Back on the Burger-Wagon

CowHorseCow. Photo Credit: By InSapphoWeTrust I know, I know.  I said, ‘been there, done that’.  So, sorry to return to the issue, but I think there is another symbiologically relevant point to be brought forth from this continuing horsemeat malarky, which I didn’t really look at last time.  But hey (geddit?), I’ve had a week off and need something to get my teeth into.  Sorry, I’ll stop with the puns.

In my last post about horse-meat, I concentrated on the cultural relationship people have with horses in this country and considered why one would be disgusted at the idea of eating horse.  I also said this (so you don’t have to go back and read it again):

“As someone who spends far too long staring at food labels in supermarkets (before deciding just to have a veggie curry because it’s less stressful), I wasn’t particularly shocked to hear that not everything that goes into a Tesco Value Beefburger could be considered ‘beef’.  It says on the packet that beef only constitutes 66% of the actual burger;  I know, the rest is water, wheat flour and ‘beef fat’, but still, there’s no detail of which country it comes from or what part of the cow you’re eating; or even if ‘beef’ and ‘cow’ are necessarily synonyms.”

Last time, the labelling issue – whilst acknowledged – was an aside to a wider point about cultural taboos.  This time, I want to think about why it is such a problem that people may have been ‘misinformed’ into eating horse, especially as that has now become the crux of the issue.

I also want to acknowledge this article: Horse meat – the hardest thing to digest is that it’s your fault. which bravely and eloquently (if rather angrily) expresses a thought that presumably many of us have been thinking: that ultimately, you are responsible for what you consume.  I don’t mean this to be a personal attack on consumers, though; it’s a call to consider, from a less emotive position, how we’ve reached a point at which we are unable to identify the animal we are eating, let alone where it came from or how it lived.

Hunters, Herders & Hamburgers - Richard BullietRichard Bulliet, in his book Hunters, herders and hamburgers – a strangely appropriate title – coined the term ‘post-domestic society’ to refer to those communities that have become completely removed from the realities of animal slaughter.  To put this in perspective, the ‘hunters’ here are hunter-gatherer societies. Domestic societies  – the ‘herders’, i.e. pastoralist or agricultural cultures, are observed to become acclimatised to animal death because they live closely alongside the animals they raise, keep and consume and they witness – often from an early age – the process of animal death and preparation for consumption.

Bulliet noted that, Lebanon being a largely ‘domestic’ society, 90% of students at the American University of Beirut had witnessed animal slaughter compared with less than 20% at New York’s Columbia University.  I have never seen an animal slaughtered, though I am more familiar with the processing side, not least because I come from a town that has an old-school butcher’s shop where the carcasses are hung up in the windows.  It never really bothered me – perhaps because it’s always been there – and now I’m strangely proud of it, because I believe that if you are to eat animals, you should understand fully what that implies. Butcher's Shop Window. Photo Credit: Joadl

Back to the point, though; what kind of strange relationship is this that so many humans now have with domestic species, that we can go our whole lives eating meat without ever having to kill anything?  Well; we trade meat for money, something that I can be fairly confident in saying happens nowhere else in the natural world.  There are two things at play in the horsemeat scandal, I think.  Firstly, there is a post-domestic attitude that leads people not to disregard, necessarily, but to forget or simply not even consider the origin of their meat.  Post-domestic citizens are shielded from the realities of meat eating – the blood and guts, as it were, hardly come into play when burgers are chosen from supermarket freezers.  We are separated, too, from those interspecies interactions that are associated with the end result of consumption – the birth, the feeding, the herding, the death.  So there is no interaction at all and the animal – whatever it may be – is lost sight of. This is where factor two comes into play; money.

Meat packages in a supermarket. Photo: MattesIt is too easy to forget, with 99p McDonald’s meals, that ‘meat’, i.e. animals, are expensive to raise (and rightly so); they require a whole lifetime, however comparatively short, of feeding, sheltering and healthcare, especially (and crucially, for me) if that life is to be one worth living.  The pressure is on, though, to drive prices down, to be competitive.  In the end, is it really surprising that the bottom end of the price range becomes something that you may not consider appropriate meat?  Offal, or maybe horse?

