Last night I went to an event at the Wheeler Centre called A Night at the Zoo. The event was the result of a series of fellowships, in partnership with Melbourne Zoo, that allowed four writers to spend time at the zoo with a view to inspiring some written work. The event last night was an opportunity for the writers to present some of that work and to discuss some of their thoughts and feelings about the zoo, and about zoos in general.

Unsurprisingly, much of the discussion was about animals and our relationship to them. Cate Kennedy admitted that she is ambivalent about zoos, for a whole host of reasons. I feel similarly. Or, at least, I feel confused about them. There’s something deeply disturbing about our desire to put members of other species in cages (or enclosures, as is more likely the case these days) so we can watch them. But at the same time, much of the work zoos do is about education and conservation, which is certainly not a bad thing. And I understand as well as anybody the kind of curiosity that leads people to zoos, to watching.

Some of the stories Estelle Tang relayed about a visual artist forming a kind of friendship or understanding with the gorillas, whom she frequently draws, and about the same artist witnessing the awful behaviour of some human visitors towards the primates, reconfirmed for me that sense of the deep uncertainty we seem to have in our relationship with animals.

Throughout the day yesterday I’d seen posted on Twitter a number of times a link to a letter from Fiona Apple to her fans saying that she was delaying her South American tour to stay home with her dying dog. For various reasons (you know, trying to actually do work), I’d not read it during the day, but when it came up again in my feed last night after I got home from the Wheeler Centre event, reading it seemed appropriate. The relationship she describes with her dog is companionship — actually, no, it’s friendship. And it’s beautiful. (But also sad, so if you’re going to read it, be prepared.)

My family have always kept pets and I’ve developed an enormous affection and/or love for most of them. As an adult, I’ve lived in a number houses (including the current one) with housemates who have cats. And again, I’ve developed a friendship and an affection for with those animals. I guess and hope that those animals understand that relationship as something more than just ‘she gives me food sometimes’, but the potential for anthropomorphisation bothers me.

Earlier in the year, I wrote an essay on how growing my own food has made me seriously question my own vegetarianism (although I’m yet to give up on it)*. It’s made me question my relationship to other creatures and the rest of the non-human world. In fact — and excuse the melodrama here — it’s made me question my whole concept of death and decay, and of life. As part of my research for that essay, I came across Charlotte Wood’s excellent essay on animals (available here as a PDF), and I thoroughly agree with her point about the dangers of anthropomorphising animals. She says:

But I find most of it troubling because it seems so disrespectful. Denying the creature’s essential nature – its very animality – is surely an act not of admiration, but subjugation. To downplay the differences between species is to promote the assumption that “humans will only accept what is like themselves”, as American scholar Shelly R. Scott puts it.

But that’s not all. The flip side of our culture’s grossly sentimental failure to embrace the “otherness” of animals – the failure to imagine them as anything but approximations of ourselves – is a deep ugliness in our treatment of them. We force a dichotomy in which animals are either so like us that we cannot separate their needs from our own, or so unlike us as to be aliens, undeserving of any rights at all. The more we sentimentalise, the more we also brutalise.

Equally — and I think this is partly what Wood is getting at when she speaks about the ‘flip side’ of that sentimentality — I think that denying animals any kind of emotional life is problematic (and there is a growing body of scientific research that suggests that animals do, in fact, experience emotions, often seemingly in similar ways to us). And I wonder whether we sometimes cling to the idea that we are different to animals in our ability to experience emotion (or in any other way) because we can’t quite face our own ‘animalness’.

Which brings me back to a point made in last night’s Wheeler Centre event. Cate Kennedy suggested that our response to animals (and she gave the example of her own ‘give me hugs’ response to the orangutangs at the zoo) says far more about us than it does about them. What is it that we’re looking for — or hiding from — in our relationships with animals? It’s a scary question.


As you might be able to tell, this topic fascinates me. Some other reading I’ve come across, if you’re interested:
Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer
Us and Them: on the importance of animals, Anna Krien
Vegans and Ethical Omnivores, Unite!, Tammi Jonas

(There are a whole lot of other things I could add to this list, if I could find them. I’ll endeavour to do so as I draw them out from their various hidey holes in my too-complicated filing system.)

*I don’t think this essay is available online at the moment. You can, however, buy a print copy of the Death of a Scenester Food issue it appears in.

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