Faceless many to important individual

No bull, cow escapes slaughterhouse and hoofs it through Queens:

The gallivanting hay-eater’s Houdini attempt apparently paid off. City officials said the animal – who they named Molly – will be headed for greener pastures.

“We will find it a home,” said Richard Gentles of the city Animal Care and Control. “We’re starting to reach out to farm sanctuaries.”

Not saying anything that hasn’t been said before, but it is interesting to note that when livestock escapes from abattoirs, something about it qualities change: rather than a member of the herd, it becomes an individual. In that moment, we seem compelled to treat it morally as a different object.


Would shutting Riverdale farm be a good thing?

Creative Commons License photo credit: vasta

So there is talk in shutting down Riverdale Farm in Toronto as a cost-savings measure (insert reference to gravy here). 2500 of the concerned have taken to Facebook to “Save the Riverdale Farm“. I’m feeling a bit ambivalent about this. On one hand, we have less and less contact with the animals that are responsible for the flesh we eat and modified sweat we consume. So if urbanites can see those animals and make the connection between the disembodied grocery store and a living, breathing organism, that’s a good thing. Is it a better world, however, if these animals weren’t kept at all?

“But,” I hear, “they’re domesticated animals.” How does that change the argument, though?

Birding research

Warblers, migration, birding & ethics

Black-throated Blue Warbler male 2-20100916
Creative Commons License photo credit: kenschneiderusa

In my dissertation, I write a bit about the ethical alignments that underpin birders’ behaviours (I asked birders what rules, if any, they followed while birding). Along a continuum from human-centred (anthropocentric) to nature-centred (biocentric), the birders I spoke with shared “rules” that ran from one end to the other. Here’s an example of a human-centred perspective shared by a birder:

I don’t want to try and get too close, but I will approach one quietly and sort of let the bird—their instinct for self-preservation, you know, rule that. If you make too much noise, it’s just going to fly away. But I don’t want to disturb the bird. I want to get a good look at it but beyond that some move away.

I consider this to be more of a human-centred perspective because the birder leaves it up to the bird to decide when the birder approaches too closely. While consideration is given to the bird, the need to get a good look (appears to be) king. I write in the dissertation:

In this case, the birder is leaving it to the bird to make the decision that [the birder] is too close—by flying away. This perspective, for example, ignores the energy required for the bird to fly away and the possible negative result on the ability for the bird to survive. This is a particularly important consideration during migration when birds are expending huge amounts of energy and time to feed and refuel. Nowhere in that practice [of birding] is there any form of self-control on the part of the birder.

My own perspective about this is clear: we as birders ought to be acting with the best interests of birds in mind. If this means not getting a good look, then so be it.

Intriguingly, as I was skimming my birding blog feeds I came across this post, Warblers in Bryant Park, on the birding blog 10,000 Birds. I’ve been impressed in the kind of attention the authors of this blog have made to bird conservation. Yet, as I read this post about warblers in New York City’s Bryant Park, I couldn’t help but examine and question the underlying ethical motivations.

In short, the post described something of a warbler migration fallout in the (very urban) park. The birds were seemingly unaware of their surroundings; unaware enough that the post’s author was able to take some stunning photographs using a 100mm macro lens. “Each and every picture here is of a wild bird,” writes the post’s author, “free to go about its business.” Responses to the post were, for the majority, positive, with the exception of this one which took the birds’ perspective into mind:

Whats lost here is that these birds are exhausted, so exhausted in fact that they will risk being out with people/predators mid-day to feed and rest.

While yes the pictures are beautiful, you have to wonder if any of those birds have what it takes to migrate and return next year to breed.

Kinda makes it bittersweet.

Bittersweet indeed. Any birder knows how difficult it can be to approach a bird: that’s why we have binoculars, to collapse the space between each other. Those birds that are “easy” to approach are those accustomed to human contact (e.g. a bird that lives in urban settings, like a Pigeon) or stressed enough that our presence is the least of their concern (e.g. think about a Killdeer feigning a broken wing to distract from young).

