Elephant Attacks and the Dead End of Domestication


Not all animals are equally vulnerable to the process of domestication by humans. Indeed, very few species have fallen victim to such a thorough and decisive degree of domination. To be domesticated is to have reached the point of no return. There is but little hope for any meaningful resistance emerging from the barnyard or the slaughterhouse. There are accidents and there are injuries but not necessarily much in the way of resistance.

Even if such resistance was possible and even if it proved to be successful there is often no place for domesticated animals to go after their liberation; in many cases, their best case scenario will often be a sanctuary where individual animals could hopefully live in relative comfort until their death. Indeed, until their extinction.

Long before assuming his current role as wealthy CEO for the animal welfare behemoth HSUS, Wayne Pacelle described the goal as “one generation and out” explaining that he had “no problem with the extinction of domestic animals.” [1] It is perhaps uninspiring rhetoric but it speaks clearly to the irreversible dead-end nature of domestication. Gary Francione, no fan of Pacelle, has made similar comments: “Domestic animals are neither a real nor full part of our world or of the nonhuman world. They exist forever in a netherworld of vulnerability”.

It should not be surprising that in Jason Hribal’s book Fear of the Animal Planet: The Hidden History of Animal Resistance, references to domesticated species such cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, and goats are scarce. In contrast two of the book’s four chapters are dedicated to resistance efforts carried out by elephants. One chapter focuses on circuses and the other on zoos; in both settings escapes are made and the animals’ tormentors are attacked.

Jared Diamond has pointed out that “Elephants have been tamed, but never domesticated.” [2]

It is a critical distinction because tame animals are often only tame until they’re not; the potential for violent resistance is ever present and quite often realized. These are animals who have been torn from the wild, having family ties severed, often beaten into submission, and then expected to slave away for the profit of their human captors. Sometimes they snap. They aren’t domesticated.

But even wild animals are not beyond the reach of civilization. They are well within striking distance and this makes both sides of the conflict vulnerable. Often portrayed as the embodiment of freedom, living in pristine landscape, wild animals routinely have their water supplies poisoned, their food adulterated, their habitat stolen or destroyed, and increasingly they suffer the effects of a changing climate. Industrial pollutants are found in the very bodies of even the most remote animals. And so it should not be surprising that wild animals—particularly wild elephants—are actively resisting a continually encroaching, continually threatening civilization.

Recent high profile incidents in West Bengal, India have shined a light on the frequency of deadly human-elephant conflicts. This past March, five people died in the course of two separate incidents. In one incident five wild elephants attacked two farmers killing one of them by effortlessly tossing him into the air and then trampling him to death. In the other incident three elephants attacked four people and quickly killed all four. These incidents gained a lot of attention in part because they happened within the span of two days and in part because one incident was captured on video. But such attacks are surprisingly frequent and routinely deadly.

In 2013, Harper’s Magazine reported that 400 people are killed every year by wild elephants in India (100 elephants also die or are killed). Deforestation and urbanization are routinely cited as the principal causes for these violent confrontations between humans and elephants meaning that humans are clearly the original aggressors in the dispute. That being the case, there is little reason to expect the death toll to slow down or the number of such incidents to wane. The economy of India is expanding at a rapid pace—in 2015 the economy expanded more rapidly than China’s—meaning the the forces provoking elephants are apt to get even more severe.

To conclude on an anthropocentric note, it may be worth asking: what might all this mean for us? To assess the prospects of civilized human beings, it may be worth considering whether we more closely resemble those beings who have already been domesticated and are thus without much hope for anything greater than a gentle escape from a world in which we don’t fit or, instead, those who are merely temporarily tamed, abused but still capable of hitting back. Like elephants, the forces impinging on us continue to get more intense. If there is any wildness left in us it will be made evident when we escape this cage.

