The king is dead

Cecil

Cecil was, we are told, “famous.” A protected resident of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, the 13-year-old male lion wore a GPS tracking collar and was, we are told, an “attraction” for visitors to the game reserve, the largest in the country, identifiable by his black mane. That black mane now sits on a head that was severed from his dead body, presumably awaiting a taxidermist in Minnesota to stuff it and mount it for the wall of a dentist’s surgery. Around 40 hours before his head was removed, the still living Cecil was tempted outside the national park’s boundaries using bait and shot with a crossbow.

The dentist who shot him is Walter Palmer, the grinning fucking bastard in the shot that was shared all around the world, who now claims. “I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favourite … and part of a study until the end of the hunt.” So no remorse for shooting a lion with a crossbow and causing it untold pain for 40 hours before it was eventually put out of its misery with a bullet, but some remorse for doing so to a “local favourite.” He says he “relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.” It’s legal to shoot lions, just not this one. It’s interesting that even when speaking in his own defence, Palmer uses the verb “took” when he admits to killing the lion (“I had no idea that the lion I took was …”). He can’t even say the word for what he did.

I don’t care whether Cecil was “famous” or not. I don’t care whether he was tagged or not. I don’t care whether he was or wasn’t within an arbitrary “protected” area or not. What are sentient human beings doing “legally” shooting lions in Zimbabwe, other than feeding the local economy and giving themselves a hard-on? That the possibly impotent Palmer is an American rather feeds into an existing archetype of trigger-happy Yanks whose rifles will have to be prised out of their cold dead hands before surrendering them. But I don’t care what nationality he was, or what job he does (or did, when he’s been run out of Minnesota by an angry mob – or would be, if that angry mob ever left their houses); I only care that he seemed to be pretty pleased with himself for mortally wounding a large wild animal.

Cecildentist

What century is this? In the ugly days of Empire, colonialists thought nothing of entering a foreign land and shooting anything unusual they found there, including the native humans. (And if that didn’t finish them off, they gave them diseases they’d brought overseas with them.) But we live in more enlightened times, now. We appreciate that the earth’s resources – animal, vegetable and mineral – are finite. The African lion is not an officially endangered species (the Asian lion is), but it is categorised as Vulnerable (“faces a high risk of extinction in the near future) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. And anyway, it’s being hunted in Zimbabwe and elsewhere for sport. A special sport whereby the opposing team have no equipment and you do. Palmer was not intending to eat Cecil for survival or wear his skin for warmth, as far as I know.

The only good to potentially come of Cecil’s brutal and sadistic death by a serial killer is that the image speaks louder than words, and who knows, maybe it will seriously raise international consciousness about conservation not just of wildlife, but of the wild they live their lives in. He was not called Cecil. Other lions did not know him as Cecil. Humans who at least wished only to study him and trace his movements and conserve him named him “Cecil” to make it easier to log him. They meant no harm.

Cecil

Lesson one: let us not tar all dentists as inhuman murderers. Lesson two: let us not use the death of #CecilTheLion to get all high and mighty about who cares the most about what and whom. I’ve seen a lot of largely American traffic on Twitter calling for people sharing the Cecil hashtag and their outrage to “REEVALUATE” (often typed in caps) and spare a thought for Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old African-American woman who died in a Texas jail on July 13 after being arrested for a minor traffic violation. I have spared many thoughts for her since learning about her death and seeing the dashcam footage of state trooper Brian Encinia threatening her (“I will light you up”). It is possible to care about a lion and a woman. I suspect I am not alone in this regard. I wish it wasn’t always men who wreak this violence.

Postscript: I trod on a snail on Monday, by accident, after the rain brought them out. I killed it. I am able to use the word for what I did. But I didn’t pay anybody for the pleasure, and in fact experienced only sorrow and regret. Nor did I get a selfie with its corpse.

