Pigeons and US

doveI told Nancy Miller, the editor-in-chief at Bloomsbury America

“I want to write a book about pigeons.” 

“Why,” she asked?

“Because I want to know what they think of us.”

“And do you?”

“No.”

“Well, then, it seems to me we don’t have a book.”

And being the lovely woman she is, Nancy added:

“Get back to me if you ever figure it out.”

I was reminded of what Steve Ross, my editor for my book Dogs Never Lie About Love, said to me when I told him I was going to write something in there about what dogs dreamed about: 

“Jeff, we could have a major best-seller if you can crack that.”

I couldn’t.

Back to pigeons: 

I am sure I am not alone when I wonder how they live so close to us, and yet are so unknown by us.  We insult them:  “Rats of the sky” we call them.  (Mind you, why should “rat” be an insult in any event?  I have known, and befriended, many a domestic rat, and so have my children.) 

The pigeon called the Passenger Pigeon (not because he was a passenger, or carried anything, but because he was just “passing” by, from the French) is gone.  In the 19th century in America, there were so many of these wonderful birds, that once a single flock was observed that spread a mile wide, and went on for 300 miles: It contained 3.5 billion birds in it!   Possibly this was the largest collection of animals ever seen.  Yet humans managed to kill every one of them.  How?  Mostly by hunting them for “fun.”  It was easy to kill the birds once they were nesting, as the parents refused to abandon nests with young in them. So for example, at a nesting site in Michigan, 50,000 birds were killed each day for five months.  So successful was this slaughter, that eventually only a single female passenger pigeon, Martha, was left, sad and alone, in the Cincinnati zoo, where she died in 1914.  Aldo Leopold said after this: “Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.” 

We know of “crimes against humanity.”   One day, I am sure, there will be an International Criminal Court that will try crimes against the natural world and its inhabitants, including pigeons.

But what about my original question?  Pigeons are not domesticated. Even if they live in cities or right on top of our houses they maintain a discreet distance from us, yet they are always near.  Is it because the living is easy?  Could they just like our company?  What could we do to make them our friends, beyond feeding them?  What are we to them?  I suspect they are waiting for us to wake up.  What do you think is in their minds?  Please don’t say “nothing” because that is impossible.  If cats and dogs think about us, why not pigeons?  If they seem far more mysterious or harder to read, it could be only that we have never tried.  I am in Malaga, Spain, right now, with my family, and we see pigeons every day, and I get the feeling they know I am on to them. If I ever crack the code, I will give Nancy Miller a call, and you will be able to read all about it.

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I Would Rather Have Been Born an Orca

 

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No kidding.  I really would.  What sets me off can be just about any account of an atrocity, because my first thought is:  no orca ever does this.  The latest was reading about the “desaparecidos” in Argentina during the years of the junta, the brutal dictatorship that “disappeared,” i.e., murdered some 30,000 people from 1976 until 1983.  In my latest book I wrote about the fact that humans had killed some 200,000,000 of our own kind during the 20th century alone, and during that same time, orcas had killed exactly zero of their kind.  Reading in my favorite new site, “The Dodo” about the female orca who is 103 years old, made me think about her life.  She is surrounded by her children and grandchildren.  She travels constantly, sometimes 100 miles in a single day.  She eats what she has been taught to eat, but other than that, causes no harm to any other living being.  Most definitely not to other orcas. 

 

Is it possible to really think about the life of another creature?  It is hard, and even novelists have a tough time convincing us what living as a chimp, a wolf, an elephant, or a whale would be like (let alone an animal even more remote from us, such as a parrot).  Still, it is something that occurs to me a lot recently, as I open my newspaper and read about Syria, and the Ukraine, and as I ponder the history of the 20th century.  What is it that appeals to me most?  I guess the idea of causing little if any suffering to another being.  True, I try to do that as a human, but I find myself part of a species where this is hardly an ideal.   My own president sees no problem in hunting down other Americans with a drone because somebody has convinced him they are worth killing and need not stand trial.  My heroes, people like Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden, are rare at any time in history.  And many people would be happy to see them dead, just as the Germans wanted men like Primo Levi (another hero of mine) dead. 

