The duck and the whale

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Driving back from a visit to see my family in Kentucky this Sunday, I witnessed a recurring tragedy or just another day on the road, depending on your point of view.  There’s a lake or inlet on the north side of U.S. 50 right outside of Aurora, Indiana.  As I was driving along this stretch of road, some movement in the median of the four-lane highway caught my eye.  My window was cracked just a little bit.  At the same moment I registered that movement as a mother duck with her ducklings headed in a determined beeline towards my car, the sound of their quacking reached my ears.  Quacking in miniature, as it was mostly the ducklings making the noise.

You know how squirrels and deer and other animals will freeze, or dart, or at least register somehow in their motion their awareness of the large, loud, heavy metal object headed towards them at high speed.  The ducks did none of that.  There was no hesitation, no slowing down, no freezing in fear.  They just persisted in their straight line across the road towards the water on the other side.

I avoided them, and I saw in the rear view mirror that the next car behind me managed to safely swerve into another lane to miss the duck line.  I couldn’t see what happened with the next car after that, and part of me didn’t want to look.  I didn’t want to know, but what are the odds that all those ducklings and their mother made it all the way across?  I didn’t want to think about the consequences of this collision between car and birds.

I am that person who will slam on her brakes in the middle of the road to avoid hitting a squirrel…that person who stops her car to go back and pick the turtle up out of the middle of the road.  I can count on one hand the number of animals I’ve knowingly killed with my car, and each time, I feel as if their deaths are a burden from which I might never recover.  Call me soft, but that’s just how I feel.

There was something different about the ducks.  Something about their seeming oblivion to the bizarre and life-threatening situation in which they suddenly found themselves.  Something about the sounds they made as they crossed the road, about the determined line of their motion.  For a few brief moments in my car because of those ducks, a small crack in the fabric of everyday life opened up.

Image from “Healing the Circle” installation, 1995
courtesy shawnskabelund.com

Maybe it’s the lingering and dormant effects of an artist installation I saw earlier this year by the sculptor Shawn Skabelund.  Skabelund’s pieces often incorporate the skulls of dead animals, often animals he or friends have found dead along the side of the road, killed by cars.  One piece includes placemats which are pictures of dead deer killed along the side of the road.  In one exhibit, he used the actual fetus of a deer his brother had found that was thrown from a deer’s body when it was hit by a car.  My students watched Skabelund’s slide show of these works in a silence which was hard to read.  Were they deeply moved?  Were they disgusted?  And were they disgusted by the death, or by his choice to use that death in his art?
Roads and cars are dangerous things.  They’re dangerous to all kinds of lifeforms, human and non. In 2009, 33,808 people in the United States died in an automobile accident, far more than those who died from Mad Cow disease or AIDS.  An additional 2,217,000 were injured by cars in 2009.  In addition to ducks and ducklings, one million animals will be killed on our roads each day in the United States.  It’s holocaust by automobile out there, folks.

Well, that’s just the price we pay, you might say.  In exchange we get….the ability to move fast.  Global climate change.  Several wars to protect our access to cheap gasoline.  An obesity epidemic.  The social dysfunction that is suburbia.  We get our cars.

As a sociologist, I’m always going on to my students about the sociological imagination, a phrase that comes from an essay by C. Wright Mills.  The sociological imagination is the ability to see the taken for granted aspects of our lives in a new light.  I like to tell my students it’s like pretending you’re an alien who’s just landed in the U.S. and has no idea what’s going on.  You would ask some stupid questions.  Stupid questions are good.  Sometimes I think I do okay at teaching my students the sociological part of the equation, but not as well at the imagination part.

For example, imagine the stupid question someone might ask if they landed anywhere in the United States today–“Why is your transportation system so very lethal, in such a wide variety of ways?  Why do you persist in getting around in a way that destroys so very many lives?”  What answer would you give?

Sometimes I think my students find it difficult to imagine a world in which the first time we realized that our big, fast-moving cars would be killing a lot of animals, we shook our collective heads and said, “Yeah, that’s not really worth it.”  Even before we got to the whole destroying the planet or fighting wars or getting fat, we knew that our cars were destructive machines.  Can you imagine a world in which that loss of life would have been unacceptable?

Instead, this is the world we live in.  We drive along a busy highway.  We watch a duck and her ducklings get smashed into the pavement.  For a brief moment, this opens up an abyss of sadness and remorse and anger at the way things are.  But in order to go on living, we cover it over, brick by brick, and go on with our lives.  We stop thinking about it.  We get good at not thinking about a lot of things.  We head on down the road.  Motion is distracting.  If you go a little faster, you might not even notice the ducks at all.

