Cruelty to animals, cruelty by animals

This week we began with our news roundup (which included a review of some of the language things we’d talked about last time; the question of how we might cope without our car: yet at the same time, this dependence on oil and machines is dangerous for the world; and questions about whether young people these days are work-shy); and then we moved on to an intense discussion about the Grand National, and the deaths of the two horses at the Becher’s Brook jump. Is the race too dangerous? Are the horses explioted, or are they pushed too hard?

One member of the group had worked a lot with horses and insisted that you cannot get a horse to jump if it doesn’t want to. The horses get excited about winning the race; they know when they’ve done well, and sometimes you can see that the winning horse knows that it has won. The way it walks and the angle of the ears show its pride. Horses who lose their riders still continue the race (though skipping the dangerous jumps). Not everyone agreed with this, though, and some of us thought that it was more because of their training that they run the race, not because they wanted to.

Still, even if the horses want to run the race, it could still be cruel to put them into such danger. And it might also be cruel to persuade them to run the race in the first place (if it is right to say that they have to be persuaded to run it). What might stand in the way of the race being made safer? Perhaps the danger of the race is part of its appeal. It could be that the danger of the race is what makes it bankable. Or maybe it is something deeper, and perhaps more sadistic in human nature: maybe it would not be such a thrill to watch if it were not dangerous. Do humans get a thrill out of cruelty? Are they intrinsically cruel? And are they the only animal that is cruel? For a moment we thought that they might be; we thought that in fact the very idea of ‘cruelty’ only applies to humans, since they are the only ones that can make choices. But then examples of cruel animals came thick and fast; dogs playing with their prey; cats toying with mice (to make them taste better?); sharks playing with seals. (This video doesn’t show the bit where the shark plays with the seal before eating it, but it’s pretty amazing anyway.)

Ben now got out his stimulus material for this session, even though we hardly needed to be stimulated. This was an extract from a philosophy essay called ‘The Land Ethic’ by Aldo Leopold (1887–1948). (You can see part of the text here.) This is an amazing piece of writing: the wolf’s howl came out through the lines and chilled us as we read it.

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.

Leopold describes shooting a wolf and standing over it as it dies, watching the life go out from it.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. […] I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Leopold is not just lamenting the cruelty and disrespect that humans have for nature: he says something deeper — that we cannot value nature while we look at it from the perspective of humanity. To understand the true meaning of the wolf’s howl, we have to listen to it from the perspective of the mountains themselves.

In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.

This generated a lot of questions:

How does nature, red in tooth and claw, make city-people feel?

Are humans just as savage?

Which is the cruellist animal of them all?

Does the mountain have thoughts?

What lies behind cruelty?

We decided to look at the last question next time.

But there’s one thing to add: the extract we read made us focus on the cruelty of the hunter, Leopold, shooting the wolf for sport. But the extract itself does not mention anything about cruelty. In fact it is quite dispassionate about the relationships between humans, other animals, and nature. A fallen deer will be replaced in a year or two, but a lost forest will take decades. The extract is not about cruelty, but about seeking a way to understand nature which is not limited by the concepts that humans use, which are drawn from a language designed to suit our needs and desires. To understand nature we cannot depend on our thoughts.

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About B.B.

I'm based in York.
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