Entries tagged with “animals”.


Last week I had the wonderful experience of visiting an eco-camp in Far North Queensland, and seeing marine turtles labouring up the beach to lay their eggs. I also saw many hatchlings making their journey out of the sand in the dunes, and, as they have done for time immemorial, traverse the sand to the ocean, where their life becomes a precarious existence.

As a said, a wonderful experience, but there were aspects of this trip that concerned me greatly.

The first was how data was being collected on the turtles. I found this process deeply disturbing. First there was the tagging of the turtle fins, often done immediately after the turtle had finished laying her eggs. The turtle was ungracefully turned on its back, and a device was used to implant a metal tag into her front fins. The turtle “screamed”. This was an expression, I thought, of both pain and defiance. After millions of years of existence, the turtle has to endure this mutilation of her fins, and the indignity of being placed on her back. The scientific method simply does not treat the creatures it studies as worthy of respect – these creatures have survived very well with out the need for scientific studies. It is not as if we need further data to understand the lifestyle of turtles, and we are well aware of the current risks posed to turtles by fishing and development. Do the researchers need approval from someone to inflict pain and suffering on other creatures?

The second major concern was the inability of the other members of the group to just be with the turtles when we came across them on the beach. Imagine this scene: full moon rising, brilliant stars, other planets glowing, pulsing rhythmic waves caressing sand, and an ancient creature coming ashore. Can we witness and be present to this mysterious and magical event? No, incessant photo taking, mostly with flashes, and seeing all this through the lens of a camera. The objectifying sense of sight so common in our society is exaggerated through the taking of photos – just think about the common photographic words – “shoot”, “capture” etc.

Is it any wonder we can’t see the mystery in the world around us when we see everything through the distancing and objectifying sense of sight? And when we treat other creatures as entertainment, there for us to look at?

There is another way of encountering wildlife. And this is to bring our full awareness and all our senses (and love) to this mysterious and magical other, to notice the small things: how turtle breathes, the shape of her head, how she moves, how she is, being fully a turtle. This leads us to recover a sense of wonder and awe.

I have just been listening to a wonderful exchange of views between Bill Plotkin and David Abram. It’s quite long at over 80 minutes, but well worth taking the time to have a listen.

The topic of the discussion is how to generate a profound shift in our culture, in our consciousness. David talks about this great shift as requiring a shift in our perceptions. He says that we don’t see the earthly world around us with any clarity, we don’t hear the voices of the land, and we don’t notice the rest of the world with anything like a realistic apprehension. So, he says, we need to build our perceptual abilities so we can gain the needed clarity to learn what the world is really about, and to learn what our place is in the world, and to live appropriately.

It seems clear that we forget that we have animal bodies, with animal senses, that co-evolved with the world around us, and that we are immersed in a word of others: animal beings, conscious presences, and elemental forces. It is interesting to reflect on the way “animal” is a derisory comment in our modern society, especially when applied to humans: You animal! They were just animals! But our animality is just a fact of life, and we should take the time to celebrate our animal bodies, by, at the very least, getting outside.

Bill says this shift requires a redefinition of what it means to be human. He talks about how our modern western societies have become locked into a patho-adolescent way of being, engendered by our consumerist culture and our schooling, and how we desperately need to grow up. But it is so easy to sell more things to immature people! So we need to develop new models of what it means to be fully and authentically human. We could all benefit from a careful reading of Bill’s nature-based model of human development.

Bill talks about the way in which a conversation between two people can shape each other in interesting ways. Similarly, David asks, could a conversation between a place, animals, plants, water, and winds, shape and inform our bodies, nervous systems, our very styles of experience? Only if we humans consider the world around us as being alive, being able to communicate to us, and if we develop the skills to enter the conversation, can this idea resonate with us. But we have become locked into a human centred way of being, without being affected by non-human “others”. Of course indigenous people around the world have understood that the world does speak, and not just metaphorically, but as experienced reality. Listen to the words of Bill Neidjie, a Aboriginal Elder who has returned to the earth:

I feel it with my body, with my blood. Feeling all these trees, all this country. When the wind blows you can feel it. Same for country … You feel it. You can look, but feeling … that make you.

So can we shake ourselves free from our (perhaps unconscious) assumptions that the world does not speak, does not have a presence? Can we become receptive to the voices and presences of the world around us, and our places? Can we awaken to the awe and mystery at the heart of the world around us? Can we feel this presence deep in our bones, deep in our hearts? Can we celebrate our nature?

A key distinguishing feature of our Western culture is the idea that humans are radically separate from nature and other animals. Generally, our ability to communicate verbally and our ability to reason are the main reasons given to support this argument.

Researchers working on animal communication (National Geographic) could be seen to be challenging this framework of human superiority over other creatures. But their challenge, if present at all, is suspect.

The researchers base their research on human centred notions of intelligence; cognition, abstract thinking and communication, and even brain size. There are other forms of intelligence – the intelligence of the body, the intelligence of the senses, the intelligence of recognising who and what you are (without worry and angst), and of being properly adapted to your environment. On these other forms of intelligence, humans fare rather poorly.

Indeed, there is also the challenge of increasing the hurdle for animal intelligence once animals have “passed” certain tests. It is clear that, for some, evidence of any sort will not sway their view of humans as radically separate from the rest of nature, and other animals.

The challenge of extending moral and ethical standing to other species should not rely on the ability of animals to communicate in ways we can understand. Listen to this researcher: “I thought if he (a parrot) learned to communicate ..”. Guess what: The parrot does communicate – it’s just that we don’t understand.

Perhaps the researchers should be finding out whether humans can communicate in animal ways – can we bark like dogs, or have a sense of smell as subtle as cats, for example. The fact that this sounds absurd, and fanciful, shows how challenging it is to construct a dialogical engagement with other species without adopting a human construct of intelligence.

The charge of anthropomorphism is always an easy one to aim at the concept and practice of inter-species communication. Val Plumwood called it a bullying concept used to “enforce segregated and polarised vocabularies that rob the non-human world of agency and the possibility of speech.”

Isn’t it time we learnt to quieten ourselves, and start to listen to the bigger conversations happening all around us, all the time? Listen to the world around you … you’ll be amazed at what you can hear. Understanding … well that takes a bit longer.