Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Climbing Inside The Horse; or- The Uses of Animals

So anyway, yesterday I was driving down a country road when I spotted a decapitated stag lying in a ditch. The strange thing was that its head had been cleaved neatly from the body, leaving a perfect anatomical cross-section-type view of the interior of the neck. A car accident doesn’t do that - and even if it did, I’d still expect to see the head nearby, surrounded by turkey vultures pecking at the soft parts.

I briefly thought about vivisectionist aliens before settling on a redneck with a chainsaw as the likeliest explanation. No doubt he’d spotted the dead stag during the day then returned under cover of night to remove the “rack” for his collection. Each to his own; I just hope he doesn’t tell friends he killed the thing while hunting - that would be deceitful.

Still, the incident made me think about animals, how we sentimentalize them, and how we use them. A few weeks back the English chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingtsall provoked a scandal in the British media when he mused aloud that eating puppies was as legitimate as eating pork. His comments even crossed the Atlantic where various bloggers huffed and puffed about this outrageous “moral equivalence”.

Of course, there’s nothing outrageous about it. HF-W (I’m too lazy to write his preposterously aristocratic name in full) was correct: in mainstream Western ethics pigs and dogs are not viewed as Kantian “persons” deserving of respect but rather dumb creatures which we are free to exploit, so long as we don’t cause unnecessary pain. Outside of that, it’s all sentiment - some animals are lovely and cuddly so you shouldn’t eat them. Tell that to the Koreans, who regard dog meat as a scrumptious teatime treat.

Indeed, compared to some of the things we do to other animals, the idea of eating puppies is very tame. We could skin puppies and use their fur in coats; or extract their bones and carve them into curious shapes. Puppies could be locked in small cages in zoos for children to stare at, or dissected in schools, or tortured in medical experiments and product testing. We could blend the genes of puppies with other animals and then harvest their organs for transplant. And so on.

Verily, the uses of animals are countless. We slaughter them and use ‘waste products’ in industrial processes; we anthropomorphize them and make them the heroes of cartoons and children’s stories. Sometimes we worship them- in Egypt the cat was a sacred animal, for Hindus it is the cow. And so too we subject them to religious anathemas- observant Muslims and Jews consider pork taboo; according to Islamic tradition angels will not enter a house where a dog is kept as a pet.

Still, just when you think you’ve seen it all, some new usage comes up. For instance, this October a man in Dallas deployed a frozen armadillo as an assault weapon. No, seriously. He met a woman in a car park (she wanted to eat the armadillo) but they couldn’t agree on a price. So he whacked her with it and then ran off.

That’s nothing compared to this story from Portland, Oregon. For those not in the know, Portland is a seething hotbed of well-heeled pasty-faced radicalism of the eco-friendly nude bicycling kind. No surprise then that locals were appalled when a 21 year old “aspiring model” named Jasha Lottin killed a horse, gutted it, and then climbed inside (after stripping naked, naturally). Her goal apparently was “to be one with the animal”, and also to pay tribute to the scene from The Empire Strikes Back where Luke Skywalker slits open the belly of a tauntaun and climbs inside for warmth. As I recall Luke Skywalker did not strip naked first, but then again he was on an ice planet in the Hoth system.

Anyway, Ms. Lottin posted photographs of her nude self inside the horse online and was soon the subject of headlines and a police investigation. But she had broken no laws. The horse was 31 years old and dying. A friend shot the withered steed dead and only then did she pull out its guts, etc. There was no torture, no cruelty: the whole process was exceedingly humane.

What are we to make of this? Well, I doubt Ms. Lottin would have provoked the same level of outrage had she climbed inside, say, a very big coyote, and even less if she had kept her clothes on. As with puppies, most people are very sentimental about horses. Rich folk breed them. Hollywood types make films about them. Country musicians sing songs about them. Coyotes on the other hand are large varmints that kill livestock. Climbing inside a coyote would simply be an act of freakishness, not an attention-seeking transgression of Western aesthetics.

I personally don’t feel qualified to judge Ms. Lottin. I’ll leave that to vegetarians, though not the sort who wear leather shoes, or eat fish, of course. You see, I ate horse meat once, in Kazakhstan. It had a smoky, tender quality and was not unpleasant. I doubt, however, it was as delectable as dog.