College of Humanities and Sciences, Thomas Jefferson University

Tag: animals

People as Prey: A Visit to the Field Museum

I am a little obsessed with taxidermy. So, during my recent visit to Chicago for the annual MLA convention, I had to make a trip over to the Field Museum of Natural History to check out their large and diverse collection of stuffed animals. Because of my enthusiasm for taxidermy, I knew that Carl Akeley, the “father of modern taxidermy,” worked as the Field’s Chief Taxidermist from 1896 to 1909. I was particularly looking forward to seeing the examples of Akeley’s work that the Field continues to display, including the famous “Fighting Bulls” group, a pair of elephants Akeley himself shot and killed (or, if you prefer the sanitized term, “collected”) during one of his many expeditions to Africa for such purposes.

Beyond Akeley’s work, the famous taxidermied animals I most looked forward to visiting at the Field were the Tsavo Maneaters. These two male lions terrorized construction workers building the Kenya-Uganda Railway for ten months back in 1898. During that time, the lions earned their name by killing and eating between 20 and 135 people (depending on who you read/believe). After a couple decades spent as trophy rugs in the home of the man who successfully hunted them, the Field Museum purchased, mounted, and displayed the lions’ hides under glass where they remain today.

The taxidermied Maneaters in their current home at the Field Museum

The taxidermied Maneaters in their current home at the Field Museum

Despite their age (and the fact that the Field exhibits many exquisitely taxidermied animals that emphasize the lions’ worn, scrawny appearance by comparison), the Maneaters continue to get a lot of attention. I watched other museumgoers Instagramming each other in front of the lions’ display while most of the other animals received passing glances from visitors at best. The museum also builds visitor expectations about the lions through the use of promotional signage: these signs, pointing visitors to the Tsavo Maneaters, depict lions that look much more fearsome than the old, stuffed cats themselves. The taxidermied Maneaters do not roar or show their teeth as do the lions on the signs; instead, they lie down and walk casually. Like all male lions in the Tsavo region, too, the Maneaters are without the full, bushy, distinctive manes usually associated with male lions, a conspicuous absence that contributes to their rather unassuming appearance.

A sign inside the Field Museum directing visitors to the Tsavo lions exhibit

A sign inside the Field Museum directing visitors to the Tsavo lions exhibit

The discrepancy between the lions on the museum’s signs and the lions on display got me thinking about what makes these animals so compelling as taxidermy mounts. To an extent, the popularity of the Tsavo lions has to do with what makes taxidermy itself so compelling. All taxidermy records some kind of human-animal encounter: a sportsman’s “accomplishment,” the early death of a popular zoo animal, a beloved pet with a bereaved owner. The human-animal encounter recorded by the Tsavo Maneaters, however, is uniquely written into the very chemical composition of the lion skins on display. Recent tests of samples of the Tsavo Maneaters’ hair confirm that the pair consumed human flesh during the months before their deaths. Unlike most taxidermy which one-sidedly reflects violence inflicted by humans, the skins of these lions–the very basis for taxidermy (dermy meaning skin)–attest to a history of violence wherein both humans and lions inflicted harm on each other.

In a recent article, June Dwyer argues that the human desire for wild animal companionship in the twenty-first century is so strong that we prefer to re-imagine meat-eating animals as vegetarians to fulfill the wish to “eat with them, not be eaten by them.” While I agree with some of Dwyer’s article, the enduring popularity of the Tsavo Maneaters, not to mention the several taxidermy displays at the Field that depict predation, suggest in contrast that the possibility of our becoming a predator’s lunch provides an opportunity to rethink our relationships with animals without diminishing the challenges involved with coexistence. Rather than obscure their man-eating, I think we paradoxically celebrate these lions because they dined on human flesh, because our bodies nourished theirs. I think we appreciate that we can’t re-imagine them as harmless or non-threatening. Even though their hides are worn and their mouths don’t arc into a growl, the Tsavo Maneaters remind us not only of our exposure to the acts of animals, but also that we are not the only animal who acts and who eats.

“The Caring Chicken” blog entry featured on the Kimmela Center website

Yesterday the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, directed by Dr. Lori Marino, published my blog entry, “The Caring Chicken – Being a Mother Hen.” In this post I review several recent scientific studies of mother hens to show that these chickens–renowned for their dedicated care of their feathered children–really do care about their chicks. I’m so grateful for the support of the Kimmela Center and to have such a great opportunity to share these findings on mother hens. Check it out!