While these were wild, migrating warblers, I think the notion that they were “free to go about [their] business” is a bit misguided. These weren’t urban birds, so it is safe to make the assumption that their behaviour, seemingly unconcerned to the foot traffic around them, was caused by something else. During migration, when they are expending large amounts of energy on flight ((Blackpoll Warblers, for example, undertake a 72 hour, 3,500 km trans-oceanic flight from the East cost of North America to their wintering grounds in South America.)), birds are stressed for food and more willing to take risks to get it. While they do have the ability to fly away, the warblers are feeding in this urban plaza precisely because they’re hungry and they are limited where they can find food. The warblers likely have very little choice in selecting Bryant Park, and disturbances can impact their ability to fuel up.

Now it is clear that the author of the post wasn’t the only human around, and the warblers were busy feeding with all this activity going on. You could say that it wasn’t a big deal to add another human to the mix—especially one that with an interest in and appreciation for the birds. This, however, is an example of that human-centred ethic I mentioned seeing in some birders. I’m not arguing that there was a better thing to do in this situation, but I am suggesting there were other courses of action that could have been taken. Like being aware, as in the case of the commenter above, of the bird’s motivations behind being so conspicuous.

The challenge I face when looking at a situation such as this one is an awareness of the larger rhetoric of birding: generally speaking, birders see the activity as a way to re-connect to the natural world, through birds. But, it’s a reconnection that is often on a birder’s own terms. And that’s the challenge of birding, in my opinion. As migratory bird populations continue to decrease, will the underlying ethics that motivate birders’ “rules” change to meet the needs of birds?


A crystallizing moment?

OK, I should be editing my dissertation at this very moment, but I came across videos of an event on July 4th, 2010 at Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, Japan, that I need to share. I found it to be disturbing, as a warning.

There is no doubt in my mind, especially seeing an event like this, that having cetaceans in captivity is not what ought to be done. What is fascinating, however, is to see the reactions of the other companion Dolphins and False Killer Whales. At 1:00 of the footage, the cetaceans watch (I hear echo-locating going on too, but it would be hard to determine from a video like this which of the cetaceans were making the noise) their companion through the pool’s glass enclosure.

I watch this and it makes me sick to my stomach. In part, because I feel deeply empathetic for that whale. Falling out of a pool can’t be enjoyable. While many shows like this one include the cetaceans “gliding out” of the water, the mammals do this on their stomach and are still can get themselves back into the water. Here, the False Killer Whale has no ability to do that. Imagining what that whale is thinking lying there on the concrete is overwhelming.

But it is interesting to hear the crowd’s reaction in the following clip:

As I watched this for the first time, I thought (always the researcher), “Boy, this would be a rich source of data if you could interview these people.” I wondered if this would be some kind of ethically crystallizing moment where a new perspective about whales in captivity could erupt—literally. As you listen to the reactions of the crowd, I hear gasps and giggles. More than anything, perhaps, this event simply reinforced people’s perspectives on whales—there to entertain or as innocent natural objects (or something else). That could be an interesting research question.


The Technology & Ethics of Reporting Bird Sightings

The following post includes ruminations and ideas emerging as I analyze the data collected for my PhD dissertation focusing on the act of birding. It doesn’t represent a final thought or particular endpoint: these are ideas in progress. I would be interested in hearing your opinion of my ideas, too.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Peppysis

Sharing sightings

Birders, according my research, have embraced the Internet for information about birds. This includes general information about birds (websites such as Cornell’s All About Birds were mentioned by birders) but it would seem that the Internet is seen most importantly as a conduit of bird sightings. I conducted my research in Ontario, speaking with Ontario birders. When I would ask how birders decided where to go on a particular day, birders would often cite the Ontario Field Ornithologist’s (or OFO, for short) ONTBIRDS listserv as a source of information (often the primary source) for sightings.

Sharing bird sightings isn’t a new practise in birding. When I was a child visiting my grandparents, I remember the phone ringing, my grandparents answering and getting the latest news that species X had been seen at location Y. As members of the local field naturalist club, they were part of a telephone tree that spread news about rare bird sightings. After they collected the information, they would then call the two people “below” them in the tree. I imagine that in short order, the information about the birds was disseminated.

So the practise hasn’t changed. But the technology has. Before I talk about the implications of this, I want to bring in another thread into this conversation.