[1] Animal People News May 1993

[2] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel (New York: Norton, 1999), p 159

Letter to the Editor: The Day Dr. Frankenstein Came to Campus

Date submitted: 10 April 2016
News outlet: The Eugene Weekly

Jack Horner

When Montana State paleontologist Jack Horner recently spoke at the University of Oregon it was as though Dr. Frankenstein himself had arrived on campus.

Horner spoke of his efforts to “reverse engineer” a dinosaur. That is, to genetically manipulate a chicken—an evolutionary descendant of dinosaurs—so that the resulting animal will, in some way, physically resemble a dinosaur. This may involve attempting to add a long tail, altering the shape of the skull, changing the skeletal structure of the limbs, and on and on. The guiding idea is that if evolution could trace a path from velociraptor to modern chicken then humanity should be able chart a course in the reverse direction from chicken back to raptor.

Of course, the great sin of Dr. Frankenstein was hubris and an unexamined assumption that for him nothing is off limits or could ever be prohibited. But Horner’s macabre endeavors transgress on the sacred; they are an insult to the living world. If nothing else, respect for animals must bar treating them as a mere assemblage of component parts and desirable features to be rearranged and manipulated for one’s amusement or curiosity.

Jack Horner: Building a Dinosaur from a Chicken | TED Talk (2011)

When Life Hands You Oranges…

orangegateA recently posted photo on Twitter set off a full-blown Twitterstorm and ultimately resulted in Whole Foods capitulating to the will of the digital citizenry and the store’s well-heeled clientele. Proving that the moral arc of the Universe is long but it bends toward justice…or does it?

The scandal, branded as #orangegate, was ignited by a photo showing individual pre-peeled oranges in plastic clamshell style packaging for sale at Whole Foods. The initial outcry was over the wasteful use of plastic packaging and the supposedly lazy people who are willing to pay $5.99 per pound for pre-peeled oranges. The damning #orangegate photo was shared over 70,000 times and Whole Foods quickly pulled the product from its stores.

The decision to pull the product and probably more so the tone of the original wave of criticism set off a second wave of concern that is still reverberating.

Disability rights activists pointed out that pre-peeled oranges aren’t merely convenient for the lazy and the slothful but also a potential “lifesaver” for those with limited dexterity. Pre-peeled oranges and pre-prepared foods in general make fresh, healthy food more accessible. The Universe’s moral arc was now called upon to double back in the direction of keeping pre-peeled oranges on the shelf.

The blog CrippledScholar has covered the controversy and has rebutted a great number of the arguments offered by the environmentally-minded, anti-pre-peeled orange crowd (see here and here). But there is one argument that seems to warrant closer examination. The claim is that people with limited dexterity who require pre-prepared foods are free to ask for such things in the produce department of their grocery store thus alleviating the need for individually packaged pre-peeled fruit. But CrippledScholar writes that asking for assistance in this way would represent “unnecessary gatekeeping” and would be “demoralizing and humiliating”. Furthermore, it is suggested that this would make people with disabilities vulnerable to harassment, abuse, and unwanted scrutiny from store clerks. It is possible that many people would go without the product rather than ask for assistance and as explained at CrippledScholar: “[a] solution isn’t accessible if people won’t use it.”

There is no reason to doubt what is being asserted. It is absurd, insensitive, and ultimately counterproductive to argue with people about what their feelings are or should be. It is curmudgeonly and trollish to tell people what they ought to feel. If people feel humiliated that is prima facie a problem to be addressed rather than simply denied or trivialized.

But how have we arrived in a place where asking for help can reasonably and sincerely be described as “demoralizing and humiliating”? None of us are so able-bodied so as to never need help; indeed, the disability rights movement has stressed the fluidity between the categories of disabled and able-bodied. People travel from one descriptor to the other both at different points of their life and even from moment to moment as their context changes. If nothing else, feminist philosophers and disability rights activists alike have pointed out that we are born into a state of complete dependency and often experience a similar state at some point before we perish. Depending on others is a normal part of life and should not be stigmatized.

