Are We Undergoing a Major Shift in How We Treat Animals?

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Karen Joy Fowler just won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for her novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, about a girl whose psychologist father rears her and a baby chimp as "sisters." Recently she talked about why she's hopeful that humans will begin treating animals better.


In a conversation with science fiction writer Jeff VanderMeer, published on NPR, Fowler talks about the shift that she sees in public perception of animal consciousness:

I see this book as having arrived on the scene at a moment when I feel a shift is happening. I don't think my book is responsible for that shift. But I think my book may be part of it. It feels to me as if the research on animal cognition has been so astonishing and moving so fast, teaching us so many things we had imagined were not the case, we are slowly beginning to respond to the new information.

As my book was coming out, the government ended chimp testing, with a handful of exceptions. Last year, there were three cases filed on behalf of chimps in New York state arguing that chimps possessed certain legal rights (though the cases were quickly dismissed). And then this whole SeaWorld thing is brewing ...

When I was doing research, I stumbled on an event that I had never heard of called the brown dog riots, which took place in Battersea, England, in about 1906. It was this peculiar flashpoint, without going into too many details, over the issue of vivisection at the medical schools, which had the medical students on one side and this huge line-up on the other side of labor, the suffragists, the Fabians, the Marxists, the socialists, all opposed to vivisection, all seeing it as a gendered issue, a class issue. On the other side, only the medical students, really, and the medical universities.

It ended ambiguously with no clear win on either side. And yet it seems to have been the last gasp of this coalition that somehow disappeared. And then the use of animals for the most trivial of reasons, like cosmetics, went unquestioned for decades and decades ...

VanderMeer asks Fowler whether we can ever truly understand animals without anthropomorphizing, and she replies:

We have our own limitations, again, that our own bodies provide a hard limit of some sort about what we can actually understand. You mentioned earlier that it's so much easier for us to empathize with certain animals. The more human-like their intelligence, the more we can recognize it as intelligence. You and I are both are very aware of attempts over the decades to imagine truly alien species and truly alien ways of thought. It's just really hard, if not impossible, to do. I think that we both try, certainly you in your most recent book, and me in my first novel, to leave the mystery. To say, there will be clues; there will be information. We'll be trying to understand. But the mystery is going to remain.

The question is really whether we will ever learn to live comfortably with that mystery. Fowler has found hope in the idea that one day we might be able to grant non-human animals their sovereignty, despite being unable to perceive their intelligence in the same way we perceive our own.

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Well, we could start by not eating them. Just a thought.