 

There may be no orca heroes, but nor are there orca psychopaths (unless we cage them in an overgrown bathtub for years.  They go about their gentle lives without leaving enormous suffering behind them.  They never seek us out to harm us, even though you might expect they would, since we kill approximately 1400 of them every year.  No orca has ever killed a human in the wild.  Why not?  We will probably never know.  Maybe simply because they don’t kill for fun or even for revenge.  They only kill to eat. 

 

Had I been born an orca, what kind of consciousness would I have?  Impossible to say.  But I suspect I would know that in comparison to that other apex predator, the one on land, humans, I was better off.  My life was simple, but the joys I had on a daily basis were enormous and I suspect they were, by and large, greater than the joys of humans.  So if somebody offered me a choice, I would choose to be an orca.  I wonder how many people think they would have been better off had they been born a different animal?

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Leaving New Zealand

Original1If you go to this site: http://www.54peacockstreet.co.nz you will see our house. We are leaving New Zealand after 13 years. We have just put up our house for sale. I thought some of my friends on Facebook and Twitter would want to see where and how we lived in our house on the beach in Auckland. So here is the site for the house, with pictures, a video, and you can even see Benjy (who was the hero of “The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving”) and some of the cats from my book “The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats.” We will leave in December for Europe, where we will spend six months in Spain (possibly Malaga, as it is warm there in the winter), and six months in the summer in Berlin. After that, Australia (Sydney) for a year or two or possibly even longer. At the moment, for the first time in 30 years, I am not working on a book. Not sure how I feel about this, whether to be sad, or relieved! I have been tempted to try my hand at a historical novel about the 1938 Evian Conference called by Franklin Roosevelt to see what could be done for the beleaguered Jews of Austria and Germany (nothing, it turns out). Not too many people are aware of this important event. Important because it convinced Hitler, rightly, that no nation would object (at least not to the point of allowing them to immigrate in large numbers) when he proceeded with his murderous plans to kill the Jews. Not sure I have the talent to pull this off, but I think it is worth a try.

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Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson On What Animals Teach Us About Human Evil

Originally posted on Ask the Agent:

Beast-HC jeff and benjyToday Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson will be talking to us about his new book, Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Human Evil, released this month by Bloomsbury Press.  Jeff has been writing about animal emotions for 20 years. His books, When Elephants Weep (1996) and Dogs Never Lie About Love (1998) have each sold over 1,000,000 copies. Jeff is one of the most brilliant people I have ever had the honor of knowing and working with.  His intellect is both passionate and  wide ranging. Last year, when I visited him at his home in Auckland, New Zealand, he commenced to spend 3 days  ranting at me about the flaws in Hannah Arendt’s concept of evil. (Apparently the fine people of New Zealand don’t have strong feelings about this topic.)

Of all Jeff’s books about animals, this one seems to get to the heart of…

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Woody Allen, Child Sexual Abuse, Happiness, Marius the Giraffe, Auschwitz and Eating Animals

Some twenty years ago I published a piece about Woody Allen in Emma, a feminist magazine in Germany.  It was called “What has 25 years of psychoanalysis taught Woody Allen about incest?”  The answer, as you might well imagine, was “nothing.”  Because he wooed and married the sister of his children.  (The fact that she was an adopted sibling is irrelevant). 

 I blamed not just Woody Allen, but also psychoanalysis, for they had, at the time, a history of denying the reality of child sexual abuse.  In the years that followed, psychoanalysis has  gotten somewhat better, whereas he appears to have learned nothing since. 

 I say this in light of the recent drama that has been unfolding in the media over the last couple of months.  I am very happy to see people taking the accusations seriously.  I wish Woody Allen would do the same.  Because here is the crux of the matter:  No matter where you stand on this issue, whether you believe Dylan, as I do, or you believe Woody Allen, the point that cannot be disputed even by him, is that he has caused tremendous unhappiness in his family.  To Dylan foremost, but to many of the other siblings and of course Mia Farrow.  Understandably.  To everyone, it would seem, but Woody Allen. 

 So here is my question:  How can you be happy when you know that you have caused and are still causing immense suffering and unhappiness in others? 

