01 May 2008

George Orwell Was Wrong: All Animals Aren’t Equal

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The New York Times’ Natalie Angier identifies yet another objectionable form of bias and a symptom of our persistently reactionary and Imperialist mentality.

The other day I glanced out my window and felt a twinge of revulsion delicately seasoned with indignation. Pecking at my bird feeder were two brown-headed cowbirds, one male and one female, and I knew what that meant. Pretty soon the fattened, fertilized female would be slipping her eggs into some other birds’ nest, with the expectation that the naïve hosts would brood, feed and rear her squawking, ravenous young at the neglect and even death of their own.

Hey, you parasites, get your beaks off my seed, I thought angrily. That feeder is for the good birds, the birds that I like — the cardinals, the nuthatches, the black-capped chickadees, the tufted titmice, the woodpeckers, the goldfinches. It’s for the hard-working birds with enough moral fiber to rear their own families and look photogenic besides. It’s not meant for sneaky freeloaders like you. I rapped on the window sharply but the birds didn’t budge, and as I stood there wondering whether I should run out and scare them away, their beaks seemed to thicken, their eyes blacken, and I could swear they were cackling, “Tippi Hedren must go.”

In sum, I was suffering from a severe case of biobigotry: the persistent and often irrational desire to be surrounded only by those species of which one approves, and to exclude any animals, plants and other life forms that one finds offensive.

It was not my first episode of the disorder, and evidently I don’t suffer alone. “Throughout history there have been vilified animals and totemic animals,” said John Fraser, a conservation psychologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “There are the animals you don’t like and that you dismiss as small brown vermin, and the animals whose attributes you absolutely want to own,” to be a tiger, a bear, lupine leader of the pack. …

Related to the human impulse to see ourselves in nature is the persistent sense that nature belongs to us, and that we have the right and the means to control it. “In the past, when we talked about exploiting nature, that was seen as a good thing,” Mr. Fraser said. “Now we realize that that attitude is counterproductive to human success.”

Nowhere is our sense of droit du roi over nature more manifest than in our paradoxical attitudes toward farm animals. On the one hand, they’re the beloved figures of our earliest childhood. On the other hand, many of our most pejorative comparisons were born in the barnyard — you lazy pig, you ugly cow, you chicken, what a bunch of sheep.

Conservation groups, which keep track of public attitudes toward animals, acknowledge that they are ever on the lookout for the next Animal Idol — an ecologically important creature that also happens to be large, showy, charismatic and likable. If you have two important birds from the same region of Latin America, said Mr. Fraser, one a hyacinth macaw that looks like flying jewelry and can vocalize like a human, the other a storm petrel that is brown, squawky and cakes the coastline with guano, guess which face ends up on the next fund-raising calendar.

Personally, I have every intention of continuing to discriminate, and will shoot any pigeons I catch picketing.

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