The Semiotics of a Deer Beheading in Houston

I read today that a tame deer was beheaded at the Bear Creek Pioneer Park “wildlife sanctuary” in Houston.  Having spent some time in Houston, it surprised me to learn of the existence of a wildlife sanctuary there.  So I looked it up.  Wikipedia describes Bear Creek Pioneers Park thus (the park itself has no working url):

Bear Creek Pioneers Park . . . has paved roads and parking spaces that visitors can use. The park also has walking trails, an equestrian trail, a small zoo (including buffalos, an ostrich, and emus) and aviary, playgrounds, soccer fields, little league and softball fields, four lighted tennis courts, eight picnic pavilions, horseshoe courts, and hundreds of picnic tables and grills. Near the aviary ducks can been seen walking freely around a pond. The park also has restrooms all around the park and drinking water fountains. The park is open all week from 7:00 am until 10:00 pm (local time).

Though I have never been to this place, I have visited quite a few wildlife sanctuaries.  None had little league fields, playgrounds, or lighted tennis courts.  And most importantly, none had zoos.  Indeed, wildlife sanctuaries are in many (most? all?) respects the antithesis of zoos.  They are supposed to be places where wildlife can live in their natural habitat, free of human encroachment and predation.  As a result, one rarely encounters wildlife sanctuaries in major cities.  Indeed, Houston would have topped my list of the least likely places to find one.  Furthermore, animals in wildlife sanctuaries are not “tame.”  “Tame wildlife” is an oxymoron.  I could say more about this but, of necessity, I move on.

At this alleged wildlife sanctuary, someone cut through the fence penning in the animals and beheaded a “tame deer” that dwelt within.  The perpetrator then made off with the head and antlers.  This act outraged the Harris County Commissioner who declared that anyone who kills an animal in captivity “is just the lowest of the low.”   The article informs us that taxidermy shops throughout Houston were alerted to the crime.

One has to wonder what the taxidermy shops were told to look for.  Is it unusual for someone to stride into such places clutching a bloody head and antlers?  While such patrons would stand out in most places, taxidermists cater to people who kill animals and then seek to turn parts of the corpses into wall hangings.

I wonder too if the Harris County Commissioner feels equally outraged by the many “ranches” in Texas offering “high fenced” hunting safaris for those discerning sportsmen who crave a guaranteed kill.  Does he revile our soon-to-be former vice president, who regularly patronizes such places (and only occasionally shoots his host)?  This type of “canned hunting” is quite common in Texas as well as in many other states.

Perhaps the Commissioner (who I have never met and know nothing about) does revile activities of this sort.  Still, I remain bemused.  Of course, the slaughter of the deer was an atrocity.  But does no one else find it ironic that killing a captive deer in a “wildlife sanctuary” in a state where canned hunts are a popular pastime would generate such outrage and opprobrium?

I am beginning to truly grasp the meaning of “tragicomic.”

David Cassuto

Turkey Pardons

Much has been said about the ritual of Thanksgiving and its accompanying slaughter of hundreds of millions of defenseless birds, most of who lived short lives of unrelenting and abject misery.  I have little to add to what’s already out there except my own indignation and sorrow.

But I do have something to say about the Thanksgiving ritual, particularly the embedded legal contradiction in the practice (discussed by Luis below) of pardoning turkeys.  To pardon means “to release (a person) from further punishment for a crime.”  At Thanksgiving, however, the concept of the pardon gets up-ended.  The turkeys supposedly petitioning for clemency have committed no wrong.  Their lives consist of brutal mistreatment with slaughter soon to follow (the latter, I might add, will occur devoid of any of the protections of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act since under Department of Agriculture regulations, birds are not “animals” and thus not legally entitled to a merciful death).  If anything, egregious crimes have been wrought upon these birds.  Yet, every year, one or two are selected at random and “pardoned.”  This ritual amounts to transferring the guilt of the perpetrators on to the victims and then forgiving a token few of them in a bizarre act of self-absolution by proxy.

The pardon no doubt is supposed to demonstrate mercy and humor but in my view, it demonstrates neither (case in point: Sarah Palin’s now infamous video ).  It rather reveals a deep societal discomfort with the fact that a holiday that celebrates life’s blessings and an industry devoted to torture and death are conjoined and mutually dependent.

David Cassuto

Yet Another Reason to Never Vote For Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin implemented a program to encourage the hunting of wolves in order to eliminate the natural predators of moose and caribou. Why? So that Alaskan hunters could have more moose and caribou to kill. She also asked Bush to exclude polar bears from the endangered species list. Watch this recent video of Palin’s interview while turkeys are being slaughtered for yet another reason to never vote for her. 

Luis Chiesa

Thanksgiving Turkey

Every year close to 300 million turkeys are raised for slaughter in the United States. Over 45 million are eaten on Thanksgiving. Nearly all of them spend their entire lives with little or no room to spread their wings. Most of them are bred to gain incredible amounts of weight which often leads to heart attacks and broken limbs. As a result, they are given inordinate amounts of antibiotics just to say alive. There is no justification for doing this to millions of sentient beings. This Thanksgiving we should do the right thing. Let’s say “thanks, but no thanks” to that turkey meal. Try one of these faux turkeys instead.  

Luis Chiesa

Advocacy, Rights, & More Dilution of Language

I want to say a brief word about animal rights.  Or rather I want to say a brief word what they are not about.  The media often brands advocacy organizations opposing the mistreatment of nonhumans as “animal rights groups” regardless of the groups’ actual purpose or philosophy.  For example, here discussing opposition to the proposed “euthanization” of thousands of wild mustangs, the Washington Post lumps the American Wild Horses Preservation Campaign (among others) under the rubric of animals rights groups.  The AWHPC is an umbrella organization for 45 groups, most of which are far more concerned with horses not dying than with the nature and scope of horses’ moral or legal claims.