The ability to ask for help is a skill to be developed and worthy of recognition. The fact that so many of us feel the need to regularly feign invulnerability and to project complete self-sufficiency is surely responsible for a significant amount of anxiety. If it is demoralizing to ask for help, it is likely just as demoralizing to need help but to be incapable of asking (we may be incapable due to a lack of skill or because of the particular context we are in).

Not entirely unrelated is the fact that we are living in a time when genuine friendships are on the wane. Adults report having fewer close friends than they did in the past; close friends being people they would confide in. Rushing to fill this void is empty online communication and equally empty technological aspirations. In fact, genuine friendships are often cultivated by sharing one’s vulnerabilities and asking for help. Our inability to ask for help is isolating us from one another and the coping mechanisms are likely compounding the problem.

But asking for help isn’t always perceived as “demoralizing and humiliating”. Creators of the Be My Eyes (www.bemyeyes.org) app have created an app allowing blind people to ask for help in a way that many people have found to be empowering. Be My Eyes connects blind users with sighted users via their phones. Sighted users can view live video taken by blind users and answer questions based on what they are seeing.

Writing in AccessWorld, the magazine of the American Foundation for the Blind, Bill Holton says “Be My Eyes is an extremely powerful platform whose time has come” and says it is a “resource for those times when greater independence can best be achieved by knowing when and how to ask for help”.

What is the relevant difference between the potentially demoralizing act of asking for help at the produce department and the empowering act of asking for help via the Be My Eyes app?

The most notable difference seems to be that the latter is a mediated, anonymous experience. It is an experience that does not require and generally will not facilitate relationship. It is a formalized process that is facilitated by a third party. It has been described as “microvolunteering”—which could be defined as volunteering with no strings attached. It risks no lasting entanglements with people or one’s wider community.

CrippledScholar rightly points out that one more item in plastic packaging—alongside all the bagged salads, shrink wrapped cucumbers, and prepared dishes from the deli—is somewhat inconsequential. The outcry over oranges seems out of proportion. The tempers are high perhaps because the stakes are so low. In contrast, the inability to ask for help has proven itself to be incredibly debilitating and on that problem there is hardly a word spoken.

Adding to the Noise?


Marcel Duchamp, Hat Rack (1917)

Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message. Marcel Duchamp said that the artist of the future will simply point. And Mark Zuckerberg believes he has given humanity “the power to share”.

Like so many others, I feel a compulsion to produce something, to express myself, and to advance a particular point of view. But I also experience a recurrent feeling that the effort is futile and potentially even counterproductive. As if everyone is shouting and my foolish but perhaps natural response is to attempt to shout even louder than the crowd. Nothing can possibly be heard and so, in truth, I’m merely adding to the noise.

I can generate what is now commonly called “content”—able to produce fodder for a format—and can then, in one way or another, place it into the world. I can make paper copies and stash them into the hidden letter boxes that are to be found in abandoned stone walls or I can stuff them into glass bottles and hurl them into the sea. But more likely, I will deposit whatever I produce into the digital marketplace of ideas where ideas aren’t ideas but are simply content filling a space. At this point, it’s likely that my every move has been anticipated and my purposes already circumvented; my efforts may be effectively channeled to serve purposes that are not my own. By contributing content to the digital realm I am propping up what I wish to tear down and yet throwing a bottle into the sea doesn’t seem promising.

It feels as though nothing can be incisive enough to overcome this medium; to aspire to transcend the medium and think that one can rise above its constraints may simply be a case of wishful thinking. To “fight fire with fire” is an interesting locution but in the real world water has consistently proven to be more effective.

Alternatively, I may not produce or generate anything but instead simply point toward, which is to say post, something similar enough to what I want to say. Such pointing is simply another attempt to amplify a signal, to make something louder, more visible, and to push it onto the screens of more people. Again, adding to the noise which is deafening the very people I am hoping will somehow find a way to listen. How can this succeed?

