Friday, March 14, 2008

Animal compassion

A few years back, there was a wonderful story about some elephants that very deliberately and cunningly freed some antelope that had been captured and penned up by humans. I won't rehash the whole thing, but the elephants waited until the humans were settling in for the night, circled the enclosure, and waited while the herd's matriarch figured out the latches on the gate. They waited until every antelope was out, then walked away.

There are many tales of elephants doing compassionate things like this. One story describes an elephant that was trained to place logs into holes for building a structure; the elephant balked at one point, and the mahout giving commands discovered that the elephant was avoiding harming a sleeping dog. There are plenty of stories of elephants being kind toward injured or helpless humans. They are also exceptionally compassionate toward one another, and become deeply grief-stricken when one of their herd dies, visiting the bones for years after the death.

They aren't perfect, of course. Elephants that have been treated badly by people sometimes snap and cause injury or death. They are fiercely protective of their young, and have no problem stomping someone who messes with a calf. Most cases of "killer" elephants that I have seen involve stressed out, abused, or sick animals, though--elephants treated respectfully are generally much kinder toward our species.

So why am I bringing up elephant altruism? The main reason today is that I want to point out that they make us look like savages. Yes, some of our kind help other species, some of us treat each other kindly, but there is a disturbingly high number of cruel people as well. When we spew hate at members of our own species over something as trivial as how fat they are (and that's just one example), I have to wonder why so many of us believe that humans are better or more important than species that display a greater level of compassion--not just toward their OWN kind, even, but toward other species, even ours!

But then, I remember that the elephants who don't behave this way are usually sick, abused, or protecting their young. The tremendous pressure our society puts on people to look and act a certain way can create insane amounts of stress. I can only explain some of the disturbing, hateful things said and done by fatophobes as the result of a mind that has been badly damaged by the cognitive dissonance that occurs when the messages being programmed into the populace's brains are at odds with what they perceive to be true.

Let me take a moment here to explain what I mean. For whatever reason, we are being endlessly told that food is a poison, that people eat because they are mentally ill, not because their bodies need fuel, and that death is right around the corner unless we lose 15 more pounds (and then it's fifteen more after that, and after that, too). What we perceive, however, is that "bad" foods aren't causing us to die, that we eat because we are actually hungry, that our bodies are run down and less functional when we don't eat enough, and that the never-ending demand that we becoming thinner and thinner can never resemble the reality of our bodies' autonomic management of our weight and metabolism. Some of us see the naked emperor and decide to live in reality. Those who have thoroughly bought into the myths, though, have too much invested in the fantasy of being thin, and thus cannot tolerate anything that rattles the foundation of their fantasy. They're stressed out, they're sick, and they react accordingly.

It's still no excuse.

An elephant that acts this way is frequently a prisoner of its abusers. Zoo and circus elephants snap and kill a keeper or trainer. People who have invested themselves in the fantasy of being thin, however, have a bit more choice. It's an uncomfortable choice, sure; it's hard to accept that the system that gives privilege to thin people is wrong. For thin people, they stand to lose all that they have acquired through that privilege. For others, they lose the (albeit misguided) hope that all they have to do is lose weight, and they will become a privileged member of society. They lose the idea that they have control over their status--or they lose an excuse for not developing themselves in other ways. I really do understand that it is hard, but come on already--it isn't doing you or anyone else any good. Try to be at least as good a person as the average elephant, would you?


Karen said...

You've got the right idea, but you stopped too soon. It isn't just fat people; if you come down anywhere but the narrow peak of the bell curve, you have something "wrong" with you. How many people (besides Luke Wilson in Idiocracy) are perfectly average in every way? My money is on none. Every one of us has something we need to "fix" and are ridiculed when we don't quite make it. Intelligence, attention, athleticism, interests, clothes, attitudes, everything is something to be "normalized." And how do we get away from this cage? We are, in many ways, trapped with nowhere to go. We can pretend like they aren't there, but we're still bombarded with these messages from the media, strangers, friends, even our own rebellious minds that have absorbed it so well that it will be decades before most of us can manage to cleanse it all from our system, if ever.