Furthermore, the WaPo also tells us that Madeleine Pickens, wife of billionaire oilman, T. Boone Pickens, intervened and pledged to save the horses.  I feel confident opining that Ms. Pickens does not consider herself an animal rights activist.  My guess: she just likes horses.  Not being animal rights-oriented doesn’t make Ms. Pickens a bad person or the AWHPC a bad organization anymore than not being a pear makes an apple a bad fruit.  They are just different.

I intend to write more about how animal advocates of all stripes as well as the causes they champion get routinely marginalized through this type of careless rhetoric.  If animal rights are to mean something, they cannot mean everything.  Codifying what animal rights do mean, however, is a post for another day.

David Cassuto

Update, March 2009: It is not looking good for the Pickens-funded sanctuary.

Should Animal Advocates Have an Official Position on Abortion?

Some animal advocacy groups contend that “just as the pro-life movement has no official position on animal rights, the animal rights movement has no official position on abortion“. It is easy to see why there is no necessary connection between being pro-life and believing in animal rights. As Peter Singer has suggested, the typical argument against abortion goes something like this:

It is wrong to take the life of an innocent human being,

A human fetus is a human being,

Thus, it is wrong to kill a human fetus

Given that the point of departure of this argument is that human beings have a right to life, embracing it in no way commits you to affording similar rights to animals. Therefore, it is undestandable for pro-life groups to have no official position regarding animal rights. Is it also understandable for animal advocates to have no official position regarding abortion? I’m not sure.

Someone committed to animal rights would oppose the killing of animals by arguing something along these lines:

It is wrong to kill an innocent sentient being

(Most) animals are sentient beings

Thus, it is wrong to kill (most) animals

It seems to me that embracing this argument should commit us to opposing the killing of sentient fetuses. It does not commit us, however, to opposing the killing of non-sentient fetuses. If sentience is what entitles beings to rights, it follows that – all things being equal – killing a sentient fetus is wrong, whereas killing a non-sentient fetus is not.

Some animal advocates have attempted to avoid this conclusion by pointing out that abortion presents a unique moral issue because it entails balancing conflicting interests. While it is true that the sentient fetus has a right to life, it is also true that the mother has a right to make decisions regarding her own body. When faced with such a conflict, we can either let the mother decide whether to have an abortion or let the state decide which interest should prevail. Regarding the latter, the state might decide that the interests of the fetus (almost) always trump the interests of the mother, that the interests of the mother (almost) always trump the interests of the fetus, or that the conflicting interests should be balanced differently depending on whether the fetus is sentient or viable. Once the issue is framed in this manner, animal advocates have argued that their commitment to animal rights does not commit them to solving these conflicts in any particular way.

This is problematic because animal advocates are not only committed to the notion that animals have interests worthy of legal protection, but also to the idea that only a few fundamental human interests should trump animal rights. Many people, for example, enjoy deer hunting because it is a family tradition.  In such cases there is a clear conflict between the hunted animal’s interests in life and the hunter’s interest in maintaining his family’s tradition. Most animal advocates would conclude that the animal’s interest in life trumps the hunter’s interests. Similar issues arise in the context of animal sacrifice for religious reasons. Most animal advocates – including my co-blogger David – have suggested (here and here) that the sacrificed animal’s interests should trump the individual’s right to practice animal sacrifice pursuant to his or her religious beliefs.

If animal advocates believe that the interests of animals stem from their sentience and that such interests are sufficiently important to trump a person’s interest in maintaining his family traditions or practicing his religion, can they claim that such beliefs do not commit them to solving the conflicts that arise in abortion cases in any particular way?

Suppose, for example, that a woman decides to abort a sentient fetus so that she can fit into a new dress. If religious considerations and family traditions do not trump a sentient animal’s right to life, what interests may the mother invoke in order to trump the vital interests of a sentient fetus? At the very least, it would seem that an interest to fit into a new dress will not do.  It could be argued that saving the life of the mother may justify killing the fetus. It would seem, however, that few other interests would justify engaging in such a course of action. Can animal advocates hold otherwise without calling into question the principles that undergird their commitment to animal rights?  

Luis Chiesa

Hot Off the Email: National Institute for Animal Advocacy

I know nothing about this organization.  Can anyone fill us in?


NIFAA:  Because the most important factor in how a lawmaker votes on legislation is whether it could lose him or her Election Day votes

NIFAA:  Because grassroots organizing and political groups that endorse candidates are KEY to winning strong laws for animals—and teaching us how

NIFAA NEWS:  Election 08

Dare to Imagine What Politics Can Be

www.nifaa.org

Democrats Win Through Grassroots Organizing

1   Prominent animal activist elected to CT statehouse using NIFAA how-to book

2   What we must learn from November 4—statement by NIFAA president, author

Julie Lewin

3   NIFAA how-to book spurs new political groups for animals in towns, cities, counties,

states around the US

4   NIFAA launches new www.nifaa.org

5   Bill Clinton quotes NIFAA’s how-to book on national TV

6   Our acclaimed how-to book,

GET POLITICAL FOR ANIMALS AND WIN THE LAWS THEY NEED:

Why and How to Launch a Voting Bloc for Animals in

Your Town, City, County and State

—and the simple steps it takes to do it”

David Cassuto


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