 Now if we take this idea and run with it, there are very serious implications, which is how Marius the Giraffe, Auschwitz, and eating animals, come into the picture.  Somebody in the Copenhagen Zoo (which will now forever be linked to this barbaric act) said that the children who watched the skinning and the dissection of the much loved young giraffe, derived pleasure from it.  They were happy.  So what?  Marius suffered.  Marius was betrayed.  Marius was butchered.  You cannot be happy at the suffering of another. 

 The psychiatrist Robert Lifton is much praised for his invention of the term “doubling” which he explains by saying that an executioner in Auschwitz, could yet be a loving family man, kind and compassionate to his wife and children when he returned home from “work.”  This is what I call a “junk idea.”  Never mind all the other reasons (how on earth could Robert Lifton know what kind of family life these Nazis had?), what I am suggesting here is that we should not accept the idea of somebody being happy, and leading a “good” life while causing other people immense and unnecessary suffering. 

 So finally we come to eating animals.  I understand that this is a stretch.  And that is what I believe we need:  to stretch our thinking into areas it may not be accustomed to going.  When we eat an animal, that animal is being killed for us (not, of course, literally, but in the deeper sense).  There is no way around it:  it is a personal act.  If you drink milk, a cow is being milked for you.  If you eat eggs, a hen is laying one for you.  If you believe that those animals suffer (and proof is only a click away on Google), how can you, in good conscience, say you don’t care?  We do care.  Everyone cares.  It is perhaps the next to the last final frontier that we will need to enter. 

 Next to the last?  Yes, the very last is this:  Can animals help us to stop the devastation of our planet?  For the first time as a species, some scientists believe we are on the brink of self-extinction.  I believe, and I hope I am not the only one who does, we have something very deep to absorb from the animals we stop eating that could save us from final destruction.  That is the theme of my new book:  Beasts:  What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil.       

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Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us about the Origins of Good and Evil.

Beasts

This is the title of my new book that is just about to be published by Bloomsbury.  Some people are bothered by the title.  “How can humans learn about good and evil from animals?” they ask.  These are usually people who believe that humans are unique, the very crown of creation.  To them I quote Nietzsche:  We do not consider animals moral beings.  But do you suppose animals regard us as moral beings?

I have been struck at how often humans call other humans beasts when they want to convey that they are without any moral values:  The Russian writer Eugenia Ginzburg, in her classic book Into the Whirlwind about the horrendous prisons in the Gulag, writes:  “I have often thought about the tragedy of those by whose agency the purge of 1937 was carried out… Step by step as they followed their routine directives, they traveled all the way from the human condition to that of beasts.”

 How is it, then, I ask, that in the 20th century alone, humans have killed 200 million of our own kind, while as far as anyone has been able to determine, no orca has ever killed another orca in the wild?  If this fact does not cause you to shiver, I don’t know what will. But it’s not only other humans we kill. We kill huge numbers of the animals we think of as “beasts”—the apex predators— such as the big cats, wolves, orcas, bears, sharks, and crocodiles.  Humans kill one hundred million sharks every year, mostly for their fins, throwing the sharks back into the water to drown in agony.  Yet despite what we may think, these “beasts” hardly ever kill humans.

How have we become so divorced from the natural world?  What allows humans to torture, go to war, hunt for pleasure, abuse small children, attempt genocide, and perpetrate so many other acts that seem unique to our species, absent from the animal world, the same world we attempt to paint as uniquely violent (“nature red in tooth and claw”)?

Could any topic be more important?  In the past, I have tried to show that animals have the same complex emotions we have.  But now I am taking this further:  why do we have these murderous impulses that other animals lack?  We have enemies.  Animals don’t have enemies.  We hate.  Animals don’t.  Of course other apex predators hunt for food– they have no choice.   No animal in the wild gets to choose its diet.  But they don’t hunt for the sheer pleasure of killing.  They don’t create scenes where they must exact vengeance.  Why do we then?  Usually when we compare ourselves to animals, in our own minds we come out better.  I think that this has been a fundamental mistake, one that prevents us from learning something important, in fact something that could possibly save our species.  For it does seem that we are headed—as Elizabeth Kolbert says in her new book—for the sixth great extinction, one that we have brought upon ourselves.  No other animal has ever even come close to this.  Can we learn something from animals in time to help us stop?