 

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Campaign for real whale

BlackFish_Tilikum

I’m republishing this review which I originally posted on 14 June, as those in the UK who weren’t able to see it on the big screen during its arthouse theatrical run in July can now actually respond by buying it or screening it! (Also, it’s still getting some fantastically positive reviews, which vindicate my own feelings on seeing an early preview. Deep breath.)

Blackfish is one of the most heartbreaking films I have ever seen, and my favourite documentary of the year so far – despite strong competition. It tells the tragic tale of one specific captive killer whale, Tilikum, a 22.5 ft (6.9m) long, 12,000 pound (5,400 kg) bull who lives – if you can call it living – at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, where he still performs for whooping audiences. His name comes from the Chinook word for “friends, relations, tribe, nation, common people”, which is ironic when you think for longer than a few seconds about the fact that whales in swimming pools are by definition separated from their extended families. (Tilikum was captured in 1983 off the coast of Iceland, aged around three years old, and has lived in swimming pools for most of his showbiz life. While held at Sealand in British Columbia, his first “home”, he and two other orcas were herded, every night, into a “holding” pool just 20 ft (6.1m) deep and 28 ft (8.5m) in diameter.)

Blackfish was made by documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who did not start out with an agenda. She had, in fact, taken her kids to SeaWorld and bought into the whole corporate myth that these beautiful cetateans are not “forced” to perform their tricks and do so willingly out of a love for their human trainers. (The word “killer” is usually dropped in the official commentaries at these shows.) Having done the same thing myself in 1994, no matter how conflicted I felt at the time about seeing two whales doing tricks for fish at what was then Marine World Africa USA in Vallejo, California, it has haunted me ever since and hardened my anti-zoo stance. I guess I am the choir to which the film could be accused of preaching to, although it’s hard to imagine why any right-thinking person would be happy about large, social marine mammals being kept in prison when they’ve committed no crime.

The orca is an apex predator, but has never attacked a human in the wild. Incidents of whales “turning on” their trainers, however, are more common than you might idly think. The engine that drove Gabriela to make her film was the awful death on February 24, 2010, of experienced trainer Dawn Brancheau at Orlando, which was witnessed, unknowingly, by a whooping audience. The precise cause of death is still murky, but Brancheau seems to have been pulled by Tilikum into the water by her ponytail, possibly in a moment of confusion over fish.

The whales performing on that occasion had been unresponsive and agitated, and only get fish after successfully effecting a trick, so they were especially hungry. Eyewitness accounts differ. Brancheau’s autopsy indicated “death by drowning” and “blunt force trauma”, and noted a severed spinal cord, and “sustained fractures” to her jawbone, ribs and a cervical vertebra.

SeaWorld was fined $75,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration but insists that OSHA’s findings are “unfounded”. The implication, as ever in cases like this, is that human error led to the tragedy. This was the story instantly spun around the death at a Cumbrian safari park of zookeeper Sarah McClay, killed by a Sumatran tiger. The news media ensures that our first reaction to the story is never, “What is a tiger doing living in Cumbria?”

Blackfish_poster

You will learn more about all this in the haunting film, which provides plentiful context: historical, behavioural, neurological (orcas have a section of brain that even clever old humans don’t have) and, yes, emotional. It may make you cry. I met Gabriela at a private VIP screening of Blackfish in June laid on by distributor Dogwoof for representatives of various NGOs and activist groups (you might say a “captive audience” if the phrase wasn’t so inappropriate!) and she is a calm, logical, unhysterical advocate of basic commonsense in this area. Here she is.

Blackfish VIP Event GC_AC

In her film, she speaks to a whole parade of ex-SeaWorld trainers, who confirm that incredible bond between animal and human, but who still question the motivation behind SeaWorld’s entire business model. The marine park chain currently has 22 killer whales in captivity, which remain big box office. For them, it’s all about money and turnstiles. And why wouldn’t it be? They’re a corporation. Blackfish is as much a critique of corporate America as it is of animal cruelty. (You won’t be surprised that SeaWorld refused to put up a representative to speak on camera, although transcripts of their defence at a previous court case speak volumes.)

