recognising the significant (negative) impact human activities are having on the earth. She follows this with biologist Edward O. Wilson‘s suggestion that what comes next will be “the Age of Loneliness” typified by “a planet with us and not much else”. I don’t want to think about what that would be like. There’s no easy answer to all this but, as Krien says, we must “acknowledge the questions” and continue the discussion. To do anything else is to deny that not only are animals are “important” in themselves but, to put it selfishly, they are important in multitudinous ways to us.
“Us and them: On the importance of animals”
in Quarterly Essay, No. 45
Collingwood: Black Inc, March 2012
(Review copy supplied by Black Inc.)
* Though I’m aware I’m making a human-centric assumption here!