Animals – Australia’s forgotten people

In a groundbreaking thought experiment delving into the nature of human knowledge, French Enlightenment philosopher Étienne Bonnot, Abbé de Condillac, endows his hypothetical ‘statue’ with the faculty of memory. For without memory, experience is a mere flux of sensations, continually different but all equally meaningless and ephemeral.

A once widespread myth in the Anglosphere told us goldfish have extremely short memory spans – apparently justifying their condemnation to a life sentence swimming around a glass bowl the size of my little finger. As alternative-punk-rock icon Kurt Cobain ironically sang: ‘it’s okay to eat fish / ‘Cause they don’t have any feelings’.

But like many other received beliefs and cultural baggage about the mental capacities of animals, those about memory have turned out to be utterly false. For example, as has become widely known in recent decades, elephants have very long memories – which is handy for an animal like the African elephant that lives up to 70 years in the wild.

In fact, it is us humans who are the forgetful ones. While other animals may have varying levels of control over forgetting and remembering, the human animal has made forgetting a key strategy for survival, power and domination.

Our collective memories are as much manipulated by what we are encouraged to remember, as what is suppressed or made taboo. The collective act of intentional forgetting is chillingly encapsulated by Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez:

Those fickle tricks of memory were even more critical when the killing of the workers was brought up. Every time that Aureliano mentioned the matter, not only the proprietress but some people older than she would repudiate the myth of the workers hemmed in at the station and the train with two hundred cars loaded with dead people, and they would even insist that, after all, everything had been set forth in judicial documents and in primary-school textbooks: that the banana company had never existed.

As the political and economic opportunists frenzy feed amongst the crises occasioned by CoViD-19, our attention is being drawn away from both ongoing, endemic problems plaguing our societies, and more recent and acute crises.

The more these memories are attenuated, the easier it is to forget both the fact of and the deleterious effects wrought by shameful acts of collective self-harm.

Perhaps most poignantly, this includes systemic and institutionalised abuse of vulnerable community members. At the human level, this is playing out in Australia with the cruel failures of restorative justice left undone by the National Redress Scheme for victims of institutional child sexual abuse.

And in the aftermath of the hyper-catastrophic, climate-change-fuelled fires that ravaged the Australian continent in 2019-20, we are being induced to forget the manifest failures of our politicians and institutions to protect both human and animal lives, as well as the ecological systems that support us all.

The plight of Australia’s animals

It might seem obvious that there is a fundamental link between language and thought, and this important insight into the human condition is encapsulated by the cool-sounding Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It thus speaks volumes to me that around the world many cultures provide rich linguistic resources for the denigration of fellow humans by means of negative comparison with animals – dogs, pigs, sheep, for example.

This phenomenon also covers all the familiar types of systemic social oppression, including, of course, misogynist and racist vilification. The commonality of such linguistic assaults are both a cause and symptom of a profound alienation from our interspecies relatives that is prevalent in modern western societies.

Among Anglophone settler cultures, however, this alienation is elevated to a new level in the Australian colonial experience. Strange landscapes with stranger animals inconveniently inhabited by unfamiliar people speaking old languages. A deep dislocation further distorted and perverted by the immense weight of cultural baggage laid down on top of it in pursuit of control and exploitation.

And the animals of the ‘great south land’ have been devastatingly impacted on an incomprehensible scale. This shockingly includes the world’s highest rate of vertebrate mammal extinction – an ignominious record for any aspiring nation.

The Ecological Society of Australia cites 100 animal extinctions since the British invasion in 1788, with a further 1,790 species ‘threatened with extinction’ in 2019. The situation so dire there is even a Senate inquiry into ‘Australia’s faunal extinction crisis’ currently underway; but proceedings have been delayed due to the CoViD-19 pandemic.

While the protection of ‘wild’ or ‘native’ animals is a public issue in Australia, the rates of incidence of animal cruelty in domestic and agricultural settings don’t make headline police and crime statistics. Nor do they often make for sensationalist mainstream media content, unless they are unspeakably vile.