Again, I refrain from urging anyone to see a film. There may be issues closer to home than Orlando that come higher up your priority list. You may simply think: well it’s obviously wrong that massive whales are kept in a zoo, I don’t need to see a film about it to have my beliefs hardened. It’s not a snuff movie – you don’t actually see any trainers die, but you do see the bloody damage distressed whales do to each other when cooped up, and you do see some unprecedented “behaviours” which rather suggest psychological damage. Poor Tilikum seems mostly to be kept as a sperm bank these days. (He’s “sired” 21 offspring in his time, 11 of which are still alive.)

Artificial insemination is a common practice in animal husbandry, on farms, at stables, in zoos and elsewhere, and it’s done for reasons of conservation as well as commerce. However, you might find the sheer scale of doing it to a killer whale rather disturbing. Maybe those are double standards, I don’t know, but I love killer whales. When I saw one in Vallejo in 1994 and sat right up against the glass of its viewing pool while it swam past my nose, I felt privileged to have seen it. And then sick that I had seen it in that unnatural setting.

I have a recurring dream which I’ve mentioned before, in which I am close to the edge of a pool in which huge killer whales are swimming. But it’s not a nightmare. I am terrified of falling in, and in awe of the whales, but I never do fall in, and they never harm me. No need to analyse that one, Freudians.

Oh, and I urge you to see Blackfish now that it’s available in armchair-friendly form. (Damn!)

The height of cruelty?

As mentioned previously, I have a problem with Wuthering Heights, Andrea Arnold’s stunningly elemental interpretation of Emily Brontë’s famous novel, and that’s with the implied animal cruelty in it. It’s set on the wild and windy moors, of course, and through Arnold’s radical and beautiful vision, we almost literally have our noses rubbed in the mud of this unforgiving rural landscape. By use of shallow focus and forensically sharp digital stock, she takes us right down into the undergrowth, there to see dewdrops glistening on a single strand of a spider’s web, or a thread of sheep’s wool snagged on a thistle. We can almost smell a horse’s breath, or feel the hairs on its head. It’s thrilling filmmaking, and a piece of cinema I would recommend you see, despite its narrative deficiencies. Unless you have a problem with the implied mistreatment of animals.

Using a largely unknown, and inexperienced, young cast, Arnold imbues what is for many a familiar love story with new life. (I have never read the book, but I’ve seen it on TV and heard the hit single.) She and her screenwriter Olivia Hetreed make Heathcliff black, rather than a gypsy, which brings a new power to his relationship with Cathy. As I note in my much shorter Radio Times review of the film, the detailed sound design, lack of score and action-chasing handheld camera bring the story alive. And Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave are striking as the young Cathy and Heathcliff. It’s such a modernist approach, almost as if this version is a guerilla documentary about a more conventional dramatisation of Wuthering Heights, captured on the hoof for the second disc of the DVD, your suspension of disbelief is occasionally shattered and, ironically, you start to think: it’s some actors on a hill. Indeed, it’s the reality of it that gives me my Big Problem.

The film carries a 15 certificate, which, according to the detailed BBFC report, is mainly to do with the strong language – which is only moderately fruity albeit at one point racist to modern ears – and what it refers to as “animal killings.” This is what the report goes on to state: “There are four scenes involving live animals, with a sheep’s throat being cut, a rabbit’s neck being broken and two dogs seen hanging from their collars from a fence and a branch, implying that they are left to die. Assurances have been provided by the production company explaining in detail how these scenes were filmed, including detail of special effects employed, so as not to harm any of the animals involved.”