None of which is an excuse, but it is only the very few who can manage that sort of distance from the world around them without a very great deal of help.

Tangerine said...

Totally true story-- my great aunt rode elephants in the circus and was really close with them. When a poorly secured pole from the circus tent came loose and almost fell on her, one of the elephants ran in front of her and was crushed instead. The elephant literally died to save her life... they are so fascinating!

Anonymous said...

What we as humans do in general is an atrocity - to ourselves, to each other and to the creatures we share this world with. We could stand to learn plenty from animals and how they live in their world. What's sad is that they are often at our mercy, and what we do with that responsibility has more negative consequences than positive - to them and to us. It's no wonder why we live in the world we're in. We must change everything about the way we live if we want our world to prosper.

Mercurior said...

sometimes i truly beleive we humans are worse than any animal, we can be compassionate, yet some arent, i personally dont see humanity as being the pinnacle of evolution. there is more compassion in the elephants than in most people.

we have the chance to be greater, and yet look at us, wars, famines, murders, genocide, and to what benefit. NONE.

in my mind humanity is a just a lucky animal, and thats all we will be. humanity as a species hasnt really done anything great for the planet, we take and take, and use and use. yet give back nothing or not much.

Anonymous said...

The reason I love dogs so much is that they could care less about how much you weight or what you look like.

Do you know what is funny? Your post brings back a memory of mine from high school. In my speech and debate class, I had to choose an animal to represent me.

I chose the elephant - I might be big and scary (OMG OBESE) on the outside, but I'm actually gentle and intelligent. Oh, and I have FEELINGS too.

Anonymous said...

Very nice article. It really helped me realize, that I shouldn't beat up on myself if I'm upset if I'm under stress. I really feel I'm more like a Elephant, and so is my dad.

We're so emotionally sensitive that sometimes, we act agressive about things just to avoid admitting that we're hurt. Cause then we feel guilty about making the other person upset cause we're upset, and that only makes us more upset.

As you can imagine, it's terrible when we're both upset with each other, it's like a never-ending cycle of upsettingness. It's like a phrase I heard from the Anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, called The Hedgehog's Dilemma. Basically it's when two people care about each other so much, when they get too close or too emotional around each other, it's like a hedgehog trying to kiss another hedgehog. No matter how they try, they both end up hurt in the end.

It's difficult trying to remain positive, when there is the stress and perhaps even fear over the prejudice involving size in society. I even was kind of upset about going on coasters in Disneyworld, which I'm visiting next month. Cause I thought, oh right I'll go to get on the coaster and be told I weigh too much. My relative set point is only 220 pounds. I don't think that's fat at all, that's like healthy.

It's like, the world has just gone completely insane over this fat hysteria. I even discussed with my psychatrist, who is plus sized the other day, and he's all perplexed by it. Not perplexed like he doesn't get it, perplexed as in what to do about it. I mean, aside from being cool enough to be a non size-biased psychatrist. He also has video games in his office, to help younger patients put their minds on something if that helps them talk things out. Most psychatrists I think would act as if video games are nothing but evil.

I think right now we might be at the platau of the obesity issue. That we're in the middle of it where it's really strong, but also at a point where most everyone is getting sick of it to where it can only go downhill from here. So I'm going to try and remain positive about it, with my dear friend Zoloft, lol. It's only going to cause me upset if I let it.

I also think despite how I feel, if someone said something sizeist to me at Disneyworld, I'd ignore them. That's really all you can do. It's difficult when I want to enlighten people to the reality of fat acceptance. I have to realize that I can't get that through to everyone. It's like you can't take a horse to water and make it drink.

Mercurior said...

violet, i talk, and i talk, and i talk, and i talk some more.

If i can just get one person to think maybe being fat isnt the big bad monster, then i am happy.

The idea that X makes you of less worth than Y. is a very scary thing.

So my talent is talking, and speaking, and getting people to listen. So i talk.

perhaps thats all we can do change the world one person at a time. This blog gets it out to more people. and for that i am grateful. every blog out there that shows we are the same as everyone else is great.