Yet the very existence of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in this country bears witness to these sometimes heinous abuses of asymmetrical power relations. The RSPCA reported 58,487 complaints of animal cruelty in the 2018-19 financial year, with 362 successful prosecutions. Tragically, however, this is just the visible tip of a very chilling proverbial iceberg indeed.

There are also numerous venues that provide the setting for institutionalised animal abuse in Australia. A 2018 report estimated that the horse racing industry is worth $9 billion to the Australian economy each year. Another report found 122 horses died on Australian racing track in the year to July 2019, concluding that when deaths occurring after removal from the track are included, ‘there is no doubt that the incidence of death is much higher’.

There is also a deeply negative impact on the human side of the equation. Various forms of horse as well as greyhound racing are key components of a machine enabling a rampant gambling culture responsible for immiserating a great many people in the Australian community. And for bringing untold pain and suffering to those around them.

And all this is before we even touch on the cruel conditions prevalent in mainstream industrial ‘production’ of meat and other animal products. A particularly perfidious practice is the use of sow stalls that closely confine pigs, one of the most intelligent non-primate animals – conditions that are beyond cruel and degrading and that would unequivocally be described as torture if humans were the subjects thereof.

As a child I was struck by the sheer number of agricultural animals in the New England region of New South Wales. Road signs welcome travellers to Walcha Shire proudly boasting its cattle and sheep populations running into the tens and hundreds of thousands respectively, alongside a human population of mere thousands. This was against a bleak background of severe environmental depredation in form of excessive land clearing and overgrazing.

In my memory this is epitomised by the graveyard of dead trees haunting empty grey hills at Bergen-op-zoom Creek, named after a prominent Dutch fortress town featuring in the brutal, bloody and incessant warfare of early modern Europe.

It is highly questionable why as a society we’ve persisted so long in continuing to breed millions of head of European forms of livestock on Earth’s driest inhabited continent. As at end June 2019, Australia’s official count included a combined total of over 90 million sheep, cattle and pigs, and 137 million chickens.

Many Australian sheep end up subjected to the horrors of ‘live export’. Each year, over one million of these poor creatures are packed 70,000 at a time onto ships, often spending weeks at sea in hot, humid and unsanitary conditions that have barely changed since the 1970s. In 2018, 2,400 sheep died on one of these death ships alone, and there were 2,700 reported sheep deaths in 2019 – a fatality rate two and half times that for cattle. Yet despite the track record of massive scandals, this terrible trade in animal lives goes on more or less unabated.

Yet these agricultural practices, and by extension the lifestyles they support – be it farmer, merchant, or meat-eater – now appear utterly unsustainable. Catastrophic climate change trends experienced in the last decade have resulted in the drying out of the continent’s southeast, culminating in the loss of the once mighty Murray-Darling river system and the ‘savage summer’ of the 2019-20 fire season.

Despite over a decade of policy development and political haggling among the Australian fractious federation over the appropriate management regime for the island-continent’s major inland river system, it only became a mainstream issue when hundreds of thousands of fish literally turned up dead in the lake systems of outback NSW. Then the issue was promptly pushed out of the picture in the wake the bushfires followed immediately by the coronavirus pandemic.

Ongoing and expanding extraction of water for large scale agriculture of water-hungry crops like cotton, citrus and nut trees has left river ecosystems with little to no chance of surviving the climate change-induced drought conditions. Yet the ownership and trading of water usage licences has created a $5 billion market, trading over seven trillion litres in 2018-19.

Excessive water often leads to rot. Then add truckloads of money. And the stink of ‘mismanagement and corruption’ lingers long after the odour of dead fish departs.

From fiery furnaces …

Australia’s aquatic ecosystems suffered another major onslaught in the aftermath of the summer’s bushfires. In a bittersweet blow, the heavy rain that finally extinguished the remaining firegrounds also caused masses of ash and charcoal to wash into streams and rivers, killing large numbers fish and other denizens of the capillary-like creek systems fanning out like fractals over the landscape.

An unusual riparian victim of habitat destruction is the platypus. One of the world’s most unique animals, the ‘duck-billed’, egg-laying mammal (once thought to be a scientific hoax by white men in Europe who knew better) is now facing extinction.