It doesn’t matter how insightful or well-crafted something is if there isn’t the space for it to be understood, considered, or comprehended. During the writing process one might focus on clarity and precision which are qualitative considerations; but once put into the digital realm it is almost exclusively quantitative considerations that remain relevant. What we want is for our content to be loud enough to silence everyone else; to command space. If not the smartest voice perhaps we can be the loudest voice.

But are things really this grim?

Even in the noisiest of spaces we are generally able to make out coherent bits and pieces. Civilization is a homogenizing, totalizing force but it is not yet fully realized, not yet perfect. There remain cracks. There remains space for learning, dialogue, and ultimately resistance. One need only consult his or her own experience and will likely recall numerous times when something significant reached one’s eyes or ears in a most timely way prompting a change in direction.

In 1964 anarchist and art critic Herbert Read lamented that “the fall of the last civilization will not be heard above the incessant din”. This lament of a past anarchist can be a source of hope for contemporary anarchists who do not see civilization as something to be preserved or mourned but rather thrown off. Despite the incessant din, which sounds so much like the machine humming away, we would be wise to remember that “[c]ivilization is not about to collapse, it is collapse.” We should not expect to individually steer the direction of mass society in any direction as though we were generals on a battlefield; instead we should imagine ourselves as mice and rats chewing at the wires…soon there will be flames.


Antonin Scalia and the Air We Breathe

ScaliaFollowing the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, political pundits and politicians are busy rallying their respective bases about the importance of the next Supreme Court appointment and, more specifically, about who is going to get to make that appointment: the current president or a future president. Everyone, of course, wants someone from their own side to make the decision. Democrats want it to be Obama while Republicans hope to delay the process until they might secure the presidency for themselves.

The highly influential SCOTUS Blog writes that “The stakes could not be higher.” Many are warning of a constitutional crisis. Social media is abuzz with “suspicious memes”.

In an article at The Huffington Post, law professor Adam Sulkowski lists a myriad of issues that are apt to be affected by a future Supreme Court and, driving the point home, writes that “The new SCOTUS justice will help decide the safety of the air we breathe”. It is no doubt true and it is no doubt absurd.

Sulkowski’s point is that it’s vitally important who holds this position; at least for those of us who “want to breathe” or “drink water”.

It’s vitally important who holds this position! That’s the message we hear whether we are talking about the Supreme Court, the presidency, the local sheriff, or the high school hall monitor. We need good people, or more accurately our people, in positions of power. There is some truth to it but the most effective propaganda generally contains some truth. If, as Picasso reportedly said, “art is a lie that tells the truth”; propaganda is very often truth in the service of a lie.

This is the shell game of mass society; the names are always changing and it’s important for you to take a side.

But if you’re fully invested in fighting over who gets to decide how safe it will be to breathe the air; you will likely overlook the absurdity of a system in which one person—or possibly a very small group of people—has such power. There was a time when humans beings didn’t have such power and didn’t make such decisions; it coincided with a time when we could take a deep breath without fear and without poison.

For Drone Researchers: “People are the problem”

chimp attacks drone

Missy Cummings is the director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab (aptly shortened to HAL; formerly known as the Humans and Automation Lab) at Duke University. A recent article by Todd C. Finkel in The Washington Post described her as “one of the nation’s top drone researchers”. The article was specifically concerned with current obstacles to using drones for delivering consumer goods as is being pursued companies like Amazon and Google. According to Finkel, Cummings “doesn’t doubt the technology” and “believes these autonomous machines already possess the ability to accurately and reliably do their jobs.” Finkel says that the technical issues regarding drone delivery have largely been solved.

But Cummings is concerned with the so-called “socio-technical issues”. These include kids throwing rocks, curious dogs, people with guns, etc. Indeed, searching “animals attacking drones” yields nearly half a million hits on Google and is becoming something of an online video genre. It is these sorts of obstacles that are purportedly delaying the Brave New World of drone delivery.

