issue 215 - January 1991
If ants could study us - and our attitudes towards the rest
of the animal world - what would they think? Vanessa Baird
engages in a piece of shameless anthropomorphism.
Two ants were crossing the factory farmyard. One was still shaking from a recent, though common, ordeal. The cause: a human thumb. The kind that hovers above one in that shall-I-or-shan't-I-squash-you sort of a way.
'What did you do?' asked the second ant, as ants do, not with words but with chemical messages.
'Stood very still, then at the last minute nipped down a crack.'
'Lucky there was one.'
But the first ant was too lost in thought to ponder her good fortune. 'What I want to know is why do they behave this way. Why can't the dinosaurs just leave us alone?'('Dinosaur' is ant slang for 'human', for reasons which may become clear later).
Her companion, an older, wiser ant who had for many years studied human behaviour, gave a deep sigh. The younger ant continued: 'Is it because they have little power of reason? Their heads are rather small in relation to their bodies.'
'They don't have an ant's capacity to understand the world, it's true', said the older ant. 'Nor our special ability to understand other animal forms of communication. In fact, they think they are the only ones who have any complex form of communication at all.'
'No, seriously. But they can reason. It's just how they reason that's the real problem...'
At that moment the door of a long, low building flew open and Farmer Fastbreeder strode out, slamming the door quickly behind him. The ants shuddered. They knew what was inside: rows of pigs, in the dark, unable to move, crammed into cold, metal-barred, concrete-floored stalls that were rarely cleaned out.
Up until recently the pigs would relieve their boredom in the only way they could - by biting the tail of the pig in front. But then Farmer Fastbreeder read in the Factory Farmer's Weekly that you could 'cure pigs of this vice' by cutting off their tails.
The ants only occasionally went into the pig shed. It was so depressing to see the rows of misery waiting to become ham - and not be able to do anything about it.
The older ant suggested they make their way to the farmhouse kitchen. The younger ant would never learn about the ways of humans unless she studied them at close quarters. Besides, the kitchen was a good place to visit just after breakfast. Humans were such sloppy, careless brutes. They always spilled bits of food over the sideboard. You could stock up enough in one session to feed a colony.
Voices were raised in the kitchen. Young Flo Fastbreeder had just declined to accept the piece of bacon Farmer Fastbreeder had offered her. When she mentioned the word 'exploitation' Farmer Fastbreeder reached for his Big Book of Quotations. It fell open at a well-worn page.
'Genesis Chapter 1,' he intoned gravely. 'And God said "Let us make man (sic) in our own image, after our likeness, and let him have dominion over the fish in the sea, and over the fowl of the air and over the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth on the earth".'
The older ant sighed wearily: 'I can't tell you how many times I've heard this "dominion" rant; this we-are-the-greatest- and-therefore-we-can-do-what-we-like-with-the-world routine.'
But Flo Fastbreeder rose to her father's challenge: 'What does that prove? Does it say you can eat them? Hunt them for fun? Use them as tools in laboratories?'
Farmer Fastbreeder was already flipping the pages. 'Now, where's that clever Greek ... here we are: Aristotle. Now, he says that humans are animals too whooops ... that's not it. Here! He says that humans are different from animals because they are "rational" beings.'
'That's a joke,' muttered the ants in almost perfect unison.
'Aristotle says: "Nature makes nothing purposeless or vain," Fastbreeder droned. "It is undeniably true that she has made all animals for the sake of man (sic)".'
'Did you know that Aristotle said the same thing of slaves?' Flo replied. Fastbreeder was taken aback. It was Flo's first holiday home after having gone to college. She wasn't going to become one of these difficult, aggressive young women was she? 'And women didn't have any rights either,' Flo continued, confirming his suspicions. 'This dominion you talk about just amounts to power - white, patriarchal power.
Farmer Fastbreeder decided to ignore the last bit - he was quite good at ignoring bits. 'Well,' he said, closing the Big Book of Quotations, 'it's obvious that we are naturally superior. We have the powers of speech, of writing, of laughter. We dress ourselves, we make tools, we walk on two legs...'
The older ant was shaking her head. 'It's straightforward fascism!' she muttered. 'You know what they do? They take any human characteristics they think different from those of other animals, exalt them, and make them the conditions for moral consideration. It's totally arbitrary. It's as though we decreed that the lives of creatures without antenna just did not count, but those with antenna were precious and deserved protection.'
In the meantime, Farmer Fastbreeder, had progressed to a more spiritual plane. 'Humans have immortal souls,' he said. 'Animals don't.'
'I don't know about souls,' young Flo replied. 'What matters to me is that we make animals suffer. What right have we to do that?'
