On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

Monthly Archives: November 2011

Souls Awakened: The Animals Who Have Shaped Us

Souls AwakenedAll of us who share our homes with them, work with them, or campaign for their welfare have a reason why we devote a portion of our lives to animals. For many of us, we can think back to the exact moment when we looked into an animal’s eyes and thought, “This is a life worth valuing.” Maybe it was our first dog, or the first horse we rode. Maybe it was an animal seen at a zoo that filled our minds and hearts with amazement and wonder. Maybe it was an animal in need, sick or injured, that inspired in us the humanity to help. The National Museum of Animals & Society exists because of these connections, these bridges between the human and nonhuman animal worlds that touch our hearts and enrich our lives.

Souls Awakened: The Animals Who Have Shaped Us is a way for YOU and the animal who changed YOUR life to become a part of the bigger picture. Your image and story will contribute to a larger exhibit on the way animals throughout history have changed how we feel, how we think, how we act, and – ultimately – who we are.

To become a part of Souls Awakened, simply send us a digital photograph, drawing, painting, or other visual rendering of one specific animal who shaped you. Then, write us a short paragraph (3-7 sentences) telling us your story: Who is/was this animal? What did s/he do to affect the way in which you view the world?

Visit our exhibit page for the submission form and all the details!

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Remembering Our Four-Legged Veterans

Animals in War Memorial, London.

Animals in War Memorial, London.

Animals have always been tied into human affairs, and war is no exception. Humans have used animals in war since the beginning of time. Many epic battles are depicted being fought on horseback, from Ancient Rome to WWI. However, animals have been used in many areas of the military.

Horses are, of course, the classic image of the cavalry, used primarily for transportation and mobility in and to the battle, as well as for hauling loads. Elephants have also served a transportation function since ancient times. Hannibal infamously used elephants in the Second Punic War to great effect, but they were used as late as WWII for hauling loads smaller animals could not handle. Camels, mules, and oxen have served similar functions throughout the world.

Other animals have served as weapons or attackers in battle. Mastiffs were trained by conquistadors to attack in war, and many of today’s conception of “fierce” breeds of dogs come from their former use in war. Additionally, in more modern warfare, animals such as dogs, rats, and pigeons are used as unfortunate living bombs.

Speaking of pigeons, their function in warfare is nearly as ancient as that of horses. Homing pigeons have been a major component of warfare, delivering and concealing messages as late as WWII.

Since the advent of increasing technology and transportation, animals have fallen out of use in many areas of the military, but they still serve a function in military service today. In the Vietnam war, dogs in service rescued thousands by alerting soldiers to booby traps and pulling the wounded to safety. Dogs are currently the largest animal group currently used by the US military.  An estimated 30,000 dogs have been used in military service since WWII. Generally, their primary function is as search-and-rescue dogs rather than as offense. As of 2005, some 2,300 dogs are currently in military use as guard dogs, bomb detection, and in search-and-rescue work.

In addition to dogs, the Marines currently use trained sea lions and dolphins to detect bombs underwater. They are trained in such a way as to put themselves in no danger near bombs, but to inform their handlers.

While war is an ugly business, and is almost certainly nothing to do with animals, who are content to not wage it on a global scale, the influence of animals in warfare both today and historically is exceptional. They may not be driven by a sense of honor, bravery, and patriotism that makes our human heroes so admirable, but they are motivated by loyalty to their trainers and dedication to their training, qualities that make them just as worthy of our respect and recognition.

You can learn more about animals in wartime, as well as the Animals in War Memorial dedicated to them in London, at the website of the Animals in War Memorial Fund.

Farm Sanctuary: 25 Years of Making Waves

Farm Sanctuary

Farm Sanctuary's Watkins Glen location. Image via Wikipedia

Before starting the National Museum of Animals & Society, I had the great pleasure of working for a wonderful , precedent-setting organization: Farm Sanctuary. As the nation’s leading farm animal protection nonprofit, they work to protect farm animals from cruelty, inspire change in the way society views and treats farm animals, and promote compassionate vegan living.

While we’ve become a very dog- and cat-centric society, farm animals have been at the forefront of historical efforts for animal protection. Richard “Humanity Dick” Martin, the 18th century parliamentarian from Ireland, passed the first modern law in defense of animal welfare, specifically for oxen, sheep and other pastoral critters. Since then the ASPCA, MSPCA, and other domestic groups gained their footing by targeting the treatment of horses in the city and the incredibly long and tortuous transports farmed animals faced around the turn of the century.

