Background to the Symposium
“I Am Not an Animal!”
February 24 – 25, 2017
By Michael Mountain
I’d been working in the field of animal protection for more than 30 years. In a few small areas, like finding homes for homeless dogs and cats, we’d been quite successful. But then there was the almost incomprehensible fact that we humans are still driving life on Earth into the early days of a mass extinction.
This shouldn’t be happening. After all, we have more animal protection groups than ever before … more technology … better science … and we humans are a smart, intelligent, can-do species.
So why is the situation going from bad to worse? And why are we humans unable to come to grips with what we’re doing and change our behavior?
The Denial of Death
Back in the 1970s, I’d read a book called The Denial of Death by social anthropologist Ernest Becker. Becker had won a Pulitzer Prize for it, but today most people have never heard of it, and many of those who do know it find it quite alarming and steer clear of it altogether. When I mentioned it to a psychologist friend over lunch a few years ago, he threw his arms up in the air, announced that it was “the most depressing book I’ve ever read,” and immediately changed the subject!
But to me, The Denial of Death was something close to a Theory of Everything. Basically, Becker explains that at the core of human psychology is our fear of death – the lifelong awareness we have of our personal mortality. This, he writes, creates a level of anxiety that drives much of our behavior, not only as individuals, but as groups, nations and as a whole species. And so, we spend our lives working on “immortality projects” by which we hope to defeat death, whether by technology or medicine, or through a belief system that guarantees a non-material immortality, or by leaving a legacy that will live on after us. Our fellow animals are a constant reminder of our own “creatureliness”.
Becker notes that our fellow animals are a constant reminder of our own “creatureliness”, and that one of the ways we suppress our mortality anxiety is by denying that we’re animals at all. This means putting as much psychological distance between us and them as possible. So we claim, for example, that we’re not only “special” but also superior to the other animals. And we tell ourselves, for example, that we’ve been given “dominion” over them by some higher power.
This, of course, is really bad news for the other animals. In a later book, Escape from Evil, Becker writes:
“Mortality is connected to the natural, animal side of [human] existence; and so man reaches beyond and away from that side. So much so that he tries to deny it completely. As soon as man reached new historical forms of power, he turned against the animals with whom he had previously identified – with a vengeance, as we now see, because the animals embodied what man feared most, a nameless and faceless death.”
The New Psychology
Becker died in 1974, and his work might have disappeared into complete obscurity, were it not for three young psychologists, Sheldon Solomon*, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, who were fascinated by his work and have devoted their lives to developing the new field of psychology known as Terror Management Theory.
TMT focuses on how we humans try to manage the fundamental terror we experience in the face of our mortality. And recent studies have shown that when we humans are reminded, even subliminally, of our mortality, one of the ways we react is with aggression toward nonhuman animals. (It makes sense that by holding the power of life and death over the other animals, we can feel like we have some control over death itself.)
The Denial of Death is quite a tome, but Sheldon and his colleagues recently published their own book, The Worm at the Core, which explains it all in a remarkably easy-to-read and quite breezy style.
Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat
Several other psychologists have also been exploring our confused and confusing relationship with the other animals. In one chapter of his fascinating book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight about Animals, Hal Herzog* goes to a cockfight and then, on his way home, finds himself driving behind a truck that’s carrying hundreds of chickens to the slaughterhouse. The chickens who are bred to fight, he notes, live far better lives than the poor, miserable hens who spend their lives at factory farms never even seeing the light of day. But while most of us deplore cockfighting, we don’t think twice about sitting around the TV watching a ballgame while munching mindlessly on a bucket of chicken wings.
I met Hal when I was President of Best Friends Animal Society and we were working to bring an end to the killing of homeless pets at shelters across the country. Back in the early 1990s, more than 17 million dogs and cats were being killed in shelters every year. Today that number is below four million, and Hal wanted to interview me about this for the book he was writing. But I think I learned much more from him during our conversations!
Birth of the Conference
Another visitor to Best Friends was Lori Marino*, a neuroscientist who was the leading expert on dolphin brains. She gave a talk to members of the staff one evening, and the two of us sat up late into the night talking about the fact that while much progress was being made for dogs and cats, things were getting worse, not better, for almost every other kind of animal.
Lori introduced me to the work of some of her colleagues at Emory University. One of these was Jonathan Crane*, with whom she was teaching a popular class on Human-Nonhuman Animal Relationships. She was covering the subject from the scientific and legal side of things, while he was exploring it from the philosophical, mythological and religious side.
She also encouraged me to read a book called Reading Zoos by another of her colleagues Randy Malamud*, a Professor of English. Randy writes that the purpose of zoos is not, as we like to tell ourselves, to appreciate the animals for who they really are, but rather to reinforce the idea that we are a superior species and they are our subjects:
Who we are, who the other animals are, and how we can build a relationship that’s no longer based on dominion and power.“Rather than fostering an appreciation for the animals’ attributes, zoos convince people that we are the imperial species – that we are entitled to trap animals, remove them from their worlds and imprison them within ours, simply because we are able to do so by virtue of our power and ingenuity.”
By viewing animals at the zoo or at a marine circus, we demonstrate our ability to violate nature. And, just like prisons, these facilities give us power over the inmates through our ability – a voyeuristic ability – to keep them under permanent surveillance.
A few months later, at a conference in New York, Lori and I talked with attorney Steven Wise, who was preparing the first-ever lawsuit to invoke the ancient writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a nonhuman animal. Steve’s purpose was to persuade a common law judge to recognize a chimpanzee, elephant or dolphin (all of whom are cognitively complex animals) as a “legal person” with the right to bodily liberty and to order that he or she be released from captivity. Lori offered to put together the scientific evidence that Steve would need, and when, three years later, he brought his first lawsuit, it made headlines around the world.
Lori and I were also invited to make a presentation at a meeting of the Ernest Becker Foundation in Seattle, where we talked with Sheldon Solomon about the possibility of putting together a symposium that would explore the psychology behind our increasingly destructive relationship to our fellow animals.
As the symposium began to come together, we realized that we’d need to begin with an overview of the situation for animals all around the planet and how more and more of them are facing extinction. Lori had been invited by Carl Safina* to be a part of his new Safina Center. Carl had become nationally known through his PBS TV series Saving the Ocean, and had just completed his seventh book, Beyond Words, What Animals Think and Feel. He was the perfect choice to lay out the broad picture of the situation, and he agreed to give the keynote address.
When it came to organizing the conference, Lori enlisted the help of her long-time colleague John Schacke*, a psychologist who had shifted his life’s work to studying wild dolphins. John is the founder of the Georgia Dolphin Ecology Program, and his advice and help in steering the symposium from idea to reality has been invaluable.
A New Relationship
This symposium is not about how we can save the world, turn back climate change, or come up with technological solutions to what’s happening to our fellow animals. However much we may be used to expecting quick fixes to the problems that beset us, there are no easy fixes to the human condition.
Instead, our aim in this symposium is to gain a better understanding of who we are, who the other animals are, and how we can build a relationship that’s no longer based on dominion and power, but rather on truth and reconciliation.
We hope you’ll join us.
*Note: Speakers and organizers of the symposium are starred in bold text.