What has this to do with symbiology?  Well, I’m really making a reverse point.  What’s gone on here is not an association between species, an interaction between organisms, but a great gaping hole where that interaction, for better or worse, once sat.  I’m not sure I would like to live in a domestic society because they are tough and gory, but that being said, living in a post-domestic society is a little like living in space.  Connections to reality – to the way the world is when there are no supermarkets and processing plants and cleverly-hidden slaughterhouses – are getting thinner and fainter.  Connections to other animals –  even if they ultimately end in death – are growing weaker.  I sometimes feel like we are drifting away from the rest of the world, even as we try to understand it better.

So, my attention was drawn to this article the other day, which describes the attempts of a primary school to educate children on the entire process of rearing meat; they are to raise pigs and then send them to the butcher (though I imagine they won’t see the actual slaughter – might be a bit much too soon).  I am not sure that I’m on board with teaching children how to advertise and sell meat, as that seems to hark back to the competitive pricing issue again and I’m not sure that’s what I’d focus on, but I can see the value in children being taught to understand exactly what their meat-eating involves.  It gives them the opportunity to be fully informed when they choose their future relationship with meat.  A good friend of mine became vegetarian after learning, as a child, what happened to the pigs she’d come to regard as friends.  Fair enough, and that might happen to some of these kids too. Sow with piglet. Photo Credit: Scott Bauer

Equally, the children might be unfazed and simply continue to eat pigs with aplomb (unless they’re Islamic or Jewish; either its not a very religiously diverse school or the teacher hasn’t thought this through). As far as I’m concerned, in essentials that’s OK too.  The key point is, they will understand the input and resources required to raise animals; the true cost of their consumption. They will (hopefully, and importantly for me) recognise the value of the life of their pigs, see that those lives means something, even if they are eaten at the end of it.  They will have an interaction and they will be symbiotes in the real world, even if only for a little while.  They may be the ones who end this fantasy of consequence-free consumption.

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For the Love of Camels

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Anyone who knows me will by now have learned that I have an unusual fondness for camels.  As I’ve picked up some new readers (thank you all, by the way, for stopping by), I decided I should probably bring this up to, you know, put my cards on the table.

I love camels.

Of course, that fact in itself is not worthy of a blog post in anyone’s mind but mine.  What IS worthy of a post, though, is the inevitable response whenever this idiosyncrasy of mine comes up, which happens more than you’d think.  Except at the International Camel Conference (yes, there is one and yes, I’ve been) the next question is pretty much always, “erm… why?”

Why indeed.  The irreplaceable Sir David Attenborough was on the Jonathan Ross show on Saturday night – UK readers can catch up here for the next month (by which time it will probably be on YouTube anyway).  Although, as ever, he spoke many words of wisdom (Sir Dave, not Jonathan Ross, he rarely speaks words of wisdom), the exchange I found particularly interesting was this:

JR: “Would you call yourself an animal lover, or is it just an academic interest?”

DA: “I am absolutely fascinated by animals… I mean the word ‘lover’ is, you know, a funny old word… [laughter] – well it is, isn’t it? I don’t love snails, particularly, but they are very interesting.  Have you ever seen snails mating?”

This is more along the lines of what I mean when I say I ‘love’ camels, though not quite the whole picture.  The word ‘love’ has many of interpretations. I don’t, for example, love camels in the same way that I love the Crow (i.e. romantically), my parents (i.e. familiarly) or even the Masked Bandits; our love for pets, incidentally, is an interesting one as it’s almost a halfway house between the love for friends and family. There are elements of both bonding and of a desire to nurture… but I digress.

When we say we ‘love’ animals, then, what are we getting at?  Surely, as Sir Dave notes, we rarely love ALL animals.  I’m certainly not a fan of crane flies, or (as noted in my first blog) mosquitoes.  Equally, many people are not a fan of camels, particularly in the Western hemisphere.  In these parts, if I said, “I love dogs” or (slightly more contentiously at the moment) “I love cats”, many people would say, “Awww, me too.”  This is not generally the response with camels.

I have read, written and spoken at length on various camel-related issues and in this time have learned a great deal about them.  The more I have learned, the more fascinated I have become.  Did you know, for example, that camels can sense water from up to 3 km away?  That they have three eyelids?  That their milk naturally contains an insulin-type protein that can be used to treat diabetes? That they pee ‘backwards’ (i.e. between their back legs, in the opposite direction to cows, horses etc.)? That they are one of a select few animals observed to respond to music?  All true. However, I’m not here to try and convince you to like camels, but to ask you to reconsider why you might not ‘love’ camels like you do dogs, or cats, or horses. If you aren’t interested in animals at all, of course, there’s little for you here: sorry. If you already love camels, you’ll enjoy this post, so please continue!

