Brutality and the Beast
What does Parksville’s massacre of 484 geese tell us about ourselves?
By Lisa Warden
“I’m sick of you animal liberationists trying to hijack the Holocaust for your ideological agenda,” she yelled, as if those of us who take issue with the ruthless treatment and fate of some 57 billion land animals and over 13 trillion aquatic animals per year make use of the analogy, when we do, as a cheap rhetorical device.
People offended by the comparison would do well to learn that it was brought to the attention of the somnolent public by Holocaust survivors themselves, and descendants of those who did not survive – great minds such as the author of the seminal Animal Liberation, Peter Singer, activist Henry Spira, Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer, and others.
In his story The Letter Writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote:
In his thoughts, Herman spoke a eulogy for the mouse who had shared a portion of her life with him and who, because of him, had left this earth. ‘What do they know – all these scholars, all these philosophers, all the leaders of the world – about such as you? They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.’
Historian Charles Patterson opens his jaw-dropping book by the same name, Eternal Treblinka, with the above passage. In it, he analyzes the striking parallels between society’s treatment of nonhuman animals and its treatment of marginalized, oppressed humans, specifically during the Holocaust. Is it really surprising that some of those who survived, or the descendants of those who didn’t survive being rounded up and carried to their deaths on cattle cars, experimented on without their consent, worked to death, classified as vermin, their bodies mined for “resources” such as gold, skin and hair, would identify with what it’s like to be an “animal”? In Dachau Diaries, former Dachau concentration camp prisoner Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz wrote: “I eat no animals because I don’t want to live on the suffering and death of other creatures. I have suffered so much myself that I can feel other creatures’ suffering by virtue of my own.”
To maintain that the Holocaust is off limits for the purpose of understanding and opposing other oppressive regimes posits the Nazi genocide as a historical aberration. Clearly, it was not. The seven decades since the liberation of the concentration camps have witnessed a plethora of genocides. Think Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, to name a few. And to resist the comparison because “they were people, and these are animals” is a deeply speciesist position. As with their human counterparts, the capacity of nonhuman animals to experience pain and fear means they have interests – interests in avoiding suffering and pursuing their own fulfillment. It is the ability to suffer that is the necessary and sufficient condition for membership in the moral community. From every angle that is morally relevant, nonhuman animals are deserving of equal consideration. To assert otherwise amounts to human self-deification, plain and simple.
The philosopher David Sztybel, himself the son of a Holocaust survivor, has written a detailed analysis of whether the treatment of nonhuman animals can be compared to the Holocaust. Sztybel asks several key questions, including whether the comparison is offensive, and whether it trivializes what happened to the victims of the Nazis. His inquiry leads him to conclude that the comparison is legitimate. The parallels between the Holocaust and our treatment of other animals help us to grasp the naked, institutional evil that governs the lives and deaths of billions upon billions of nonhuman animals today. Furthermore, the use by both the Nazis and the modern animal industrial complex of modern industrial technologies – the assembly line, the rail system and methods of mass slaughter, to name a few – to implement their barbarous trade should function as a warning to us that the technologies of modernism can and will be used to oppress the weakest in society.
A recent case in point here on Vancouver Island was the slaughter of hundreds of Canada Geese in Parksville in late June. The entire Canada Goose population of the area, molting at the time and thus particularly vulnerable due to their inability to fly, was rounded up and forced into an enclosed space hidden from public view. The killers were let then loose. One by one, the defenseless birds were slaughtered with a stun bolt to the head. Some were carved up and taken for food. When it was all over, a mass of lifeless, mangled bodies lay in heaps.
“It is the curse of greatness,” said Heinrich Himmler, head of the German SS, “that it must step over dead bodies to create new life. Yet we must cleanse the soil or it will never bear fruit.”
What a disturbing similarity those words bear to the city’s rationale for the brutal annihilation of the entire Canada Goose population of Parksville on June 26th. Apparently the geese’s destruction of the local estuarine ecosystem, and the abundance of their droppings, merited this final solution.
The mass slaughter was carried out by the Guardians of Mid-Island Estuaries, with the blessing of the City of Parksville, who feared the excess excrement might negatively affect summer tourist revenues and public enjoyment of the area’s beaches and green spaces. The city claimed the birds were “humanely culled”, although the local paper begged to differ. “These geese were not lulled to sleep with a sedative and held in someone’s arms as they peacefully passed,” wrote John Harding in his editorial in the Parksville Qualicum News. “They were not euthanized. They were slaughtered, period.”
The ruthless protectors of the purity of Parksville’s estuarine eco kultur and their collaborators in public office appear not to be aware of the fundamental paradigm shift in conservation biology known as “compassionate conservation”. It acknowledges the bloody history of the field, and aims to correct course by conserving species and ecosystems within limitations set by the stewardship principle of “First, do no harm.”
“We had to kill them,” the Guardians will argue. “They are an invasive species that has brought the local ecosystem to a tipping point.”
By that logic, we humans – the most arrogant, invasive and destructive species the planet has ever known – should be voluntarily marching ourselves to the nearest cliff and jumping off. After all, is not the entire earthly ecosystem at a tipping point as a result of human actions? Even our own Ministry of Environment & Climate Change asserts that the population growth in Canada Geese has been caused by “human-induced changes to the landscape”. And yet the cabal of killers in Parksville opted to annihilate an entire resident species of their co-citizens simply for engaging in their natural behaviour of rummaging through the landscape for food.
Part of the tragedy of the Parksville Massacre, in addition to the disturbing, intentional violence inflicted on so many innocent creatures to whom life was as dear as it is to us, is that it could have been avoided. Compassionate conservation demands an end to the mass slaughter of nonhuman animals on the pretext of ecological concerns – which are so often tainted, as they were in this case, by political expediency and naked economic greed.
What happens, you may ask, when you take killing off the table as an environmental management tool? Does the planet get overrun by voracious nonhuman equivalents of Homo sapiens?
What happens is that people all of a sudden get infinitely more creative. They might opt to modify the habitat to make it less appealing to the “problematic” species; they might adopt humane, scientific approaches such as birth control (both of which, by the way, if applied to the human species itself, would go a very long way to alleviating the conflicts we continually moan about.) Take the example of India, a country with a population of millions of free-living street dogs. Despite the very real threat to humans of the deadly rabies virus, which in almost all cases is transmitted by dogs, killing of dogs was disallowed in the 1990s. It was replaced with a policy of anti-rabies vaccination and spay-neuter. The same strategy has been adopted in many countries with free-living canine populations numbering in the millions, from Uruguay to Bosnia. And yet here in lotus land, we can’t even deal with 500 waddling geese without resorting to mass murder.
It’s time to shed, once and for all, the moral and intellectual sloth that leads us to adopt the methods of brutes. Let’s take eco-killing off the table, and mine our distinctly human imagination for empathetic strategies that, while effective, allow our co-citizens – regardless of their species – to live peaceably among us.
I close with a quote from Milan Kundera:
True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Humanity’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect humankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it. (The Unbearable Lightness of Being)
Remembering the Parksville 484
An event to commemorate the lives of the 484 geese killed in Parksville will be held Monday July 11th at 5-7pm on the Galloping Goose trail bridge near Uptown Centre.