We the human species, Homo Sapiens, utilise our environments like no other. Nature and her creatures are no match for the fearsome force of our taste for their resources, minerals and organisms. It may occur to us every now and then, however chances are we truly don’t act further upon this unconscious pondering. We claim to be explorers, or at least once were, however we have now become mere exploiters of nature and wildlife,however our knowledge of this depends a large part on how the media chooses how and what to cover. That is what this blog post will seek to examine, on how the media and media industries handle and portray animal’s, their rights and our relationships.
Animal activism has evolved just like those it serves to protect variously throughout the years, with some of the earliest forms of activist publications and mainstream acceptance beginning to appear in the 1960’s & 70’s. In 1965, Brigid Brophy wrote in the British newspaper, The Sunday Times:
“The relationship of Homo Sapiens to the other animals is one of unremitting exploitation. We employ their work; we eat and wear them. We exploit them to serve our superstitions: whereas we used to sacrifice them to our gods and tear out their entrails in order to foresee the future, we now sacrifice them to science, and experiment on their entrail in the hope —or on the mere off chance — that we might thereby see a little more clearly into the present.”
Brophy’s point is central to my argument, highlighting our century old tradition of exploitation of animals rights to cure our superstitions, our hunger and our clothing tastes. I am not arguing for Veganism, merely that it is possible to care for chickens and still have an eggs benedict.
Let’s begin by examining the various types of portrayals animals have on our screens. Predominantly, animals take up the vast majority of appearances in children tv shows, far outcasting human characters. Books such as Charlotte’s Web and Bambi highlight the struggles of the animal world, and can portray humans in negative light, such as the death of Bambis mother, or like in Charlotte’s Web, the human saves Wilbur’s life from one of her own. A main part of of these films is the process of Anthropomorphism, where animals display human characteristics, such as similar societal structures, the quest for belonging and other values that the human audience can relate to.
Or is it really “human”? Are these values and beliefs predominantly human and merely portrayed by animals in film to relate back to us, or can a living, breathing animal such as a deer, a pig, a dog or an Orca too have family-oriented values and the struggles of belonging? Absolutely. Take for example the film Blackfish, the film’s protagonist (or antagonist according to your point of view), the Killer Whale, Tilikum, undergoes severe bullying and the struggle to fit in whilst in captivity in Canada. This, and his captive conditions, would ultimately lead to him being responsible for the deaths of 3 people and the severe public outcry against SeaWorld, which are the main arguments of the film.
Blackfish is intriguing, not only for it’s brilliant artistic and factual production, but that it reverses the status-quo on films that involve animals. As I previously mentioned, most films involving animals don’t highlight humans in a negative light, often it is animal vs animal (Penguin vs Orca in Happy Feet, Mammoth vs Tiger in Ice Age etc) or as the old saying goes “Dog vs Dog”. Blackfish however puts the audience into the mindset and emotional relations with the Orcas, and in doing so, convert the humans into the villians. Whether it is the footage of men in boats chasing down Orca families, or the claustrophobic living conditions in Canada, we humans are the root cause for Tilikum’s anger, pain and attacks.
Below is the pool Tilikum was kept in following his attack on Dawn Brancheau;
And this is the equivalence, keeping in mind the amount of time kept in;
Thus, we can see how the effects of Anthropomorphism impact the way we percieve and understand the animal-related content in our media industries. Finally, as renowned neuroscientist Dr. Paul Spong states;
“If you pen Killer Whales in a small steel tank, you are imposing an extreme level of sensory deprivation on them. Humans who are subjected to those same conditions become mentally disturbed.”
Which begs the question, if you were to be locked up inside a bathtub for 25 years, wouldn’t you go a little psychotic?
Brophy, Brigid. The Sunday Times, October 10, 1965, cited in Ryder, Richard. Animal Revolution: Changing Attitudes Towards Speciesism. First published by Basil Blackwell, 1989; this edition Berg, 2000, p. 5.
James M. Jasper and Dorothy Nelkin, The Animal Rights Crusade: The Growth of a Moral Protest (New York: The Free Press, 1992). ISBN 0-02-916195-9
Ryder, Richard D. “All beings that feel pain deserve human rights”, The Guardian, August 6, 2005.