Or as The Washington Post succinctly puts it: “People are the problem.”

And isn’t this so often the case with technological progress? People are the problem. Or as one version of the Post headline put it “the enemy”.

The New York Times recently ran an op-ed in which investor Peter Thiel called for a vast expansion of nuclear power. He dismissed the accident at Chernobyl as “a direct result of both a faulty design and the operators’ incompetence”. Presumably the new designs Thiel is advocating for (and hoping to invest in) will be without fault and only put into the hands of inerrant operators.

Similar logic is employed to defend Google’s self-driving cars. The machine can do a better job than a human driver. It would therefore be best to eliminate the human element and turn operation of the vehicle over to the machine. Of course, the alternative that is not considered is that it may very well be the car that may need to be eliminated rather than the human.

The goal is to eliminate human error but to do that would require nothing short of eliminating humanity. Eliminating our animality. Assimilating us into a machine world or discarding us as refuse. While this is almost the explicit goal of transhumanists—those who hope to “transcend biology”—it is implicitly pursued by people such as Missy Cummings of Duke University. Cummings may not identify as a transhumanist, may not entertain the idea of living forever like Ray Kurzweil and Zoltan Istvan, may not pine to upload her brain to the internet, but she is doing the necessary work of overcoming the problem of people. Designing a world where our actions are without significance or impact.

In considering these “socio-technical” obstacles—the problem of human beings—Missy Cummings says she likes to consider how her eight year-old son would react to seeing a drone. She says “He’d like to throw rocks at it—because it’s there. It’s just human nature.”

While Cummings may see our rock-throwing nature as an obstacle to overcome, I see the impulses of her son as a source of hope. It’s an impulse that many of us share.

Pick up a rock.

Additional note:

drone researcherYou can learn more about Mary “Missy” Cummings at the website for the Humans and Autonomy Lab: http://hal.pratt.duke.edu/people 

The site lists her email address as:

The Humans and Anatomy Lab is located in Hudson Hall on the Duke University campus. (directions)

Least Popular Posts of 2015

Statistically speaking, you probably haven’t read the Uncivilized Animals posts listed below…they are the least popular posts of 2015!  Take a look to see what you might have missed:

  • Coping with Monday / January 25, 2015
    There are times when the mere specter of Monday can cast a shadow over the whole weekend.
  • Finding Magic in the World / May 14, 2015
    Serious-minded people — rational adults — do not believe in magic… or so we are led to believe.
  • Lovebirds into Drones / June 28, 2015
    That humans need to humble themselves enough to learn from other animals has been a point that has been repeatedly made on this blog but experimenting on captive lovebirds so as to design better drones isn’t really what I had in mind.
  • Cybernetic Revolutionaries / July 18, 2015
    Capitalism and socialism are essentially two different strategies both seeking to make mass society possible. There is nothing radical about simply picking one side over the other; rejecting capitalism only to embrace socialism.
  • Internet Holdouts / August 18, 2015
    Not everyone in the United States is on the internet. In fact, recently released numbers from the Pew Research Center indicate that a full 15 percent of Americans do not use the internet.

Note that the determination that these were the “least popular posts” was based solely on the number page views here at Uncivilized Animals. This is less than the whole picture given that “Finding Magic” was originally published at the Dark Mountain Project and “Cybernetic Revolutionaries” was originally published in Fifth Estate; meaning that these pieces were likely more widely read that page views here at the blog would suggest.


The Faith of a Green Anarchist


The faith of a green anarchist is faith that the sun will rise tomorrow. As the winter solstice is the longest night of the year—the light’s longest absence—it could be understood as one of our High Holy days when this faith is most severely tested and hope may be restored. It is, and must be, an article of faith that the sun will once again rise and that the light will return to nourish us; that, as John Muir wrote, “this is still the morning of creation”.

