last days of ivory

Gung Hay Fat Choy! Yesterday, the Year of the Sheep began. As fans of the St. Louis football team cry desperately every year: Go Rams!

As a kid, I used to look at the Chinese zodiac and wonder why the Chinese chose those animals. I mean, no one’s quarreling with dragon and tiger, but rat, rooster, rabbit? Just seems that if you could choose the 12 mightiest animals on Earth, you might go with lion, bear, elephant, whale, or some creatures in that league. Obviously, current Chinese people didn’t “choose” their zodiac any more than Americans chose a centaur, a virgin, and a crab named cancer.

I do wonder, though, about the vagaries in cultural inheritance. In the case of the 12 members of Anglophone zodiac, many of which are partly human, almost all can be connected to some sort of mythical presence, not utterly disassociated from Greco-Roman myths (well, maybe the weakest one is Pisces; being one, I’m well aware of this). I don’t believe the Chinese zodiac to symbolize quite the same level of aspirational qualities. With the noted exception of the dragon and the tiger, the other ten – rat, rooster, rabbit, dog, pig, horse, sheep, ox, snake, and monkey – are all basically beasts of burden. Of course it’s possible that modern China’s famously utilitarian attitude toward most of the animal kingdom – basically, fry ’em if you got ’em – is a coincidence and not related to their zodiac.

This week we’re being asked to note the change of the Chinese calendar at the same time that Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow and others are screaming to inform us that at current rates of slaughter, our planet will run out of elephants in the next decade. And Bigelow’s 3-minute documentary, The Last Days of Ivory, squarely points the accusatory trunk at Chinese consumers for their consumption of ivory trinkets. Of course China isn’t the only malefactor in this equation, but a nation that can enforce a one-child rule over 1.3 billion people can’t exactly claim to be a victim of market forces when it comes to poached elephant tusks (or rhino horns). Doesn’t China safeguard pandas when it feels like it? Bigelow, perhaps wisely, tries to convince viewers to stand against terrorism, meaning groups like Boko Haram who get more funds to rape more schoolgirls because of tuskploitation. Fair. But what happened to just defending elephants for the sake of them being elephants?

One of my favorite essays about animal rights is by the dear departed Christopher Hitchens, all the more powerful because Hitchens, an Iraq war enthusiast, was not easy to pigeonhole, ideologically. As part of Hitchens’ review of a book called “Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy” by Matthew Scully, Hitchens spins forth all manner of choice quotes on a subject that many of his Washington Beltway pundit colleagues prefer to avoid entirely. (I don’t know that this essay exists online.)

Hitchens evinces a welcome rejection of both the hardcore “anthropomorphists” and the meat-lovers who wield the word “anthropomorphist” as an insult. He says: “…just as the proprietors of factory farms maintain that the beasts are better off than they would be on the hillside, and just as some particularly fatuous Englishmen assert that the fox ‘really’ enjoys being hunted, so the animal liberation fanatics use human life and human rights as their benchmark…those who endow fleas with human rights are halfway toward ridiculing their own definition of human beings as a ‘plague species.’…Neither side can break free of an inchoate but essential notion of our interdependence.” In other words, don’t listen to the extremes (despite their ability to control the conversation), but don’t throw away “animal rights” just because they’re not the same as “human rights.” Every culture has spoken with some kind of reverence for some kind of beasts – there’s a relationship, no matter how much our modern lives have blinded us to it. New parents in the West get this: animals, or their symbols, are most of the first “others” that their children encounter, to the point where they may not feel very much like “others” at all.

You see, just because Hitchens is in the middle doesn’t mean he lacks teeth, or for adversaries. Apparently there are still spokesmen (for farmers, cosmetics companies, and other corporations) who maintain that animals cannot feel what we know as pain. Hitchens calls them “legatees, whether they know it or not, of Rene Descartes” – one presumes that these spokesmen don’t hear that name much when they go on Sunday talk shows –

who held that animals were machines and that their yelps or cries were the noises emitted by broken machinery…The morons who torture animals would obviously not get the same thrill from battering a toaster. Children, who are almost always en rapport with animals, do not treat them as toys. (And maltreatment of animals by a child is a famously strong indicator, as our investigators of psychopathology have found, of hideous future conduct.)…The many old or lonely or infirm people who find therapeutic value in animal companionship do not get the same result even from a semi-animate object such as a TV.

This would leave us and the ‘machinists’ with only the problem of language and cognition. The whale, we are in effect informed, has its cortex but is too non-sentient to know, say, that it is an endangered species. The great apes who learn to sign whole phrases to their human friends are just improving their food-acquisition skills. Dolphins can at best (at best!) talk only to one another. To all such assertions the correct response requires no strong proof of language or logic in nonhuman brains. It is enough to know that we do not know enough.

Love that.

All the advances in the study of animal sentience have been made extremely recently, and some of these findings are fascinating and promising. If you insist, these same studies may even have benefits for human beings. Ordinary prudence, or straight utilitarianism, would therefore suggest that this is a bad time for us to be destroying whales for their blubber, or elephants for their tusks (or for mere ‘recreation’), or Rwandan gorillas in order to make their prehensile paws into ashtrays.

Hitchens doesn’t bother to say, perhaps because it’s obvious, that the very few of any species that may survive in zoos obviously isn’t sufficient, because 1) they may well not breed; 2) they can hardly fulfill their place in the ecosystem from behind bars (and that could hurt us in ways we haven’t imagined).

But wait. Animals aren’t equal to humans, right? Well, Hitchens notes “we can evidently live with a good deal of contradiction in this sphere.” For example,

The National Socialists in Germany enacted thoroughgoing legislation for the protection of animals and affected to regard Jewish ritual slaughter with abhorrence, meanwhile being enthusiastic about the ritual slaughter of Jews. Hindu nationalists are infinitely more tender toward cows than toward Muslims…Conversely, one of the most idiotic jeers against animal lovers is the one about their preferring critters to people. As a matter of observation, it will be found that people who ‘care’ – about rain forests or animals, miscarriages of justice or dictatorships – are, though frequently irritating, very often the same people. Whereas those who love hamburgers and riskless hunting and mink coats are not in the front ranks of Amnesty International. Like the quality of mercy, the prompting of compassion is not finite, and can be self-replenishing.

Let’s get back to the ivory that China extracts from the ebony continent. Hitchens claims that when it comes to using animals, knowledgeable people are fighting over degree in three areas – food, sport, and experiments. That puts China and other consumers of ivory utterly out of bounds of discourse – which may be a little unfair. As long as I seem to be casting aspersions over Chinese culture, let me suggest that one problem with Western culture is that Jesus of Nazareth never once spoke or hinted at any kind of mercy or respect for animals. (Mohammed, by contrast, spoke of cutting off his sleeve rather than disturb a sleeping cat.) Without any update from JC, Christians can only go by the section of Genesis that asserts human dominion over all beasts that “creepeth” around the Earth. If that’s our starting point, you can see how far we have to travel to get Americans to stop China from supporting elephant-slaughtering terrorism.

So no, I don’t say that this is easy, or all China’s fault. I say that every Chinese New Year, I see a 12-animal zodiac that reminds me, and should remind everyone, of the barely understood relationship we have had with animals since we were 1) cavemen, 2) children. If the Chinese diaspora wants to call my attention to the 12 animals it uses as quasi-mythic symbols, I would like to call their attention to their mother country’s use of endangered animals as luxury goods. Our ongoing relationship to the animal kingdom deserves better.