Since its founding in 1986, Farm Sanctuary has dramatically influenced and changed many landscapes in our society. One of the most incredible, in my humble opinion, is that of farm animal geriatrics. Because the majority of farm animals are killed while they are still quite young, Farm Sanctuary – in providing a safe, forever home to their rescued animals – have become the experts in farm animal geriatrics, especially for factory-farmed animals. Their caregivers face and treat on a daily basis the consequences of selective breeding, overuse of antibiotics, and a callous industry that neglects the basic needs and welfare of these animals.

On the political scene, Farm Sanctuary has launched, passed and paved the way for landmark legislation to ensure basic protections for farm animals. In fact, this was how I first got involved with the organization. As a teen in Florida, I gathered more than 8,000 signatures to ban gestation crates, a confinement system for pregnant sows that restricts their movement for the good part of 4 years. (Due to their frequent insemination, sows are in these crates unless they are giving birth, and will be kept in production until their productivity drops off, which is around 4 years.) Pigs in Florida are now protected in the constitution – imagine that! A federal ban is on the horizon for these intensive confinement systems as well as those used for egg-laying hens (battery cages) and calves (veal crates).

But what I think Farm Sanctuary does best is highlighting the emotional world of farm animals. Like us and our companion animals, cows, pigs, chickens, ducks and the rest of the barnyard residents maintain friendships and love interests. They enjoy frolicking, caring for their little ones, and investigating new enrichment in their pastures (mud bath, anyone?). You too can see the sentience and intelligence of farm animals firsthand by visiting a farm animal sanctuary. Thanks to Farm Sanctuary, many similar sanctuaries have popped up in their wake across the country and abroad too.

Farm Sanctuary is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and I was only too glad to be a part of the festivities by organizing the Los Angeles Walk for Farm Animals fundraiser. Taking steps towards compassion for all beings is something we should all embrace. Lace up!

The Origins of Animal Worship

Decorated Indian elephant.

Decorated Indian elephant.

Throughout history, people of various cultures have practiced animal worship (or zoolatry). There are many theories as to why certain cultures find certain animals to be sacred.

In Greco-Roman myths, the gods would often disguise themselves as various creatures. Zeus, for example, famously seduced women in the guises of both a swan and a cow. Thus, in these cultures, the respect and elevation of animals came from the belief that animals were of use to a god, or that an animal could in fact be a god in disguise.

In religions with the belief in incarnation, the idea of treating animals fairly comes from the belief that anyone could be an animal in the next life, or had been one in the past.

In classical Egyptian myth, animals were often intermediates to the gods, and many deities had animals sacred to them which they had special communion with. Cats were especially sacred to ancient Egyptian culture, which in turn actually influenced their perception of the goddess Bastet, who transformed from a lioness to a cat goddess during her worship.

The cultural question becomes, why were certain animals viewed as sacred to certain people? While cats were significant to the Egyptians, they had little to do with the ancient Indians, who were more concerned with, say, elephants. Sociologically, it makes sense why different animals were fixated on in different cultures. In Egypt, cats were acknowledged and esteemed for their ability to catch vermin. In India, elephants were mysterious, gigantic beasts that could not be easily tamed or understood.

Due to the usefulness of a creature, or the mystery or danger of it, the perception of certain animals differed from culture to culture. While a cat’s use was not much known to other cultures at the time, it was well known to the Egyptians, who are among the first people to keep cats as pets, and thus, among the first to understand their function as vermin hunters. Outside of India, an elephant was not much known, and so could not be regarded as mysterious or awe-inspiring, a quality that the Indians were well aware of. These are but a few examples.

Animal deities and reverence are found in every area of the world, from Japan, where the owl is an omen, to North America, where ravens were thought to embody departed human souls.

While some religions, the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) in particular, did not worship animals, animal imagery is still heavy in their holy books, with their God being compared to various creatures such as lions, lambs and doves, and other animals, such as ants and eagles, used to emphasize moral lessons.

Even today, the awe and respect one feels before certain magnificent animals is not diminished. The sense that certain animals embody certain human traits has also not lessened: we still perceive foxes as clever, cats as aloof, dogs as loyal. The truth is, humans sense both the differences and similarities between themselves and animals and seek to close that gap. In ancient cultures, this took the form of holy reverence. Today, it takes the form of friendship.