DON’T WE MEAN MAMMALS WHEN WE SAY ANIMALS? READING SHERRYL VINT’S ANIMAL ALTERITY: SCIENCE FICTION AND THE QUESTION OF THE ANIMAL

In her introduction to her indispensable monograph Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal (2010, Liverpool UP) Sherryl Vint writes that “Part of the rethinking the human-animal boundary, then, is recognising the embodied nature of human existence, that Homo Sapiens is a creature of the same biological origin as the plethora of species we label ‘animal’ and that we have greater or lesser degrees of kinship and common experience with them” (8). Thus, she argues, “In reconnecting with animals, we are also reconnecting with our embodied being, what might be thought of as our animal nature” (9).

This type of argumentation, developed among others by Rosi Braidotti, Dona Haraway and a long list on key names in Human-Animal Studies has allowed us to speak of animal rights by analogy with human rights. I would say that this is plain common sense, yet I was flabbergasted to hear one of my colleagues guffaw at the notion and counter-argue that animals can have no rights because rights must be accompanied by duties. We told him that animals have rights just as children do: because they need protection and not because they are expected to fulfil any duties. Supposing we get to that point, as Vint notes, “A future of human-animal dialogue will require humans to accept their responsibility for acts of exploitation and abuse” (86), a responsibility that, although in different ways, also extends to the appalling mistreatment of children.

The issue I want to address here today is quite simple: when we speak of animals, don’t we really mean mammals? Make the experiment, just say ‘animal’ and tell me what you see. Funnily, I see four legs that most often result in the image of a dog, sometimes a cat, a horse, a wolf… I don’t think immediately of a bird, or a reptile, much less an insect and even less of crustaceans. If you say ‘animal’ and the first image that comes to your mind is that of a crab, fine, but then perhaps the question is that ‘animal’ is too big a category and, hence, human-animal relationships a concept that needs to be more nuanced. Surely, our relationship with dogs has nothing to do with our relationship with mosquitos, nor do we ever think of animal rights applying to lice.

I didn’t know that the Spanish word ‘animalista’, still not accepted by the really absurd Real Academia de la Lengua in its dictionary, has a false friend in English: ‘animalist’, which means, according to the Wiktionary, “One who believes in the dominance of man’s animal nature in behaviour. A sensualist”. I use here ‘animalist’ in the sense of ‘animal liberationist’ to claim that though I am an animal rights defender, I have received a very poor education in animal issues and I’m not at all a real animalist. My mother was convinced that her younger brother had caught typhoid fever from a stray she-cat who bit him (the Salmonella typhi bacteria is actually transmitted by lice and flea, which may have infested the cat) and she instilled in my siblings and I a horror of any contact with animals, which I have not really overcome. I have never had a pet, except for a short-lived goldfish, and you will not catch me petting any dog or cat, no matter how lovely I find them. I do share part of my home with the bees, butterflies, birds, lizards, spiders and insects that visit my plants and that I quite enjoy watching (not the mosquitos!) but that’s about it. I’m afraid that I eat meat and consume dairy products, though not as frequently as I used to and even though I enjoy vegetarian and vegan cuisine I don’t see myself consuming them exclusively. Going to the market has its moments of deep revulsion for me, like yesterday trying to ignore the carcasses of skinned rabbits in the poultry stall. And I would totally agree to have zoos suppressed and any associated research done in the wild. That’s the limited extent of my commitment to animal liberation.

Vint’s book has opened my eyes to how science fiction dreams of communication with aliens from outer space because, as noted, any communication with animals needs to face the ugly issue of our ceaseless exploitation of animals, from direct consumption to their anthropomorphised use in fables, fairy tales, and children’s fiction, passing through lab experimentation or their use as beasts of burden. Vint refers to diverse sf short stories in which animals and humans manage to communicate but the conversation is far from friendly. We suppose that if our pets could talk they would express feelings of tenderness and appreciation for us but it is obvious that not even the most pampered dog or cat in the world would meet their owners’ expectations. Perhaps if animals really could speak we would soon wish they kept silent, for they would have very few kind words for us. They would complain about their enslavement. Hence, Vint argues, our preference for the myriad alien species of science fiction, most of which (whom?) are clearly based on animals. The many reverse plots of conquest, beginning with Wells’s War of the Worlds, amplify our fears and assuage our guilt as we fantasize about what it would be like to be on the receiving end, overpowered by a master species of aliens that would treat us as we treat animals.