SeaWorld, Blackfish, and Killer Companion Species

Growing up in Florida where the ocean was only a brief car ride away, I was conscious of my privileged proximity to sea creatures. Though not an everyday occurrence, I remember several occasions during my childhood when a pod of twenty-something dolphins swimming just off the shore punctuated a day of swimming and snorkeling. As a Florida kid, too, theme parks of the Disney, Universal, and Busch variety were also (an albeit less-frequent) source of entertainment, and a two-day pass to SeaWorld meant getting to see, feed, and even touch all the marine creatures I wanted, even the big mammals–those shining, speeding dolphins–who I at other times watched at a distance. I loved the dolphins in the tank and in the sea equally, and I hoped that they loved me, too: as children often do, I wanted to be friends with animals, for us to recognize in each other a sense of goodwill. In our post-natural world, one in which it no longer makes sense to appeal to a pristine Nature separate from Culture, or even to call wild animals “natural” and captive animals something else, how can we make sense of the differences between my relationship to the cetacean companions in the tank and those in the sea, both of which gave me so much pleasure to encounter?

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s recent documentary Blackfish provides one explanation. The film describes the capture, exhibition, and use of the orca Tilikum who, even after being involved in the deaths of three human trainers, continues to be held by SeaWorld for breeding purposes (as well as limited aspects of performance). In addition to Tilikum’s history, told alongside tales of other captive orcas and interviews with orca trainers and experts, the film presents footage from SeaWorld “Shamu” shows, images I often felt were extracted directly from my personal memory. Trainers rub and embrace the whales, leap into the water alongside them, and jump from the tips of their noses into mid-air dives. These feats are certainly impressive, but in the context of Blackfish, what looks like a triumph of animal intelligence and trainability takes on an air of foreboding: we know one of these whales has killed people, and beyond the consequence for our species, we know that the whales themselves, because of the conditions they endure at SeaWorld and similar venues, become bored, lonely, aggressive, and often express these feelings by hurting one another.

Killer whale and trainer. Image source: <

Killer whale and trainer. Image source: <

So what about the trainers and (what often seems to be) their loving relationships with the animals, not to mention the hundreds of people, like my younger self, cheering from the stands? Do the animals’ artificial living conditions necessitate that their seemingly close relationships with humans are also artificial? Drawing from Louis Althusser, Donna Haraway helps provide a partial answer. In her Companion Species Manifesto, she writes that, “[T]hrough our ideologically-loaded narratives of their lives, animals ‘hail’ us to account for the regimes in which they and we must live…We also live with each other in the flesh in ways not exhausted by our ideologies.” I read Tilikum’s story as an example of such an animal hailing, of one particular whale’s account of what it means to live in relation to humans. His is a call for recognition made through a meeting of flesh, an exposure of SeaWorld’s artifice told in orca language.

Put differently, Tilikum’s behavior illustrates one example of what it means to encounter killer whales as companion species, not as characters in SeaWorld’s fictional narrative of interspecies harmony and enchantment. Blackfish demonstrates that whales have a deep and complex emotional range: they feel despair, anxiety, happiness, and much more. That said, like other animals, including even our dogs and cats, killer whales may become angry and respond with a bite. Unlike dogs and cats, however, killer whales can also drown people. This does not mean that orcas are an evil species (Tilikum may have even had a sense that what he did to Dawn was in some way “wrong” or a transgression of safe and friendly conduct). It does mean, however, that, as killer whales, they might respond to their conditions of life in species-specific ways, and when they do bite, the consequences for humans are far more severe. I do not doubt that Dawn Brancheau, the trainer who Tilikum most recently killed, loved the whales with whom she worked, and I do not even doubt that Tilikum likely cared for Dawn. What I do doubt is SeaWorld’s genuine interest in cultivating human-orca relationships in ways that do not obfuscate the risks intrinsic to being a companion species. As Haraway reminds us, “[t]here cannot be just one companion species; there have to be at least two to make one.” SeaWorld’s most egregious fiction may be that companion species are one-sided, that humans call all the shots in their relations with whales.

For whale trainers and former visitors to SeaWorld such as myself, caring for and finding pleasure in another species necessitates perpetually taking stock of the terms of the relationship. Being a companion species can be messy, and communicating across species even messier: mistakes and missteps are bound to happen. More than some isolated incident, however, SeaWorld’s glossing-over of these issues in attempt to manufacture flawless, entertaining performances ignores the specificity of whales as animals, as creatures smart, social, carnivorous, and strong. By acting out as a killer whale, by communicating not according to some human sense of what constitutes “good behavior” but as a nonhuman animal, Tilikum calls to be recognized and treated as a killer whale and therefore with all the messiness and risks that entails. How we respond to Tilikum’s call reflects what kind of companion species we humans aspire to be, regardless of whether we encounter our fellow animal in a tank or across an ocean.

