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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Virtual animals?

But the animals themselves weren’t the attraction; it was the idea of them that brought people in. And the obvious thing to say is that if their attraction was virtual – if people were happy to meet them virtually – then their existence could be virtual too. There was little doubt tourists would continue coming after extinction was formally declared, an act the affiliates were still nervous about, reluctant to commit to and had managed to postpone, despite the definitive, irreversible point passing some time ago. In some ways, it would be much easier for the authorities to set up tours relating to the species if it was no longer present. They could at least get into the park then. There was the argument that one of the main obstacles to understanding the bonobo was the existence of the bonobo. - Gathering Evidence by Martin MacInnes

When I read this paragraph about a reserve for the last remaining bonobos in a dystopian future, the satire struck me – but so did an element of the truth of it.

So many of our interactions with animals are not just virtual, they are curated. We set out trail cameras, look through scopes, watch documentaries or scroll through social media.

Recently, friends have recommended to me two pages – one primarily about a robin (Butman and Robin) and one about foxes (Everything Fox) . These pages do have wonderful imagery and the people who post truly love animals. They feed them, care for them, appreciate them. I don’t want to be a grumpy naysayer. Nor will I fail to admit that part of my disparagement is rooted in jealousy and resentment: I have never taken such great videos nor had a tame fox in my garden and so on and so forth.

However, there is something disquieting in the need – and I experience it and act on it too, I am no virtuous innocent here – to show off our connection. We use it as social capital in a given community. The animal, the image of the animal, is commodified. The experience that we have in itself is not valuable enough. The relationship we may have is not valuable enough. We have to reify it and share it. We have to turn it into currency.

And yet much of that thing we are commodifying is a virtual and artificial relationship – we put out food in front of our cameras and share the footage of animals we never saw. Where we did see the animal, we are involved in a kind of transaction… I mean, are we so keen to feed the animals we never see? The animal grants her presence for the food.

I am reminded of this when Bob ignores me. Or flies to and then away from me. I still lay out the food. He will get suet pellets whether or not he eats from my hand. If he knows that, why should or would he eat from my hand? Only if he “wanted” to.

But how “good” is that? Is it wrong to encourage wild things to lessen their reasonable fear of humans? A fox used to feeding in a garden may become a “problem fox”, “vermin”, if those fox-lovers move. Crossing roads to reach gardens may lead to more road kill. Supporting large numbers of urban foxes may cause problems for the foxes as they have more cubs, who need territory which may not be there – leading to issues of malnutrition and inter-species aggression. Birds can pick up diseases from sharing feeders. Apparently, they do not become reliant on the provided food, but feeders may encourage more of certain species who therefore outcompete other species, impacting the balance of birds in an area – and that may be detrimental.

It could be that all our interactions are, all things considered, bad for animals. The novel I quoted from earlier riffs on this theme. Researchers, he says, have to be careful they do not look at or speak to wild animals as both can be dangerous. You wonder if this is some kind of metaphysical threat, but the reasons offered are to do with spreading disease through eye fluids and air particles. Yet that shadow of the metaphysical threat remains: we just have to look at them or speak about them and ultimately we destroy them.

I learned from my new hare book (The Way of the Hare by Marianne Taylor) of a species in the same genus, the Sumatran rabbit, a beautiful striped bunny that lives in rainforests and is so rarely seen that no one knows about it. Once there are pictures, you know that researchers will want to study them, capture them, watch them. They will become scientific commodities.

A somewhat different fate awaited the Amami rabbit. These are not quite so pretty (and thus may be less desirable) and are now carefully protected. The Japanese regard them as one of their great cultural symbols and the islands they live on have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status. In the case of these rabbits, the photographs taken by Hamada Futoshi – who also learned of their distinctive behaviour – may have helped the rabbits’ cause.

How do we become like Futoshi instead of commodifying animals for the sake of our ego? I think it is about reverent love. Too often our “love” is cloyingly sentimental, related more to kitsch than to wonder. We need a compassion that is enriched with respect. We need awe and mystery as strong elements in our connection with others. We need the reverence to see them as beings-in-themselves, not actors in the tale of our self-aggrandising stories.

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May 06, 2023

It's something we should reach for.

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