I have to take that at face value. I don’t know how they used special effects to make it look like two dogs were being hung on a gatepost and a branch, but it looks just like they are actual dogs being actually hung, for a few seconds, by their collars, and are left, for a few seconds, to wriggle around uncomfortably. It’s easy enough to imagine animal trainers rushing in to unhook them after being on film for a few seconds, but that can’t be the case, surely? To be honest, as I never tire of saying, even implied violence towards animals onscreen bothers me. In a week when one prize fucking idiot was caught on camera actually swinging a cat around by its tail, and another was apparently stolen after being featured in an article in the London Evening Standard, I worry about people. And if animal cruelty is shown, even in an arthouse film, it might subconsciously go in.

I’m going to trust Andrea Arnold and the BBFC and accept that, somehow or other, no dogs were even made uncomfortable for a few seconds in the making of this film. But if you’re as soppy as I am, you might want to be ready to look away, or stay away.

Homage to Catalonia

I illustrate this blog entry with an awe-inspiring painting by Spanish master Diego Velázquez, because otherwise, I would have to illustrate it with a picture of some bullfighting, and there’s no such thing as an awe-inspiring picture of some bullfighting. As you may have read, the autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia staged its last ever legal bullfight over the weekend. The regional ban comes in on January 1, but since that’s the end of the bullfighting season for this year, apparently, it’s adiós to a tradition that stretches back at least three centuries, if not back to Ancient Rome. We have petitioning and lobbying by animal welfare groups to thank for the ban, although some commentators in Spain say that it’s a bid for nationalism by the Catalan parliament, a ban further separating Catalonia from the rest of the country, where bullfighting continues, albeit in a much reduced form as its popularity everywhere shrinks. (At the beginning of the last century, Barcelona had three bullrings; since the 70s, it has had just the one, although its popularity has waned at a faster rate than in the rest of Spain.)

I love Spain, and I love Barcelona, the Catalan capital where the final corrida de toros took place on Sunday before a stadium packed with 20,000 enthusiastic fans of spectacle, colour, tradition, ritual and animal abuse. You may or may not be astonished to learn that I’ve always had a problem with bullfighting. On our first trip to the glorious if touristy city of Barcelona (a picture only spoiled by the dogs in tiny cages on sale on main drag La Rambla), I remember buying the Time Out Guide, which contained a rhapsodic essay in support of bullfighting by none other than Robert Elms, who seemed to have bought into the 1920s-forged Hemingway myth that it represented an “authenticity” that runs counter to more trendy bohemianism and given it the thumbs-up. I have no doubt that the bullring was a vital social and familial hub at its height, and just as I went to the circus as a boy and accepted its rituals – despite the evident displacement, humiliation and confinement of the lions, the elephants and, once, some clearly sedated crocodiles – I’m sure many Spanish kids were brought up on the bullfight, and thought little of the prolonged cruelty involved.

But you formulate your ideals as you grow up. And mine coalesced around a respect for animals that, in my early 20s, drove me to join pro-welfare organisations like the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society and BUAV, and, later, in my 30s, to support the RSPCA, Greenpeace, the WWF, Cats Protection, Blue Cross and the PDSA. (I actually withdrew my support for the RSPCA when they endorsed Freedom Food, a farm assurance and food labelling scheme which, though a move in the right direction, seemed at what was a more militant time for me, to be a dilution of meaningful animal welfare standards in farming. I have calmed down a bit, but still cleave to basic animal welfare principles – and 19 birds per square metre of floor space, as set out by Freedom Food, still seems like a lot to me.) Yes, I used to be a vegetarian, but since the proliferation of organic standards and availability of organic produce in the 90s, especially meat reared to the standards set down by the Soil Association, I find it easier to eat meat with a conscience. Needless to say, vegans have my utmost respect for their more extreme lifestyle choice. (Apparently, the meat of fighting bulls is excellent, as these bulls are, ironically, raised free-range: looked after like prize fighters and then made to dance and suffer before they die.)