It might have been a small mercy that numbers of agricultural animal had already been reduced due to worsening drought conditions in an increasingly hot and dry climate. However, hundreds of thousands of farm animals died gruesome deaths (video) in the fires. Among the farm animals that perished were those whose owners euthanised them by gunshot, and those buried en masse in unmarked graves by the Australian Defence Force as part of its civil assistance role.

These traumatic scenes were mirrored and amplified in the forests and national parks, where disturbingly large numbers of wild animals were incinerated, followed by the tragedy of the survivors starving for lack of food in the ashen aftermath. Beekeepers tending their bees in the forest have had to seek counselling after hearing the screaming of animals and witnessing the carnage.

At the time, I knew many people who were deeply affected by this dark dimension of the fires’ impact, coming as it did on top of everything else – the fear; the concern; the anger at those responsible for letting it happen.

I suspect people mentally stopped counting the animal once the estimated death toll of native animals from the fires reached over one billion – even though there were higher estimates floating around well before all the major fires were extinguished.

And this was just for creatures we immediately consider ‘animals’: mammals, birds and reptiles. Also destroyed were literally countless amphibians, reptiles and insects; ‘creepie-crawlies’ too far below our dignity to usually even warrant a mention.

The deep disconnect between the devastation wrought by the fires and most people’s desire for life to proceed as close to ‘normal’ as possible was highlighted by the loss of a large portion of Kangaroo Island. Lying off the South Australian coast, it is home to significant and biologically unique flora and fauna.

It also hosts Australia’s only chlamydia free koala population, half of whom were killed by the bushfires. Yet during the height of the devastating fires resulting in the loss of over half the island’s habitat, we were presented the bizarre and jarring scene of Australia’s prime minister, the Liberal Party’s Scott Morrison, telling the world that even though ‘a third of the island has obviously been decimated, two thirds of it is open and ready for business’.

In the mainland’s southeast corner apocalyptic scenes since overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic played out with the drama of a bona fide humanitarian disaster, with the Royal Australian Navy evacuating residents from the beach at Mallacoota in Victoria’s remote east Gippsland region.

And in the aftermath of the fires, absurdly macabre scenes of animal genocide emerged as our feathered friends washed up and lay lifeless on the sand – like the charred and discarded carcasses of miniature, mythical sea creatures.

… to human pestilence

At that point, it really dd seem that the situation could not have gotten any worse. Yet not only did Australia’s animals bear the massively disproportional brunt of the fires as their homes were consumed by ferocious mega-fires, but environmental policy responses in most jurisdictions were arguably somewhere between deeply negligent and downright punitive.

Then the logging resumed, even as fires were still burning elsewhere. First it was in the burnt forests, against the advice from leading forest scientists that so called ‘salvage logging’ would compound the impact of the fires on wildlife and ecosystem recovery. In Victoria, the timber industry and the rural and regional based National Party used ‘safety’ as a pretext to call for clearing in burnt areas.

Then there was the resumption of logging in scarce remaining unburnt habitat. This left surviving forest animals little room to manoeuvre in search of food and shelter. Koalas had been one of the first casualties of the climate induced mega-fires, with vast areas of key habitat on NSW’s mid-north coast burning out and killing an estimated 30% of the resident koalas. The conditions now exist for koalas to become extinct in NSW.

On the NSW south coast, the region hardest hit by the fires, a development approval granted prior to the fires that would have destroyed half of the 20 hectares of unburnt forest left at Manyana. This home to refugee koalas and other marsupials, was only given a temporary reprieve at the eleventh hour due to community pressure.

Yet despite the shocking loss of habitat, koalas are simply not getting the protection they need. Or even the protection they are nominally afforded by the law, as demonstrated in a most grisly way by the massacre of dozens of koalas in southwestern Victoria in March of this year.

After the unforeseen loss of a significant, and unevenly distributed portion, of their stock, any competent farmer or a merchant would seriously and urgently review their business planning. But native or wild animals are not stock and, perversely, do not merit the same consideration as the commodified version under the brutal calculus of neoliberal ‘economic rationalism’ (the latter should no longer be called ‘domesticated’ animals, but rather industrialised animals).