'Oh, come on, they don't really suffer,' Farmer Fastbreeder said in a be-reasonable kind of voice.
The ants just looked at each other helplessly.
'That's what they were saying back in the seventeenth century!' protested Flo. 'Descartes argued that animals were 'automata' - without feeling. They might squeal if you cut them with a knife - but that was simply a mechanical action, like a clock.'
'Well?' said Farmer Fastbreeder
'Well, that got vivisection going. One scientist called Claude Bernard became famous for cutting up live dogs in public in the name of "science".'
'I don't think much of this Bernard character,' whispered the younger ant.
'Nor did his wife, apparently,' replied the older ant.'I've heard that she left him shortly after he dissected their pet dog.'
Farmer Fastbreeder slumped back in his chair: 'Well, things have changed since then. We are more humane now.
'Are we?' retorted Flo. 'Today humans kill more than 200 million animals a year in painful scientific experiments, without anaesthetics. 1 In US laboratories three animals die per second every day. One dies every six seconds in the UK.'2
The older ant was nodding. 'I used to live in a research lab. The dinosaurs there were doing crazy experiments on animals. All they did was confirm what they knew already. But the place was wonderful. Lots of researchers, lots of expensive equipment. And there were hundreds of us ants living there while they were doing tests to prove to themselves, yet again, that sugar decays teeth. They did it by force-feeding candy bars to chimpanzees.'
But by now Flo's points were getting closer to home. 'And your factory farming methods aren't much better,' she told her father. 'You treat animals as if they were meat machines.'
'How do you expect me to treat them? Like humans? They are animals, for goodness' sake.'
'Do you know the genetic difference between you and a chimpanzee? One per cent. That one per cent gives you innumerable rights - but it condemns the chimpanzee to life in a laboratory cage, to having electrodes stuck into its brain or HIV injected into its bloodstream.
The younger ant looked interested. But the older ant yawned: 'It's nothing new. A dinosaur called Charles Darwin was trying to tell them the same thing over a century ago. He said that humans and other animals were on the same biological continuum. That the capacity for feeling, thought, memory even, was shared with other creatures. Did the dinosaurs draw the relevant moral conclusions? No. They are a lazy, self-deceiving species.'
But Farmer Fastbreeder was not feeling lazy at all. He was feeling very busy. He had business to do. Mr Multinational Feed Corp. had turned up. They were going to discuss increasing Farmer Fastbreed's productivity.
'Come on,' said the younger ant, suddenly emboldened. 'Let's find out what they talk about. Let's hitch a ride on a trouser leg.'
Fastbreeder strode out to meet Mr Multinational Feed Corp ('Feedcorp' for short) in the yard. The ants came too, closely followed by Traitor, the Fastbreeders' pet dog.
Surveying the interior of the pig shed, Mr Feedcorp told Farmer Fastbreeder:
'You could pack 'em in tighter you know.'
'What?' The pigs could hardly move as it was.
'Well, in the poultry world we have found that even though you substantially increase mortality and disease by tight-packing, it's still much more profitable to do so. And you can always up the antibiotics and give them more growth promoters so they come to maturity in an even shorter period of time.'
'Would it work on this farm?'
'Oh, yes, we are exporting these methods all over the world.'
'Mmmmm.' Farmer Fastbreeder caught a glimpse of Flo crossing the farm yard. He turned to Feedcorp and said: 'By the way, you know all this Animal Rights nonsense?'
'Is it affecting your business?'
Feedcorp drew a large intake of breath before replying: 'Not really. We just increase the advertizing budget, keep in close contact with the relevant ministries and so on. The meat industry has a lot of clout. Look what happened when that Canadian singer K D Lang went on TV in the US to promote vegetarianism! Meat interests threatened to withdraw all their advertizing from the airwaves. The airwaves fell into line - they stopped playing her records. You see Canada exports 300 million dollars' worth of beef and cattle to the US.'
'It is worrying though,' persisted Fastbreeder. 'I mean, the fur industry is going bust thanks to those people and their campaigns,' muttered Farmer Fastbreeder. 'It makes me wonder about increasing meat production.'
'Don't worry. The industry can cope. There are many ways of upping demand. Promote meat as an energy-giving food. Dress meat up a bit to make it seem environment-friendly: you know, have cartoons of hamburgers growing next to vegetables. Have smiling pigs on pie wrappers. Create the sense that the animal had a good life while it lasted, but all things come to an end. You can sell anything with good packaging.'
Feedcorp and Fastbreeder shook hands and parted. 'Busy day tomorrow', said Fastbreeder. 'I've got a batch of pigs going out.'
Sitting on his left lapel the ants were transported back to the farmhouse. Ethyl Fastbreeder was reading a newspaper.