Many will object and insist that we know the sun will rise and that therefore no faith is required. But that claim relies on the validity of what is likely a false binary between faith and knowledge. It is also a claim to know the future. It is human arrogance. That the sun has, in fact, risen quite consistently in the past provides merely the grounds for confidence, not certainty. It suggests merely that our faith is not of the blind variety.

To push the point a bit further, one might stack up a mountain of books, assemble a stadium of experts, and compile all that we seem to know about gravity, planetary motion, the life cycle of a star, and the rotation of the earth but he or she will nonetheless fall short of certainty. There will remain a gap that knowledge cannot bridge; to get to the other side one can only leap.

The unstated assumption originally pointed out by David Hume is that the law-like regularity of past events will continue uninterrupted into the future. There is no—non-question begging—evidence available to justify that assumption. We do not and cannot know that the future will resemble the past in the ways that would be relevant to this inquiry.

Green anarchist faith may therefore be grounded not in what we know but in an awareness of and sensitivity to our animal limitations; limitations that are not temporary obstacles that we might one day overcome but that are inherent to being corporeal beings. The human mind has access to some aspects of reality but by no means to the whole of reality. David Abram explains:

“Each creature—two-leggeds included—has only a restricted access to the mystery of the real. As a human I may have compiled a great mass of data about the ways of the world, yet in a practical, visceral sense…an earthworm knows far more about the life of the soil than I do, as a swallow knows far more about the wind. To be human is to have very limited access to what is.” [emphasis added] [1]

Furthermore, human language does not and cannot perfectly map or mirror the world. All language use is necessarily imperfect, incomplete, and distorted. With every move, language leaks truth like a worn out bucket and introduces error. The impact of this on our overall knowledge of the world is vast given how much of our beliefs are filtered through language and dependent on the testimony of others.

So our projections and forecasts are always uncertain. To suggest otherwise is to reduce reality to a simple machine—perhaps civilization’s favorite metaphor—where each event follows the next as a matter of course, where the ending is predetermined and wholly predictable, where we have access to the whole of its operations. But if reality must be likened to a machine it is of the black box variety where we have nothing but observed inputs and outputs and very little beyond speculation as to its internal churning. We may at times be able to predict the output but, in ways both better and worse, are regularly mistaken and surprised.

Given the number of doomsday scenarios and apocalyptic visions currently in circulation, the fact that we are often mistaken should be understood as a source of hope and encouragement. There are more variables at play than we can possibly be aware of and so our nightmare visions may not come to pass. To give up hope and abandon resistance is to treat humanity as an all-knowing deity rather than as an animal operating with limited knowledge and finite senses.

During this time of year, every day is shorter than the last; darkness claims an ever increasing portion of our existence. The trajectory can be discouraging; we may come to feel estranged from the sun. The winter solstice is the point when that changes; when darkness yields to light and the days gradually grow longer. In this way it is holy.

I have faith that the sun will return and we will again be well.

[1] Abram, David. 2010. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Vintage, p. 217

Letter to the Editor: Relentless Noise

Date published: 6 November 2015
News outlet: The Eugene Weekly

Leo Harris Parkway divides Autzen Stadium from Alton Baker Park and so divides Oregon Ducks from mallard ducks. But even when it’s not game day, the sound volume from Autzen respects no boundary and invades Alton Baker, often drowning out the birdsong, riversong and windsong that people rightly expect to hear in the park. Long practice sessions at the stadium are generally accompanied by a soundtrack as booming as one might expect for a violent sport that lends itself to war metaphors.

As a volunteer nature guide, I am often in the park with elementary school children and I consistently encourage them to respect the plants and animals that live in Alton Baker. I encourage them to use all their senses to fully experience the park and the more-than-human world. The exercise can be a challenge for young people raised in a myopic, digital culture which is often hostile to animals and non-commercial spaces; it is made more difficult, sometimes impossible, when the relentless noise of that culture is pouring out of Autzen Stadium.

The view of Autzen Stadium from Alton Baker Park.

The view of Autzen Stadium from Alton Baker Park.