Between & Beyond: Animals

I touched upon some thoughts about nature a few episodes ago, and my point landed on the importance of animals. The “otherness” of nature manifests in many ways, from animals to stars to trees, and, as a general rule, to genuflect before that otherness rather than squander it or exploit it or ignore it makes a lot more sense to me. But our relationship to animals in particular is incredibly important and also incredibly difficult. If we examine our relationship to animals, we might find telling characteristics that stretch into other aspects of our culture.

This is particularly fresh in my mind because I just watched the recent movie Blackfish. It’s a mostly decent documentary that details the sordid history of Sea World and their sketchy practices. As a documentary, I found it to be a bit one-dimensional, but I certainly have no love for Sea World or any circus or zoo for that matter. The broad strokes that the filmmakers paint with are solidified from early on: the whales themselves being highly intelligent and caught in terrible circumstances; the trainers being good-intentioned and caught between their distasteful job and genuine love for the noble creatures; the corporate overlords being intent on milking revenue, misleading their employees, disregarding safety, and shirking blame. I don’t mean to sound sarcastic. I believe that this is pretty close to the reality of the situation, but the seams of the filmmaker’s intentions were showing throughout and that’s poor form for a documentary.

Which is to say, filmmaking is largely about making choices. While a good actor might improvise some lines during a scene, the director still chooses to keep them. Very little is organic when it comes to filmmaking. So, there is a great deal of forced perspective in documentaries if one pays close enough attention. One very easy way to spot this and consider this is by paying attention to the music being used during any given scene. Music does a great deal to pad an actor’s performance in a drama. Swells of sad chords will seduce you right into any given emotional world and enhance your ability to feel. Which music to include and when is, of course, a choice made by the filmmakers. This practice is quite benign in a drama, but edges on dubious for a documentary.

My ultimate point here is that I found a particular choice made by this film to be incredibly disturbing and telling of how hard it is for us to find the right footing when it comes to our relationship to animals. Here we have a movie that has blatantly set out to champion a cause. It pulls no punches in terms of vilifying (rightfully so) Sea World. There’s plenty of sad music when baby calves are being herded away from their mothers, captured for no reason other than profit through barbaric exploitation. This is the enslavement of a sovereign and sentient being. To call it anything else would be delusional.

Yet, there is a section of the movie that focuses on how the only male in captivity is used for breeding. What follows is disturbing and graphic images of human trainers manually harvesting semen from the whale. Yes: they jerk the whale off into a bucket. The whale’s semen is worth millions of dollars. This scene comes after great lengths establishing this creature as majestic and noble and not just sentient but entirely intelligent, perhaps, as the neuroscientist in the film suggests, even more socially and emotionally developed than human beings. So what kind of music is chosen for the scene about breeding? Goofy, circus-style, Benny Hill-esque isn’t-that-silly music.

Why? Why, when establishing this animal as our equal through the entire film, would we suddenly gloss over the animal being raped? Maybe it speaks of our relationship to sexuality more than our relationship to animals, but if we can see that whale hunting is just slavery, how is breeding animals anything other than rape? Artificial insemination is widely practiced in all industries involving animals, from the animals we eat, to even our exalted companions and the luxury dog breeds we cherish. It’s a rape that simultaneously exploits the animal and the hired harvester for the benefit (i.e. profit) of someone so far removed from the situation. Clinging to the old adage, “you are what you eat,” I’m tempted to go as far as saying that perhaps the dark undercurrent of child abuse that seems all too ubiquitous in Western culture stems from the abuse we consume. The animals we eat are riddled with fear and suffering. Can we expect to be made of anything else?

Understanding animals is not magic, but it’s no surprise that it’s difficult for Americans. The cornerstone of our culture is distance. To understand animals, you must accept them as “other.” But not in the negative way. Not the “other” that leads to jingoism or exploitation. First, see them as other/equal. This closes the gap of distance between yourself and the animal. The second step is to be aware of yourself. We are distanced from that too. To become acutely aware of oneself is to close the gap of distance we have between what we call our identity and the fact that we belong to the earth just as much as all the other life here.