Camel Face. Photo Credit: eNil I will grant you that camels smell.  That is inescapable, but then so do many mammals (wet dog, particularly, is not a pleasant scent, nor are various human… odours).  Some dislike camels because of their ability to spit a delicious concoction of partially chewed food, saliva and digestive juices.  Fair enough, if one has spat at you.  Has that happened to you?  What were you doing at the time?  I would put money on whatever it was being fairly irritating.  Still others see camels as ‘grumpy’, or ‘aloof’.  Well, if your eyes were similarly positioned in relation to your nose and your head was seven to eight feet off the ground, people might think you were aloof, too.

Western explorers in the 19th and early 20th centuries tended to be scathing and even vicious about the camels they encountered on their travels:

“In almost everything written on life in the desert the camel bears a bad name, and indeed he richly deserves it… he has the combined malice and stupidity of the worst kind of Georgia mule.  He is ugly as sin… his black heart is filled with melancholy hatred.”  – W. Seabrook, 1927

I sense Seabrook rode a rather bad-tempered camel; camels display the same amount of individual variation in personality and temperament as most species, especially social vertebrates.  However, his enthusiasm to denigrate an entire genus in this way suggests a certain cultural prejudice not necessarily related to real camel behaviour.  Fortunately, other explorers were more sensitive to their surroundings:

 “Many Englishmen have written about camels.  When I open a book and see the familiar disparagement, the well-worn humour, I realised that the author’s knowledge of them is slight, that he has never lived among the Bedu, who know the camel’s worth.” – W Thesiger, 1959

In news reports and on the internet at large, camels are still portrayed as a bit of a joke – long, gangly legs, droopy lips, interesting noises and, of course, the hump (or two).  In fact, their relationship with humans has been one of the most extensive and enduring of all such associations and their centrality to certain cultures can hardly be overstated.   Anthropologist Teka found that many Afar families in Ethiopia, were:

 “unanimous to endorse the idea that they prefer to lose a son than a camel.  According to them, if a son dies you bury him and you may or may not get another son, but life continues… but if a camel dies everything is left where it is, and there is no movement which means there is no life and the household collapses.” (Teka, 1991)

Al Dhafra Camel Festival.  Photo Credit: A RahmanSimilarly, until comparatively recently many Arabian peoples relied on the camel’s provision of transport, milk and general all-round assistance with a desert lifestyle. In the modern Middle East the dromedary is still considered a gift of Allah and its cultural history and symbolism continue to be celebrated through beauty contests, heritage festivals and camel racing, a modern form of an old Bedouin pastime.

If we all take a step back, though, away from our cultural baggage and projection of our learned ideals of beautiful and desirable characteristics, the true camel comes into focus.  As with cats in my previous post: camels are camels, they are this regardless.

When I think of camels, I think of an incredible, exemplar culmination of powerful evolutionary pressures, I think of the incredible (to me) feats of endurance they are able to achieve on a daily basis, I think of their individual, humorous characters and I think of their ability to form bonds with each other and with humans.  I think of their unique way of maintaining life in desolate lands.  I also think of Shilan, the camel so small, white and fluffy he was more like a large llama, who carried me uncomplainingly for days across quiet desert sands.  My research and experience of camels has extended my interest into something that is a form of love – interest, admiration, pleasure in their company.  I think that counts.

I don’t see love and hate as external forces.  I see humans as learners, absorbers, flexible and moulded by our experiences and the world in which we are immersed.  For me this is a connection with the camel, perhaps surprisingly given my cultural background.  I would not pressure or presume anyone else to feel the same.

Still: when the next person asks me why on earth I am so engrossed by camels, I will point them to this extremely self-indulgent blog and reply: why on earth not?

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Breaking News: Cats are Carnivores

The human-cat relationship appears to have hit a rough patch. Photo Credit: Viriditas

Recent research estimates that free-ranging  cats in the US kill up to 3.7 billion birds and 20.7 billion mammals each year.  A quick Google News search of the term ‘killer cats’ brought back thousands of results, with headlines like, “That Cuddly Kitty is Deadlier Than You Think“.  I have to admit, my first reaction was surprise. Not, initially, at the numbers of animals killed, but that this is apparently big news.  I think my favourite quote (from the same article) is this one:

“For all the adorable images of cats that play the piano, flush the toilet, mew melodiously and find their way back home over hundreds of miles, scientists have identified a shocking new truth: cats are far deadlier than anyone realized.”  – Natalie Angier, New York Times

That is the voice of someone who spends a lot of time on the internet and not much time with cats.  Personally, I’m fairly convinced that the domestic cat’s spread and success across the modern world is not borne of their musical talents.  In fact, I would say that their ability to catch and kill a large amount of small, furry creatures has more than a fair bit to do with it.

