The disappearance of animals

Why we’re no longer able to see them

What happened to the animals? The question seems absurd. ‘We are surrounded by animals,’ you would answer me. They live in our homes like family members, they go crazy on YouTube videos, they appear systematically on our tables, defecate on windshields, they overpopulate children’s TV…  Despite this, I am convinced that, today, to see an animal itself is an exceptional and rare occurrence.

To prove it, I propose a quick overview of the presence of animals in our daily lives, whilst trying to demarcate them in groups, or territories, or, better still, enclosures, given the argument. Our first, imprecise map will describe three large enclosures.

The first contains the reified animals. It is the scope of pure material exploitation, that is, the transformation of the living body in something else, in an object of consumption. On the supermarket shelves, the animal becomes “meat”, the collective name of edible bodies; in more detail, the sus scrofa domesticus becomes “salami”, or “ham”; the bos taurus becomes “fillet”, “rump” and so on. In the same way, in the fashion industry “the mink” does not indicate the ‘mustelid neovison vison’, but a garment obtained from the skinning of at least thirty specimens. We could go on, but I think that the examples are enough to demonstrate a fact: the linguistic change denounces an absence, the animal no longer exists because it has become something else; the termination of animal life has made possible the existence of a product. Carol J. Adams, an eco-feminist author, has used the term “absent referent” to describe the process by which the animal is expelled from our experience in the act of consuming it. In the first enclosure, therefore, the animal disappears because it becomes a consumer product.

The second enclosure appears, at first glance, more pleasing. The humanized animal lives there. It has a proper name (the old “Bobby” and “Fufi” are replaced by real human names and I also knew a cat that bore the name of a former Italian prime minister), lives in the human space of the house, sharing spaces of intimacy like the table and the bed, and in the saddest cases becomes the affective substitute of failed human relations. Less attention is usually given to the specific needs of the animal (i.e. those proper to its species). Said in layman’s terms: one ignores that the animal does not expect to be treated like a human. And so domestic dramas arise: the animal disturbs, barks, stinks, gets dirty and dirties the place, it brings bloody prey into the living room. That is, it behaves like a dog, a cat, etc. We want the animal, but not the nature of the animal, a nature which is different from us. The humanized animal, when the operation somehow succeeds, removes the fruit of being alienated from its own being. In a closer look, the humanization conveys unorthodox forms of reification and it is not uncommon, in fact, that the relationship ends with the expulsion of the animal from the human space (read: abandonment).

Here we are at the third enclosure, where reality disappears in benefit of the ideal. It is the fencing of the symbolic animal. Here I am biased towards a hypothesis that should be better verified. I’m convinced that the animals present in advertisements, Disney, the cute kittens of YouTube, Rowling’s fantastic animals, etc, have one thing in common: all of them – real or imaginary – represent something distinct from themselves. They are the embodiment of symbols and human emotions: tenderness, fear, curiosity, strength, agility, courage, seduction... The tuna jumping in the box speaks of the nostalgia of the summer sea; the tiger of the Magnum ice cream suggests a wild sensuality; the dragon for centuries has represented evil. Everything blends into a confused vortex, where nothing represents itself and it is no longer possible to distinguish fiction from reality. In brief, the symbolic animal disappears because the symbols are not real.

This outline, certainly brief and incomplete, suggests to me a conclusion: in general, we have become incapable of seeing the animals around us. What we see and call animals are figures that endlessly reflect our own image, as in a labyrinth of mirrors; more precisely, mirrors that reflect our needs and desires, artificially inflated by a culture of consumption and waste. Such animal appearances conceal – but, at the same time, denounce – the disappearance of animals, which we are not able to recognize.

What do I propose as an alternative? To start, not just seeing animals, but to look again. To recognize their forms of life, understand their way of being, the peculiar behaviour of a species, the personal traits of a specimen. To recognize what we have in common, and what separates us. There is a word, so misunderstood, that sums up what, in my opinion, should be the foundation of the relationship with animals: chastity. Chaste is the gaze that accepts a distance, renounces to possess, welcomes the other’s presence, letting it be itself. Only on this separation can a healthy relationship be based. If an ethics of relationships with animals, appealed by so many today, should exist (something which I agree on), its starting point will be a new ability to look and recognize.

Photo by Matthew Henry

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