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On Speciesism and Animal Actors

I saw The Dark Knight on Friday and when the Rottweilers came on screen I thought, "People who have Rottweilers sure must do a lot of damage control because of movies like this." (There are vicious, man-eating Rottweilers in the film, and in fact one gets through Batman’s gear to injure him–that’s how vicious and powerful Rottweilers are. . . . I guess.) I’ve got it easy. In Charlie Wilson’s War, when Julia Roberts as socialite Joanne Herring glides across the screen flanked by these Greyhounds, and her home has paintings of her with the regal hounds, no one leaves the theater thinking, "Boy, I’m crossing to the other side of the street the next time I see one of those things coming my way."

Poor Rottweilers. Speciesism takes many forms and works for some sentient nonhumans, and against others.

And whether all of the dogs were fake (some were these dogs) doesn’t really matter, as the damage is done for the breed. (Though I’d much rather fake dogs be used.)

One thing’s for certain regarding animal actors: "Hollywood’s sole supplier of orangutans decided to quit renting them out and send six of them to an Iowa sanctuary" last week. Of course, that’s great news for the orangutans, who don’t care why they no longer have to work. The reason isn’t related to their genetics or intelligence, but to their small numbers.

"Using nonhuman primates in entertainment venues like films, television and advertisements certainly doesn’t enhance public attitudes toward their conservation, and doesn’t get across the message about their precarious situation in the wild," said Lori Perkins of Atlanta’s zoo, who heads the Orangutan Species Survival Plan. . . .

Wildlife experts say the estimated 62,000 orangutans remaining in the wild could be wiped out within decades as loggers and palm oil farmers destroy their Asian forest habitats.

(There’s that orangutan/Earth Balance connection again. Can’t seem to shake it, these days.)

So the reason the orangutans won’t be forced to act anymore is because people don’t treat conservation seriously when the animals are forced to act? That makes no sense to me, but I’m happy the decision has been made.

Why is it that humans take whatever they can from nonhumans, and when they’ve used and abused them to the brink of extinction, then they start to care about their well-being and future?

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  1. "Why is it that humans take whatever they can from nonhumans, and when they've used and abused them to the brink of extinction, then they start to care about their well-being and future?"

    Even then, the well-being and future of any sentient nonhuman individual are valued only as means to perpetuating her species for humans, so we can continue to appreciate the "resource" she represents. It's certainly not as a direct reaction to (or obligation stemming from) her inherent moral worth. We aren't lifting her from the class of things, or granting her access to the moral community, any more than when we become concerned with the near extinction of some orchid species.

    Basically, the answer is: so we can resume taking at some point in the future. This is going on with various fish species all the time: "After years of conservation efforts, and rebounding populations, it's now alright to eat the X-species of fish!".

    "[…] as the damage is done for the breed."

    The collateral damage is equivalent in both movies: it is okay to use canines, they are instruments. The primary harm was to the individual canines exploited. Neither movie "works for" canines, who slaved for both. The discourse surrounding the viciousness of particular canine breeds is considerable, but highly humanocentric and not particularly relevant to abolition.

    What if the new Batman movie portrayed Rottweilers as having a very calm, non-agressive, demeanor? Is that a victory? Does spreading the message that Greyhounds are not vicious help promote the idea that Greyhounds (and all canines) should not be bred for racing, companionship, or any other reason? Even if it did, which it doesn't, I would reject their use within "Charlie Wilson's War" (or any other movie) just the same. Additionally, your description of the movie makes me think some would leave the theater thinking about how living with domesticated nonhumans is somehow sexy, and indicative of status or power. Seems like it reinforces the dynamics of domination we are fighting against.

    Domesticated canines are whatever we have made them: dependent, particular physical features, and so on. Domestication is reckless human domineering that violates basic rights. Neither Greyhounds or Rottweilers should even exist. Those that already exist should never be further subjugated and exploited for use within movies.

    "Speciesism takes many forms and works for some sentient nonhumans, and against others."

    I don't think saying speciesism can "work for" those being excluded from the moral community and denied equal consideration is helpful, particularly for first-time readers who might visit specifically for this post. The notion is only accurate to the extent that one embraces consequentialist reasoning, which deemphasizes (looks past) individuals. Finally, no form of exploitation that we label as "working for" nonhumans can possibly challenge the essential problem, which *is* exploitation.

    The essence of a rights based approach is that wrongs remain wrong regardless of the consequences. That's how human rights work. If nonhuman "rights" are to operate differently, well that is speciesism.

    July 20, 2008
  2. Nathan,
    I am referring to a different kind of damage–discrimination against a species of dog. Yes, a certain kind of damage is done just by having the dogs onscreen, but that's not my point. I'm not talking about what's relevant to abolition.

    Speciesism can work for a species quite well. Look at us! Meanwhile, it absolutely works against pit bulls and rottweilers, and FOR other breeds (greyhounds are a complex example, but certain shallow people might just adopt one because they are associated with beauty and wealth, and that potentially helps the individual dog as well as greyhounds, in general, as another person becomes an advocate).

    Dogs are going to be around for a long time, and I believe that because we created this problem (too many of them, as well as the way we use them), we have an obligation to do the best we can to address it. And oddly, that manifests itself in the form of owning them as pets.

    I know what "the essence of a rights-based approach" is, but sometimes I see a story as more complex or more interesting when looking at it a different, also relevant, way.

    July 21, 2008

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