Apologies for the flippancy; it does seem that the numbers provided by this study are significant, if rather broad (there is a lot of difference between the quoted ranges of 1.4–3.7 billion birds and 6.9–20.7 billion mammals).  What struck me about the situation, though, was the irony in the idea that the very feature of cats that may have accelerated their domestication – and consequently their success – is now (in some circles) a reviled and unwanted characteristic.

So how did we get here?  Well, as with dogs, the prevalent theory is that cats were domesticated by assimilation.  They are thought to have first began an association with humans in the near east about 8,500 years ago, possibly drawn to human settlements by the resident populations of commensals – rats, mice etc. – therein.

Sarcophagus of Prince Thutmose's cat.  Photo Credit: Larazoni As is well documented, cats enjoyed significant success in ancient Egypt where they had a variety of mostly positive religious associations; as goddesses (the female cats’ obvious promiscuity may have resulted in their being linked with fertility), as incarnations of the sun god Ra (who was believed to do battle on a nightly basis with the serpent of darkness, as cats would have been observed killing snakes) and as unearthly beings in their own right, perhaps due to the fascinating way in which their eyes react to light.

Their elusive and independent qualities, however, have also led cats to be vilified by humans over the course of our unorthodox symbiosis.  In Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries, under the scrutiny of Christianity, cats were associated with heretical sects (who were thought to worship the Devil in feline form) and, later, labelled as the demon familiars of witches; their prevalence as a Hallowe’en costume continues to this day.  Even in the 19th century cats’ reluctance to submit to human will – unlike dogs – was seen as malicious and they were little trusted, particularly by those men who saw them as in unfavourable cahoots with ‘womankind’.  Their reputation for independence, however, also made them popular with the bourgeoisie of 19th century Europe; it is thought this significantly influenced their adoption as house-pets (in contrast to their previous, much wider role as – yep – rodent catchers).  These opposing roles – pets versus pest-control – have caused conflict ever since – I vividly recall waking in the middle of the night to the uneasy scenario of listening to my much-loved cat Jimmy chomping on some unfortunate rodent on my bedroom floor.

There remains today conflict of opinion when it comes to cats.  They have enormous (and slightly disturbing) popularity as memes and in viral videos, most of which have little correspondence with ‘normal’ cat behaviour (although Maru, admittedly, is hilarious).  Yet they are still not generally kept as pets in countries such as South Korea and, even where common, they are notably less popular than dogs – one survey by Stephen Kellert and colleagues found that 17.4% of the sample US population reported disliking cats (as opposed to 2.6% who disliked dogs).  Still, too, they engender hatred: there are several ‘I Hate Cats’ blogs and websites, not to mention a number of books such as the extremely popular 101 Uses for a Dead Cat (which is probably mostly tongue-in-cheek, but rather dark nonetheless).

African Wildcat. Photo Credit: Rute Martins European Wildcat. Photo Credit: Michael Gäbler Behaviourally, cats are talented predators and will hunt a wide range of prey, more varied than their (very close) cousins the European wildcats, though they tend to hunt smaller creatures than wildcats, suggesting they are less skillful hunters.  In addition, even feral domestic cats tend to live in the vicinity of human settlements and obtain more food from scavenging than do wildcats (though wildcats will also scavenge from humans on occasion).  Interestingly, there is continuous debate as to how different three of the small cat ‘species’ actually are, i.e. African and European wildcats and domestic cats.  They interbreed without apparent difficulty.  Their lack of significant genetic or behavioural distinctions (with the exception of hunting habits and human-association) suggests to some that cats have retained – as seems fitting to their independent nature – some distance from their human symbiotes, weaving in and out of various levels and types of association with humans.

Now we have a dilemma, though.  Sometimes, it seems, the last thing a species should do – unless it is human – is be successful.  Domestic cats now inflame debate because they do not fit with certain human ideals of morality, or understand the difference between an endangered robin and an ‘verminous’ rat.  Of course, it’s apparently not the pets that are to blame so much as the feral members of the domestic population, those who – for whatever reason – live outside of human control.