Prompted by the last Catalan bullfight, a deliberately inflammatory pro-bullfighting blog was published by a man called Brendan O’Neill in the online Telegraph – which, in the interests of balance, I’ll link to here. To use his phrase, I am one of his “Bambi-influenced animal rights activists.” I have no time to refute the simplistic idiocy of this generalistic smear. I am not an activist, anyway; I just call animal cruelty when I see it. And no amount of bullshit about – to use O’Neill’s imagery – the “ennoblement” of the bull, as it is ritually humiliated, injured and killed to cheering crowds (elevating it “from being a grubby and dumb beast into a performer in a piece of beautiful, arcane theatre”), will convince me otherwise.

I heard an item on the Today programme this morning about the British Horseracing Authority bringing in a new ruling that limits the amount of times a jockey can whip its horse during a race – seven in flat races, eight in ones where the horses have to jump. I don’t follow the sport, and I am prepared to believe those who insist that simply riding a horse is not cruel, and indeed that a horse may love being ridden, but jabbing it or hitting it to make it go faster so that a man can win at a sport is, to my “Bambi-influenced” eyes, cruel. Dog-fighting, bear-baiting and cock-fighting are banned – as now, is fox hunting – so the reduction of officially sanctioned whipping is reduced to eight times a race is surely just one legal sport dragging itself into the 21st century. (To a hand-wringing animal lover like myself, eight times seems like, I don’t know, eight times too many? These owners and riders profess to love their horses. I would not whip my cat. Nor, as a Telegraph website user suggests, would Brendan O’Neill like to see his pet “ennobled” like a bull.) A full ban on horse-whipping seems to be predicted after this latest rule-tightening by BHA, which comes into effect next month, after which nine or more whippings will lead to suspensions and penalties. A jockey called Jason Maguire was suspended for five days for using his whip with “excessive frequency” on a horse called Ballabriggs at this year’s Grand National; his punishment would run to £40,000 if he did it again.

Here’s a quote from the BHA defending the whip: “If you are on a half-tonne of horse going at nearly 40mph over a jump and there are 20 other horses around you, you need a tool to steer, correct its stride, and balance a horse. It’s a very risky sport and we’ve got to look after jockeys’ safety.” The more I read that, the more surreal it becomes as a defence.

Another related item: on Sunday night’s Planet Word with Stephen Fry, he chatted amiably to a reassuringly white-coated man in Munich who experiments on mice in order to find out why humans developed language and, say, chimpanzees never have. Fry basically concludes that the only way we’d ever find out for sure would be to experiment on chimps, but that this would be ethically frowned upon. The implication as I read it was that Fry would be against experimentation on primates, but that mice were fair game. I realise my “Bambi-influenced” views are far too namby-pamby for the likes of Stephen Fry, but I find it hard to draw lines between which animals can be mistreated and which ones cannot, just as I find it hard to draw a line between how many beatings an animal may legally endure before the man dishing out the beatings may be fined for doing so.

So, back to bullfighting. It’s a long time since Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises and Death In The Afternoon. It’s quite a long time since early British holidaymakers on package tours to Spain in the 60s and 70s came home with their names printed on bullfighting posters, along with figurines of matadors and bulls. (I remember a relative had these, and as a small child failed to see any problem with it, although the souvenir manufacturer hadn’t painted blood on the bull.) I expect a number of my favourite Spaniards, from Velázquez to Almodóvar, approved or approve of bullfighting – the latter made a female matador one of the tragic protagonists in Talk To Her and included a goring scene that was meant to make you sympathetic for the human. But, like fox hunting, some traditions are simply outrun by progress. If a bull really is a “dumb” beast, as O’Neill confidently states, does that remove its rights?

The beguiling painting by Velazquez, by the way, easily his most famous, and one which I was lucky to see up close on a trip to Madrid, is Las Meninas, painted in 1656, and – hey! – it’s got a nice dog in it.

Sorry, I’ll go back to typing out what I think about films and telly programmes for the next entry, I promise.