Ant Like Me: Human-Animals in The Last of Us

The load screen for Naughty Dog’s latest PlayStation 3 release The Last of Us confronts players with an inexplicable image: against a blank, black background, tiny yellow particles emerge from an unseen source to waft on currents of air. Having read little about the game beforehand, I guessed at what these particles represented: dust motes, I first thought, recalling the unkempt, long-abandoned window of a home featured on the title screen. That plants overgrow the window also suggested the specks were pollen: Atlanta-residents and allergy sufferers such as myself are well-familiar with the thick, suffocating waves of the stuff emitted by local trees every spring. My second guess inched me closer to an explanation, but it wasn’t until I encountered the infected–the game’s zombie-esque creatures–that I recognized the particles for what they were: spores.

And not any old spores, either, but spores from the real-life species of fungi Cordyceps. If you’ve watched the BBC series Planet Earth, the Cordyceps fungi is the part of the show most likely to have given you nightmares, and for good reason. The fungi propagates itself by quite literally turning ants into zombies: it enters their bodies, takes over their minds, and eventually grows out of the ants to form some truly creepy protrusions I for one often wish were only science fiction. Ants infected with Cordyceps pose such a threat to their colonies that non-infected worker ants will eject them from the group to save themselves: think the quarantine zones in The Last of Us. A recent Scientific American article praises the game for developing a zombie iteration inspired by good science; as the article explains, “the fungus that brings down humanity turns a host into a drone to eventually do its bidding. And like the species of Cordyceps that turns tarantulas into art, the fictional fungus creates elaborate sprouting bodies off the host.”

Joel fends off an attack from a "clicker," a zombie with advanced stages of the Cordyceps infection, distinguishable from other infected individuals by its evolved facial protrusions. Image source:

Joel fends off an attack from a “clicker,” a zombie with advanced stages of the Cordyceps infection, distinguishable from other infected individuals by its evolved facial protrusions. Image source:

In The Last of Us, humans are no more removed from the threat of this fungal infection than ants. Such a demotion in our species’ status from beyond the natural world to thoroughly immersed in it disorients as much as it frightens. The Cordyceps fungi already unsettles us when we see how it infects creatures as evolutionarily dissimilar from us as ants (not to mention something as far removed from our normal range of sympathy as insects): when we think about this fungus evolving to invade our bodies, the horror quadruples. The Last of Us, then, asks that we imagine ourselves as like ants: vulnerable, embodied, and animal. As in other thoughtful post-apocalyptic texts (Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road, to which Naughty Dog’s game is frequently compared, strikes me as an apt example), The Last of Us tells us as much about the present world as it does about a fictive future. Does the “us” of the title refer to a set of pure, uninfected humans, either in the present time or in the game? And in our current reality of carbon emissions, particulates, and yes, viruses, pollen, and spores, who could count as uninfected?

Timothy Morton provides some helpful insight when he writes that, “The insides of organisms teem with aliens” (The Ecological Thought 36). He further explains that, “When you sneeze, is it because a virus manipulated you to propagate its DNA? After all, rabid animals (even gentle ones) are possessed by an urge to bite. Some parasites and symbionts are so intimate you can’t tell where one starts and its habitat stops, all the way down to the DNA level” (35). The permeable boundaries of living things mean that humans are not so “human” after all: we comprise and are comprised of a vast number of nonhuman, living and nonliving, things. As the game’s spores float across the black loading screen–an anonymous, anywhere space–The Last of Us invites players to fill in this blank with familiar locations, to imagine spores floating through known towns, streets, and neighborhoods before arriving in living rooms and lungs. Some particles drift off screen while others glide too near to us to stay in focus. Watching the spores, I can’t help but wonder what lingers in the air of my home, what might be invading, even infecting, my body with every breath. The game imposes an uncomfortable awareness of one’s own breathing body, sustained by an atmosphere at once nourishing and injurious. The spores remind me that my body is not, as Morton might say, “complete in itself” (33).

Like animals struggling to survive as their habitats disappear beneath their feet, the environment players occupy in the game is not hospitable. A quick scan of any catalog of zoonotic diseases or a peek at this recent article on the human behavior-modifying parasite spread through cat poop (no, really!) drives home the point that we are one kind of animal among many. To my mind, the corporeal vulnerability and permeability shared across species need not evoke horror alone. As The Last of Us teaches, the importance of surviving creatively in a hostile world cannot be overstated, and what’s more, creative survival often means supporting the survival of others. Ultimately, the game is not about the triumph of the human-as-individual: much of its intrigue derives from Joel and Ellie’s awkward but mutually beneficial partnership. They help each other stay alive, and the game thus facilitates an awareness of how one’s animal form connects to the immediate environment, to the atmosphere, and to other vulnerable bodies. Instead of responding to our immersion in the world with fear, we might use it as an invitation to extend concern to other vulnerable beings like “us,” however varied, multiple, and animal the forms of “us” might take. Mutually at risk in the world, humans and ants often share common ground, figuratively and literally.

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