The whale

And then there’s the whale, beneficiary of perhaps the most successful public relations campaign since Ronald Reagan convinced all Americans for all time that every woman on welfare has 10 children (in fact, the average family size of people on welfare in the United States is slightly lower than the national average).  What is it about whales?  They’re not cuddly, or furry.  They don’t look anything like us.  You can barely tell where their eyes are at all.  How many Americans have actually seen a whale anywhere besides on a nature program?  And yet, ask even a small child about the whales and I feel certain they will tell you that they should be saved.

Recently I watched the outstanding PBS documentary, The Meaning of Food, which tells us about the Makah people of the Pacific Northwest.  This Native American group has been hunting whales for thousands of years. Before Cleopatra, before Jesus was born, the Makah were hunting whales.  When the numbers of gray whales became greatly depleted by European hunting in the beginning of the 20th century, the Makah voluntarily elected to stop hunting them, despite the centrality of whale hunting to their culture.  So from 1920 until 1999, the Makah killed no whales.

In 1994, the gray whale was moved off of the Endangered Species list.  The Makah had never been covered by international treaties prohibiting whale hunting because in 1855 they traded all their land to the U.S. government for the right to continue hunting whales; it was that important to them, but not so important that they would keep hunting when it seemed likely that the gray whale might disappear off the planet altogether.  But when the gray whales ceased being an endangered species, the Makah began to prepare to hunt whale again.

In footage from this documentary, you can see the angry protesters who flood the Makah community when they begin to go out for their hunts.  You can see the angry letters the Makah received, including one which says, “Save the whales…hunt a Makah.”  Despite these protests, the Makah had their first successful hunt in May of 1999, and you can watch the footage of them killing their first whale in over 70 years.  It’s not pretty if you’re someone who cringes at the fate of ducks.  There’s blood, and there’s no doubt the whale suffers.

After killing the whale, the Makah hunters haul the whale back to the beach in their canoe.  The whole community waits on the beach for them, cheering.  Someone blesses the whale.  All the men drag the whale up onto the beach using nothing but human effort.  And for the first time in generations, young Makah children taste fresh whale meat, something that the Makah have been eating for thousands of years.  I have to confess that it was this scene that almost brought tears to my eyes, and not the scene of the whale being killed.

Duck or whale?

So who suffers more, the whale or the duck?  Is this even the right question to ask?  Why do people line up shouting on a beach to save one whale and just drive right on by the ducks?  Do we believe that the whale is a superior being of higher intelligence and therefore more worthy of being saved than that duck?  Or is it just that most of us aren’t implicated in the killing of whales, while all of us are implicated in the killing of animals along the side of the road?

One of the Makah women in the documentary points out the hypocrisy (she’s kind enough not to call it this, but hypocrisy it is) of the people protesting the Makah’s hunt of one whale while they regularly eat animals who are the end product of what is hard to describe as anything but a tortured and perverse life in our factory farm system.  I read an article recently which compared the quite pleasant life of a cockfighting rooster as opposed to his counterpart chicken in the factory farm system.  Yet, cockfighting is illegal.  This author suggested that the answer to this conundrum has nothing to do with the animals and everything to do with the human beings.  Namely, it’s social class.  Though this was not at all true in the past, today cock fighting is associated with the poor, the rural, and the ethnic other.  It is not what solid, white, civilized, middle class people do.  Solid, middle class people eat chickens who have been bred to be unable to stand up, had their beaks chopped off so they don’t peck each other to death, and lived their whole lives standing in their own shit in a poorly ventilated building.

So is the whale more important than the duck because of the type of people involved?  American Indians have a long history of being the very easiest targets in our country.  As of this moment, the Makah are in the midst of a legal battle to reclaim their right to hunt whales and they’ve now gone another 10 years missing out on part of their culture.

Back here where it’s just ducks, raccoons and deer, it might be hard to imagine a world in which we give up our cars, but those worlds are not impossible.  In India, cows cause traffic jams as people try to avoid hitting them with their cars.  They don’t always succeed, and the cows certainly cause loss of both bovine and human life.  But because of the values place on cows in India, the overall goal is still to prevent cows from being killed.  One solution suggests providing grazing areas and burying roads underground.  The problem in the United States is not that there aren’t any solutions; it’s that we don’t see these deaths as much of a problem in the first place.  A whale hunt is dramatic; there’s blood in the water and a huge carcass.  A dead deer along the side of the road is just another dead deer along the side of the road.

And so what?  Our children are horrified the first few times they see dead animals along the side of the road.  We try to shelter them from these sights.  We don’t want them to see the dead bunny rabbit, let alone the dead cat or dog.  But in time, they get used to it.  In time, we all get kind of used to it.  We become quietly accustomed to our lives being strewn with corpses that result from largely senseless deaths.  We become accustomed to these deaths because what would happen if we were not?  Would we feel compelled to do something else?  Would we feel compelled to do something more?  Would we feel compelled to do something?

Check out our students’ reflections on food, making bread, and goats at their blog, Food and Society.

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