To add insult to injury, what modest activities were in train to protect and rehabilitate surviving native animals were often stymied, directly or indirectly, by political and social responses to the CoViD-19 pandemic that hit Australian shores in the southern autumn of 2020.

For instance, social distancing rules were used to prevent scientists from continuing bushfire recovery work. Surely an exemption could have been allowed, given that it was pretty low risk situation all told. After all we are talking about small numbers of highly trained scientists conducting fieldwork in a burnt-out forest – I wouldn’t think the most likely scenario for an outbreak.

Maybe more would have been done to protect the animals if there was more of a care factor among our politicians and bureaucrats. But if that had been the case then the situation wouldn’t have got so bad in the first place. And more would have been done to prevent the immediate cause of the problem – that is, serious climate action and appropriately prepared emergency response capabilities.

On the home front, vets were receiving alarming requests to perform euthanasia on pets to reduce the owner’s risk of contracting CoViD-19. And due to excessive acquisition of pets such as dogs as a response to the isolation of the lockdowns, it is now a genuine concern that a return to pre-covid normalcy would see many of these vulnerable creatures abandoned like unwanted, unconscious and unfeeling toys.

Nor is pandemic-driven animal abuse confined to maltreatment of domestic pets. Bats around the world have become targets of violence fuelled by fear, ignorance and misinformation about the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes CoViD-19. In the southern Australian state of Victoria, there have been deadly attacks on the large fruit-eating bats known as ‘flying foxes’. These much misunderstood mammals have also suffered mass deaths in recent years with tens of thousands at a time dying due to rising temperatures linked to climate change.

Sadly, of course, malicious killings of native animals, is not isolated to misguided cross-species bigotry fomented in a climate of fear. In 2018, a farm worker in eastern Victoria was sentenced to 14 days jail and fined $2,500 for intentionally killing over 400 wedge-tail eagles, Australia’s largest raptor, and his boss received 100 hours of community service and $25,000 of financial penalties.

Consider this: the cold calculus of the court’s decision deemed the life of each of these majestic birds was worth one measly hour of one human lifespan plus $67.73.

Of origins and anthropocentric order

The path to modernity in the west involved the transformation of our sociopolitical order and institutions from the complex and conservative corporative landscapes of medieval Christendom to hi-tech, secular, neoliberal post-democracies.

In the process, the theological and philosophical mythologies that set animals apart from and inferior to humans was translated by liberal ideology into the politics of exclusion. Despite the significant gains in animal welfare in some parts of the world, there has been no genuine ‘liberation’ of our interspecies sisters and brothers.

In western societies, alienation from our animal heritage is deeply rooted in both Greek and Judeo-Christian cultural patrimonies. While Aristotle saw a continuity between humans, animals and plants, he also thought of animals as lacking reason. Matthew Calarco of California State University tells us that this scion of the pagan Greek philosophical tradition considered animals as ‘being ultimately (if not entirely) placed in the service of human beings’.

While broadly similar in practice, the Christian conceit that God put animals on earth solely for human use, even if as instruments for us to carry out ‘His’ plan, it goes further along this trajectory. The Old Testament’s creation mythology tells us God said:

Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.

Genesis 1:26

Both these prejudicial views are predicated on a fundamental and ultimately unbridgeable difference between human and animals, in which humans and their god(s) are at the centre and moral apex of the entire universe.

An important figure in the western history of misunderstanding animals is René Descartes, whose status as the ‘father’ of early modern European philosophy has been challenged by modern scholarship. Descartes held the metaphysical position of dualism, in which we have material bodies and spiritual souls and never the twain shall truly meet.

As non-humans, animals could not have Christian souls, therefore they were mere bodies – flesh and blood without minds. Called ‘automatons’ in the parlance of the time due a prevailing mechanistic view of the physical world, today this way of thinking about animals more closely resembles the zombies of contemporary pop culture.

