Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sweet corruption

Walking home from the train station last night, I caught the sweet stench of a rotting animal carcass. It was probably only a little animal, but it the smell was accentuated by the summer shower earlier that evening.

The way the post-shower dampness collided with the warmth of the summer evening brought many memories of my tropical childhood crashing home. There was the smell of rain and damp earth, I caught whiffs of rotting garbage and stagnant water, and, of course, that sickly sweet smell of corruption – the body of some small animal was rotting in the bushes or weeds growing beside the train station.

You know how it is: you catch a hint, then a whiff of something – it's alluring and you're sure you recognise it, you can't stop yourself from inhaling deeply to know for sure and then stop mid-breath to prevent that cloying sweet rotting from filling your lungs, and from deep inside your evolutionary memory of the danger of carrion, something says, 'I know what that is!'.

Such moments bring home the reality of animals dying and rotting – something I'm finding a fascination for.

In a society where hygiene and tidiness are valued and markers of civilisation, personified in the modern, clean city, we are so divorced from the corporeal reality of animals and their deaths. More generally, we are divorced from the way animals are bred, raised, killed and slaughtered for our tables, our sport, our entertainment and our companionship, to the extent that we are still shocked and dismayed when we come across a cat or possum killed by a car lying by the road, or a bird downed by stiff breezes or, worse, the neighbourhood cat. I know that I am.

In fact, we're often only reminded that we share the city with so many animals when we come across their dead bodies, sometimes mangled by the car that killed it, and complain that 'someone should clean that up'.

Riding to work on my bicycle has given me a few more opportunities to witness the rough justice of nature, something the tram capsule shields me from. Earlier this week, I cycled past a torn bird's wing, with the body it came from nowhere in sight. A couple of blocks further, I smelt some other decaying animal whose stench ripened with the growing morning heat.

Instead of letting go my impulse to shudder and turn my mind away from imagining the rotting body, I've allowed my imagination to dwell on these dead animals. This morbid fascination has started me thinking about the places dead animals and bodily corruption have been given in our culture – separated, feared, loathed, pitied, ignored, grieved – and what it means for our understanding of our ecology, our particular bio-regions or biological spaces, our habitats, and our relationships with animals.

Our habitats are being drastically damaged by human caused climate change (and other human threats to bio-diversity), and we're asked to consider the impacts of climate change in terms of future (and current) species extinctions. However, if we city dwellers cannot comprehend dead animals, and cannot pay attention to what the stench of decay actually means beyond a nuisance in our urban landscape, the I think that humans will continue to struggle to comprehend what we are doing to other animals. If we have difficulty facing the death of one animal, how do we comprehend – and stop – species extinction?

This is by no means an exclusive fascination, as I've discovered. Lots of other people have a greater interest – an obsession even – with dead and decaying animals, as any search for 'dead animals' or 'dead birds' on flickr will reveal. But I'm intrigued where this will go. I'm toying with the idea of setting up another blog about dead animals, where I will share news, stories, reflections, photos and more about animals' deaths – if only to reveal a little more about how they live, and how we live with them. I'd be interested to see if others would like to contribute to it – as part of a group blog. Let me know. Are you interested? Would you like to see a bit more dead animal?

[Image by john.nathaniel ]

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At March 01, 2007 9:40 am, Blogger philjohnson said...

Your "obsession" is interesting. I think that there is a spectrum of attitudes that urban Australians have relative to animals.

1. We are very fond of domestic pets with large numbers of households in the cities having pets. Our relationships with pet animals can go from sentimentality over to psychological growth and sensitivity.

2. We may romanticise a bit about iconic wildlife (koalas, kangaroos, crocodiles). In some respects there is goodwill about conservation when the graphic images appear of whales being killed. Other perceptions have been influenced by the antics of the late Steve Irwin, and can convey unrealistic ideas to those outside Australia (crocodiles are ubiquitous; I know as I had to debunk such ideas in the USA in January this year).

3. We are less aware of what happens to animals in agricultural and laboratory contexts, and this is perhaps further affected by perceptions about what the RSPCA does. I guess most people think of the RSPCA as the champion voice for animals and respect it for rescuing animals. However the legislation that established the RSPCA only has limited jurisdiction and is further restricted by the act saying it is there to intervene in cases of "unnecessary suffering". This vocabulary means that there is "necessary suffering" permitted under the law.

I believe that if we were visually sensitized to what happens to animals in lab experiment and in high intensive farming practices, we might see a grass roots stirring akin to anti-Iraq and protests about David Hicks' treatment.

Another point is that there are two different social movements about animals. One is the conservation movement, and the other is animal rights. Neither side talks to the other because their starting points and ultimate aims are very different. The difficulty here is that in the public square and public consciousness it is the conservation approach that most people regard with respect, and the rights movement tends to be viewed as radical and off-beat.

My wife and I were among a group of 20 people who participated as students in the very first "animal law" course held in an Australian university (at UNSW) in February 2005. It was a fascinating course and disclosed a lot of philosophical, legal and moral questions.

My wife and I co-wrote a legal-philosophical-theological essay about animal rights and if it piques your interest you can peruse it on-line in a pdf file.


At March 02, 2007 10:30 am, Blogger Mark Lawrence said...

Gee, phil, you've thought about some of these issues a lot more than I have (though I have blogged about whaling and pig and chicken factory farming before). If I did set up a group blog on 'Dead Animals', would you be interested in being a contributor? Wouldn't have to be very regular (the more people we get to write for it, the fewer times we'd each have to blog…)

I was thinking about it covering various topics and images on the theme, including whale hunting (one of my big concerns), overfishing, road kill, bio-diversity, urban experiences, farming, and more of the themes i originally blogged about here (what I consider my starting point). I'm also interested to hear more about what you have to say. It would be fun, as well as enlightening.

Would anyone else be interested int reading such a blog, and/or contributing?

At March 03, 2007 3:08 pm, Blogger philjohnson said...


I would be interested in such a venture. It is possible that some of the people who did the animal law course might be interested too.

If such a blog began it might also be of interest to people involved with Brian Sherman's charity "Voiceless", which sponsors all kinds of education and discussion in the community and among the legal profession on the plight of animals.

If you google "Voiceless" you'll find their website. Brian Sherman and his daughter Ondine appeared on Australian Story on the ABC back in 2005. If you rummaged around the ABC's website on Australia story you'd probably find the transcript of that story.


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