Thursday, August 02, 2012

Hindsight and Nostalgia: Animals on the Screen

Both of my parents had been raised on small family farms and my mother's official stance was that other animals belong in the forest or in a barn -- not in a house. The idea of bringing any non-human in to share our home was unacceptable to her. Of course, she didn't count on the fact that she'd end up with the sort of kid -- not terribly unlike most kids -- who would end up fascinated with every single insect she encountered and drawn to every single cat or dog whose path she crossed. Growing up in a small town, those cats and dogs were everywhere and generally allowed to wander. "The Solomon's dog's in the yard again!" "There's that Comeau's cat in the flowers." I'd hear these things and rush outside, wanting to say hello.

Whenever I happened to come across an animal who was a stranger to the neighbourhood and who seemed hungry or frightened, I'd more often than not find a way to entice him home, sneaking him under the back patio and stealthily raiding the fridge for food to share. I remember one day when a childhood friend and I heard the nervous collie who lived on the corner barking furiously, and then the screeches that followed. We ran as fast as we could to go see what was happening. The collie's people were at work and she had attacked a cat who'd strayed into the yard. Knowing that I couldn't take her home, I scooped her up, bleeding and weak, and my friend and I proceeded to knock on the door of a surgeon who lived a few houses down, begging him to help. He refused and offered no assistance to these two blood-stained and crying girls lugging a cat in obvious distress. We knocked on more doors until the mother of another neighbourhood friend took her off our hands and promised she'd do whatever she could. She nursed the cat back to health and kept her for years and to this day I'm grateful and remember her basic decent kindness when so many other adults had sent us -- and the injured cat -- on our way. To me, there'd been no other option but to scoop up that cat and to find help.

Growing up in that small town, I was also fascinated with what trickled in of the outside world through the numerous televisions in our home. Members of my family were, more often than not, glued to one telly or another and it was not out of the ordinary to find 3-4 of us home, each watching something completely different. What almost always drew me in most (no surprise) were the television programs involving animals. Whether it was Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom or Grizzly Adams, I was tuned in and enrapt. Along with whichever nature documentary happened to come across PBS (usually watched alongside my father, a lumberjack who was just as fascinated with other animals), my favourite shows included old Flipper reruns and The Littlest Hobo. I was the first kid in line to see the two first Benji movies at our small local theater and remember the insistence with which I had persuaded my parents to take me to see Disney's The Cat From Outer Space at the local drive-in. Oblivious to whether or not these animals were behaving the way they'd usually behave and even more oblivious to the circumstances -- from possible capture to training and torture -- facilitating their ending up on these shows for my entertainment, I soaked it all in happily. It was a huge part of this animal-loving kid's life and I was "animal obsessed" -- but at what cost?

I remember years ago in some online vegan discussion forum or other, asking whether others who'd grown up exposed to television programs and films in which animals were used felt about it in hindsight. I had asked how they managed to mitigate the nostalgia they may have felt with the knowledge they now had later in life of the exploitation involved. Over the years in one sad tale after another, the awful truth has surfaced of what was really behind some of what seemed to be the most innocuous nature programs. The worst of the brutality inherent in Hollywood animal films revealed itself over and over. Even without the information concerning the most outrageous cases, the truth is that the entertainment industry revolves around profit. It's a business like any other. When other animals are used to entertain humans, they're not valued as beings with interests of their own; they're used as props to push the buttons of the sort of sentimental folks who, as I did, grew up watching other animals before them being used as props. It's exploitation regardless of how those animals are treated. Seven-year-old me certainly didn't get that, but I get it now. It makes me incredibly sad to think about it now.

Part of getting it now means that when friends and I dip into the nostalgic sort of reminiscing we'll often do about childhood pop culture, the warm fuzzies I'd get years ago humming the theme song to The Littlest Hobo just don't happen anymore. Worse is when I'll occasionally forget myself and slip into a sentimental pocket and then end up sort of yanking myself back out of it, feeling guilty and wondering how I let myself slip if even for a second. When I watch friends, family and acquaintances around me attempting to nurture their kids' love of animals by taking them to the latest talking dog film (or to the local petting zoo), I'm reminded of my own childhood. The thing is, though, that this childhood love of animals I had was never what led to my connecting the dots -- certainly not to go vegan, and not even when I decided years ago to become vegetarian. I first became a vegetarian in college for environmental reasons. See, all of these sappy shows I'd watched had left me with this notion that even the animals we raise for food were somehow beloved and well-cared for. After all, we never saw Charles Ingalls chop the head off a chicken or castrate a calf on Little House on the Prairie! For years as an adult, I'd been quite convinced that having watched all of these shows as a child had somehow left me more open to eventually weighing the morality of animal use. I realize now that even more insidiously, all of this exposure to "cute" or "happy" animals on television or in films merely served to further entrench in me the speciesism we're each taught from the ground up. Watching those shows, I was taught to believe that animals were perfectly happy to be used for human entertainment. I was convinced that they had the best possible lives available to them and (nature documentaries aside) I learned to accept this idea that their value increased relatively to the amount of good they could bring to the humans around them (think "animal heroes" and stories revolving around them).

Of course, I know now that all of this was terribly wrongheaded. It's sad and weird to look back at it, though, and to see it for what it was. Sentimental creature that I am, it throws a wrench into my own sense of self-awareness and leaves me all the more aware of all we're exposed to our entire lives that ultimately leaves us truly confused about our relationships with other animals. This understanding also leaves me more patient when faced with others who balk upon hearing why I'm vegan. There are so many knots to undo when confronting speciesism; as with most knots, patience and perseverance are more effective than force and frustration. As advocates, we need to keep this in mind when talking to others. We really do.


veganelder said...

Difficult though it may be, it is often vitally important to return to the impressions and conclusions we drew with the senses and the cognitions of the child we once were. To return to them and review them with the added tools we acquire on our journey through life. For the truth is we are limited when we are children...and one of the eternal and vital gifts we can offer ourselves is the self-parenting process of assisting ourselves in understanding how and why we saw things as we did and whether those 'seeings' stand the test of time and experience re their accuracy and comprehension.

It is vitally important to do this "looking back" with compassion and understanding of our developmentally imposed limitations however. For as you've discovered...that looking back at the child we once were with the eyes of the adult we are...can be "sad and weird". You are to be congratulated on your courage for revisiting prior assumptions and impressions...because the doing so can be painful. But...such doing offers the opportunity for correction and for acceptance...and most wondrous of all...for growth.

Good for you Mylene...and thank you on behalf of the child you once were. :-)

Unknown said...

Speciesism - that does seem to be the knottiest knot.