Confoundingly, this empirically and phenomenologically ungrounded mythology reproduced itself in mainstream western scientific culture at least until the emergence of the animal liberation movement in the 1970s. The Skinnerian behaviourism that dominated post-Second World War psychological sciences was a particularly insidious, late florescence of this self-serving and incredibly damaging perspective on animals and their place in the world.

This attitude is confronted by Phillip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In a post-nuclear-holocaust 1990s, where most animals are extinct, bounty hunter of rogue androids Rick Deckard desperately wants to own a living animal as a status symbol:

He thought, too, about his need for a real animal; within him an actual hatred once more manifested itself toward his electric sheep, which he had to tend, had to care about, as it lived. The tyranny of an object, he thought. It doesn’t know I exist. Like the androids, it had no ability to appreciate the existence of another.

In the real world, tragically, the status of animals is more often than not reduced to animal shaped meat bags without consciousness or awareness. The contemporary scientific paradigm, at any rate, retains this modus operandi in the study of animal behaviour.

Incapable of being ends in themselves, animal existences are relegated to being merely means, thus morally accessible for the instrumental use of others, which by default is us, humans. This is a double problem for Kant’s categorical imperative, for example, which not only requires that individuals be treated as ends in themselves and not merely as means, but also ethical rules must be universalisable – in other words, what’s good for the goose is necessarily good for the gander.

One important implication is that seen as automatons or zombies, animals cannot be moral agents. By denying that animals experience an inner life of the mind, they are deprived of agency. Denied agency, they are a priori excluded from any possible social contract. Animals are thus logically excluded from enjoying civil and political rights in the mainstream western liberal conception of political ordering.

It’s time for reflection, conversation, action

At the end of the day, the human relationship with animals is perhaps the most complex we have, possibly even more than any among our own species, as there is a deep ambiguity at play. Not only have we developed into anthropologically modern humans in a state both dependent on and fearful of ‘wild’ animals, we have undergone a substantial degree of social co-evolution with our domestic companions and food sources.

We generally relate to animals as a necessary other, but we do not reciprocate. We need them, but we deny them our due care and responsibility. On the whole, it is a codependent, unequal, and abusive relationship causing untold suffering to its victims. It also poisons our cultures and societies by facilitating pervasive and preventable violence and death in our very midst.

In the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, it is easy to forget that on 4 January 2020 Australia’s federal electoral battleground of Sydney’s western suburbs became the ‘hottest place on earth’ when Penrith reached 49oC. As the Australian continent continues to dry out and heat up, making environmental living conditions progressively worse for humans and animals, we should be thinking long and hard about this relationship.

We need to think about and engage in public discussion and debate on how we will continue to cohabit with other species as the event horizon of environmental degradation and climate change rushes toward us while we can’t slow down. In particular, how we can improve our understanding of and empathy for all our furry, feathered and finned friends.

And let’s not forget the creepie-crawlies; for God surely loves all her creatures great and small. At any rate, without the bees and other insects for crop pollination and as food sources the entire food production chain will collapse, catastrophically affecting all animals, both humans and the wilder kind. Yet toxic chemicals contributing to the bee genocide continue to be manufactured and used on an industrial scale in food production.

Ultimately, as the argument goes however, we should probably stop eating them or otherwise using their ‘products’. After all, one cannot simply conjure up human reason to dispel the real and painful subjective experiences of animals – let alone suffering that is directly and unequivocally caused to animals by our use of them as instruments for our own ends. But, for better or worse, an end to the consumption and exploitation of animal bodies is not likely to happen until there are none left.

In the meantime, there are still much, much, much better ways of doing things in the inevitable face of sociocultural reality. A good start to resetting the relationship would be the adoption of ‘humane’ animal husbandry methods – such as those practised by our wiser forebears and by indigenous peoples today – that don’t use horrendous torture in the procurement of food for our pots and tables.


Image: Andrew Mercer

Published by Kurt Vall

Based in Melbourne, Australia, Kurt studied linguistics, philosophy and Asian history at the Australian National University and is currently a graduate student in international relations at the University of Melbourne. He has over a decade's experience in public policy and administration in Australian federal and state government.

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