'Another chicken scare', she mumbled.
'What do they say?' Her husband read over her shoulder.
'Eighty per cent of chicken infected with salmonella.'3
'Thank goodness we deal in pork'.
'Makes you wonder though...'
With their food pouches well-stashed for the communal stores, the two ants made their way back to the hill. Traitor, the dog, followed close behind. The younger ant turned to him irately: 'Push off! Go and hassle someone of your own species.'
'Why have you got it in for me?' Traitor whined. 'I can't help it if they like me more than the other animals. It's not my fault that they treat me nicely...'
'Oh, you poor pup,' said the younger ant. 'How hard it must be for you! Having all that canine privilege thrust upon you! Now, why don't you just run along and lick a bit more heel! Or go and indulge in a bit of dog-like bondage. You like that! We have better things to do with our time than talk with you...'
Indeed, the older ant had already gone on ahead. She was shortly due to sit upon an advisory committee on The Impact of Humans on the Environment: Preparing for Crisis.
They came to the river. It had been the talk of the colony for some time. Ever since the fish had abandoned the river the ants had been monitoring its contents - to their ever-increasing disgust. Pig slurry, pesticides and a range of frothy, foul-smelling chemicals from the beauty-products firm upstream, were among their findings.
'It's a vicious circle,' explained the older ant. 'They put so many chemicals into their so-called 'beauty products' that they become toxic. So to find out just how toxic the stuff is they force-feed it to rats until half of them die. If only they stuck to natural things they knew about in the first place...'
'It seems so perverse,' said the younger ant, stopping in her tracks. 'How can they benefit from it?'
'Business interests in the rich part of the human world profit enormously from animal exploitation. Once humans set up a system they don't like to change it - however cruel or crazy it may be. Meanwhile in poorer parts of the world 500 million humans go hungry.
'How do you know?'
'I picked it up on the International Ant Vibration Network.'
'Why are they hungry?'
'There are lots of reasons. But the one humans rarely look at is how meat production wastes food. Humans could easily feed a global population six times the current one on a vegetarian diet.4 But do they do it? No.'
'Well, listen to this, then. Humans commit atrocities against groups of their own species too. How do they do it? By convincing themselves that these groups belong to another species. Because they have no respect for any other species, they think that makes it legitimate to abuse these groups.
'So, white humans traded in black humans and sold them into slavery and justified this to themselves by saying that the black humans were not really humans at all, but animals.
'The same kind of thing happened all over again with the treatment of Jews under the Nazis. But the Jews weren't just treated 'like animals'. Other humans also pretended to themselves that it was not happening.'
'Just, I suppose, as they now pretend to themselves that the horrors of the factory farm aren't happening?' interjected the younger ant.
'Exactly!' her companion exclaimed. 'And there are other parallels. Feminist humans, for example, have highlighted the way in which the male of the species oppresses the female by denying her full human status and political rights. She is treated as something between an animal and a human.
'Really?' mused the younger ant. 'So human society is male dominated? No wonder ...'
'A writer called Alice Walker,' continued the elder, 'drew the threads together very simply when she said: "The animals of this world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men".'
'It sounds like human attitudes are changing, then.'
'Yes, it's a bit like a confluence of rivers. Humans are coming from different directions towards the same conclusion. Many scientists, for example, now believe that animal experimentation actually blocks progress. Those concerned with Third World development and global sustainability are starting to see animal exploitation as destructive. And there is a growing body of thought that suggests that animals have rights - with philosophers arguing a coherent case.'5
'Isn't it obvious?'
'For humans it's a radical suggestion. And it raises all sorts of difficult questions for them. Like: what happens when human interests conflict with animal interests? Whose rights are more important then?'
The younger ant commented: 'That's all very interesting. But if the majority of humans could just take the first step and agree that the vital needs of animals should not be sacrificed to the trivial needs of humans, that would be a revolution in itself!'
'Yes,' said the older ant, whose spirits had picked up considerably during the course of the conversation. 'Many children and young humans are going vegetarian and boycotting animal-tested products. And for them the issue is very simple: cruelty towards animals is bad - and unnecessary.
But at that moment the ants were distracted by the sight of a figure making its way to the pig shed. The figure was Flo.
'I wonder what she's up to ...' said the younger ant.
'She looks very purposeful.'
And the ants slowly, simultaneously, smiled.
1 International Association Against Painful Experiments on Animals.
2 The Dreaded Comparison, Marjorie Spiegel, (Heretic Books, 1988).
3 Central Public Health Laboratory, quoted in CIWF Consumer Alert 1989.
4 State of World Population Report, 1990, UNFPA.
5 See Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (Routledge, 1984) and Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (Thorsons, 1983).