Cats are cats.  They have changed, a bit, as a result of their enduring association with humans, arguably the world’s most destructive species; and they have prospered and found pastures and prey new as a result.  I feel, though, that this new judgement of them is a consequence of our changing, of our inconsistencies, of our transformations and conflicts as to what we value, what is natural and what we should control.

I’m not suggesting that nothing should be done; but I would like to believe that we could approach this dilemma, this domestic with one of our oldest domesticates, in a sensible fashion.  That means not being horrified or outraged that cats kill birds, and lots of them, but accepting it as the way of things and moving forward towards a solution – or a compromise.  It means acknowledging that the biggest threat to endangered species in the States and the rest of the world is still widely understood not to be cats, but (mostly anthropogenic) habitat destruction.  Cats go where humans go; as we have seen, even feral cats remain near human settlements. These studies might provide clues as to how we might best tackle this problem – but please let’s do so with clear thinking and humanity, rather than attributing judgement and blame.
Cat & Mouse. Photo Credit: Lxowle

Let’s not turn cats back into ‘demons’ because we have changed our mind about what’s important; let us consider them as cats and make sure that, in equal part, we continue to consider ourselves.

My academic training means I can’t help but  reference my sources for some of the above information, however loosely!  Some are linked above; those that are not are shown below.  Academic Sources:

Turner, D. C. & Bateson, P. 2000. The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  Podberscek, Anthony (2009). Good to pet and eat: the keeping and consuming of dogs and cats in South Korea. Journal of Social Issues 65(3): 615–632  /  Zeder, M. A. 2012. Pathways to Domestication. Biodiversity in Agriculture: Domestication, Evolution, and Sustainability. Ed. P. Gepts, T.R. Famula, R.L. Bettinger et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

News Articles (note the emotive titles):

“Killer cats: deadly pets murder nearly 4 billion birds a year”  /  “Cats are ruthless killers: should they be killed?” /  “The Feline Killer that Stalks the Streets” / “Cats Killing Billions of Animals in the US” / “‘Stone-cold serial killers’: Domestic cats slaughter billions upon billions of animals in US every year”

A Clarification

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
Charles Darwin

Yes, I have opened my very first blog post with a quote.  Cowardly, I know, but it seemed so fitting that I couldn’t resist.  After much thought (and ignoring the part of me that still thinks I should have gone for something more dramatic), I have decided to begin at the beginning, by clarifying the meaning and purpose of ‘Symbiology’: a term which I haven’t exactly made up, but probably may as well have – I for one had never heard of it until today.

Symbiology is the study (or in this case, exploration) of symbioses.  A symbiosis, as you may know, is a frequent or long term interaction between different living things, normally between different species.  As usual, there is a boring and mostly unnecessary academic dispute as to whether or not a ‘symbiotic’ relationship is one that benefits both parties, or whether the term refers to any kind of association (including, for example, the relationship between a parasite and its host).  I’m going to stick with the broader definition, because it better serves my purpose, which is to cast the net wide and look at all kinds of interactions between all different kinds of species.  That being said, I warn you now that there will, at least initially, be a focus on interactions between humans and other animals.  Why?  Well, because my primary area of interest (and to some extent, expertise) is anthrozoology, or the study of human-animal interactions.  You probably think I’m just making stuff up now, but anthrozoology is a bona fide academic field (we have a society and everything); although when I say field, it’s more like rangeland, with a roughly defined outline but very little in the way of fences.

That’s a plus-point, as far as I’m concerned, because (as you will no doubt learn) I am quite an indecisive person and, as an anthrozoologist, one can also be a zoologist, a psychologist, an anthropologist, a sociologist, a philosopher, a geographer or just someone who’s interested in animals and/or humans (which covers pretty much everyone else, excluding sociopaths).  The boundaries are faint because, although you may not have thought about it before, anthrozoology influences almost everything; from everyday activities like keeping pets, eating meat and visiting zoos, through well-covered issues like conservation, hunting and medical research, to animal-assisted therapy and enlisting dolphins to help with fishing.

Despite this, I still thought anthrozoology was too limited a scope for this fledgling blog, as I would then feel bound to exclude posts that weren’t human-related in some way.   So, Symbiology is the exploration of how living things relate to other living things.  That should be broad enough…