You can buy my book by clicking on the picture of the book.  

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Cold Blooded Murder of a Young Giraffe

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I don’t like any zoo, but I am especially outraged by the action of the Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark on Sunday (February 9).  I am hardly alone:  More than 27,000 people signed a “save Marius petition,” when the zoo announced that zoo officials intended to kill the adorable and much-loved 18-month old Marius. Many thousands of other people around the world have taken to the Internet to express their sadness, their bewilderment, and their horror at this completely unnecessary, even ghoulish act.   It caused revulsion in most people who read about it.  It was an execution many noted.  The reason the zoo gave for killing Marius struck just about every ordinary person as bizarre:  He was killed because his genes were too similar to those of other zoo giraffes in a European breeding program.  “He cannot add anything further to the breeding programme that does not already exist,” a European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) spokesman told BBC News.  The zoo called him a “surplus” giraffe.  If giraffes had human zoos, how many of us would be considered surplus?  Or genetically unnecessary?

Yorkshire Wildlife Park in the UK offered to take him in its “state-of-the-art giraffe house” alongside four other males, including one from Copenhagen Zoo, but their offer was refused.  A Dutch wildlife park also offered to re-home him, as did a Swedish zoo; a wealthy individual offered 500,000 euros to save his life.  Nope, said the officials, he had to be “sacrificed” and skinned, dissected, and fed to lions live on the Internet and in front of spectators at the zoo, including young children, so they could “learn about giraffes.”  Moreover Copenhagen Zoo couldn’t send Marius to an institution with “lesser standards of welfare.”  Right, that zoo might decide to let him live his full life of 26 years or more. 

 A veterinarian shot Marius with a rifle as leaned down to munch on rye bread, a favorite snack, being offered by his “trusted” keeper.  (I wonder how he will sleep tonight?)  It was the first time that the zoo dissected a giraffe:  “People are fascinated by it, both adults and children, and they would like to hear stories they normally don’t have access to. I think that’s good. It helps increase the knowledge about animals but also the knowledge about life and death,” said the scientific director of the zoo, Beng Holst.  What stories is he talking about?  The one where a human executes an innocent animal?  What knowledge did it increase?  That humans believe they have the right to kill any animal they wish?  What was the lesson?  The life of a giraffe is cheap?  “He was just a giraffe,” after all.  Not so.  He was a completely unique individual, different than any other giraffe who ever existed, exactly as is a human individual.  He had a life history, brief as it was, that was completely his own, as Tom Regan has often reminded us.  He was the subject of a truncated biography.  The scientific director also announced “If we’re serious about science, we can’t be led by emotion.”  Really?  Do we actually believe scientists have no emotions and make no decisions based on them?  If that is really so, isn’t it sad?  And what would it lead to?  Well, the decision to kill a perfectly healthy baby giraffe.  That’s the outcome when emotions are not involved.  Is that something we want to teach our children?

 Peter Sandoe, professor of bioethics [sic] at the University of Copenhagen, said he sympathized with the decision to put down the giraffe:  “When small children can go and see this giraffe and see it being turned into lion food, it’s a very good picture of what nature is like,” he said.  By this logic, small children should also see humans murder one another in war, as it’s a very good picture of what human nature is like. 

Look at the bigger picture, said the zoo authorities.  (Did Kant not say something important to the effect that the end does not justify the means?). 

Many zoo officials in other countries defended the killing by asking how many animals are “euthanized” every day for human food.  True, but that is nothing to be proud of, and more and more people are turning vegetarian, even vegan, every day.  I just hope this cruel act encourages even more.  I also hope it keeps people from visiting zoos.  They are nothing but glorified prisons.    

If I were a Dane I would never visit the Copenhagen Zoo again.  A boycott of the zoo might well be a good lesson for the zoo in human nature:  most of us do not like to see an animal murdered by the people who raised him, no matter what excuse they can come up with.  Nietzsche once asked if we could regard animals as moral beings.  He answered himself:  “Do you suppose that animals regard us as moral beings?”  Not the ones in the Copenhagen Zoo.

 

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