I have written here about the current Covid-19 crisis as an alien invasion and I still think that the way things are unfolding, with the figures for infected individuals and casualties mounting sharply on a daily basis all over the world, this is a very bad sci-fi B-movie. Viruses, I must clarify, are not living creatures but “free forms of DNA or RNA that can’t replicate on their own” and that need a host to survive (https://www.livescience.com/58018-are-viruses-alive.html). They cannot really be said to be alive because they do not obey the seven rules of life: “all living beings must be able to respond to stimuli; grow over time; produce offspring; maintain a stable body temperature; metabolize energy; consist of one or more cells; and adapt to their environment”. Viruses have genetic material but are not at all like bacteria and left to their own devices they remain inert. They appear to be descended from ancient RNA molecules that “lost the capability to self-replicate” for unknown reasons, hence their parasitical grafting onto complex living organisms whose cellular reproductive capacities they hijack. Who would have thought, after so much debating on the sentience of animals and AIs, and so much imagining complex aliens, that human civilization would be on its knees because of a dumb non-living piece of genetic code just trying to survive?

Viruses and bacteria (which are neither animals nor plants because they are “single-celled, prokaryotic organisms in comparison to animals and plants which are multicellular, eukaryotic organisms”, https://australian.museum/learn/species-identification/ask-an-expert/are-bacteria-plants-or-animals/) do not occupy any room in Vint’s book perhaps because our relationship with them deserves a separate volume –and now possibly thousands of them considering this supposed ‘new normality’ which does not materialize. This leads me to the matter of size, which I think is totally underplayed in our relationship with animals. What is driving us crazy these days is that Covid-19, like any other virus, cannot be seen by human eyes, which is why most of us are wearing masks to protect us from infection. Allow me to be stupid once more and let me ask you to imagine how different things would be right now if Covid-19 was the size of a butterfly. And the other way round: we find butterflies harmless and beautiful because they are small, but try to think of a butterfly the size of a German shepherd and now tell me whether you’d welcome any in your garden. We love whales and elephants but this is because they are harmless to us.

Vint refers often to how this animal alterity is a relatively new situation caused by urbanisation; she cites a study which discovered that some American kids draw six-legged chickens because the drumsticks they eat at home come in packs of six at the supermarket. This is certainly an aberration, like our having pushed slaughterhouses out of city centres, out of the sight of the consumers who cannot identify which part of the animal they are eating anymore. However, I do not quite see what the target situation is for animal activism, which appears to be again, too little nuanced in this respect. I think that there is a mixture of targets, actually, perhaps not wholly realistic or compatible with each other. Stopping animal consumption is one, with veganism as an ever more popular option (but wouldn’t this make current cattle disappear eventually?). Stopping animal experimentation is another (or at least, stopping unnecessary experimentation that has nothing to do with health issues). Stopping extinction and protecting wildlife is another, though whether nature can be ‘natural’ again is a major doubt. Maybe it is already post-natural.

Then there is the matter of being eaten. One of my doctoral students is working on a dissertation on that topic and Vint certainly addresses it in her book. To my surprise, there is much more than I had ever imagined on the experience of persons who have survived situations in which they were prey, I mean books and documentaries. Recently, a woman was killed by a white shark off the coast of Maine, more or less where Peter Benchley set his best-selling novel Jaws, the one that inspired Spielberg’s blockbuster. I am all in favour of protecting species and their habitats, and correcting the misinterpretations of animal behaviour (white sharks are not the evil monsters of the film) but every time I watch a nature documentary there comes that moment when a predator attacks a lesser animal seen being devoured still alive in all detail. I am not saying that nature red in tooth and claw is not worth fighting for, what I am saying is that I find that aspect of nature often too sanitized in accounts of animal activism.

I’m going back then to my initial question: when we say ‘animal’ don’t we really mean mammal? Shouldn’t we distinguish in a more nuanced way how we relate to fellow mammals rather than insects and birds? And within this more nuanced positioning, shouldn’t we consider how our relation with the animals we eat and exploit is very different from that with the animals that prey on us, from mosquitos to white sharks? And how about viruses and bacteria? They are also natural… I don’t know what the alternative for the word ‘animal’ might be but as it is used today I just find it too unspecific, too abstract. No wonder some people are confused and think of animals as beings that cannot have rights because they have no duties…

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