By Jill Howard-Church on Animals and Society Institute
It used to be that most of the headlines you read about animals while standing in the supermarket checkout had to do with Bigfoot or two-headed calves. But lately I’ve noticed some surprisingly sophisticated news in mainstream magazines, and it’s offering food for thought for the masses (albeit alongside the breath mints).
First, however, I should note that the most talked-about animal-related media story right now is the magazine cover Lady Gaga posed for wearing a bikini made of raw meat.
The magazine was Vogue Hommes Japan, but she repeated the fashion statement on September 12 at MTV’s Video Music Awards. When vegan Ellen DeGeneres asked about her motives, Gaga replied, "It's certainly no disrespect to anyone that's vegan or vegetarian," she told the host. "As you know I'm the most judgment-free human being on the Earth. It has many interpretations, but for me this evening it's [saying] if we don't stand up for what we believe in, if we don't fight for our rights, pretty soon we're going to have as much rights as the meat on our bones." Whereupon Ellen, bless her, gave Gaga an equally funky but considerably more palatable outfit made of greens and vegetables.
I had hoped for a more ethical explanation, given that Lady Gaga not long ago wore an outfit made of dozens of Kermit the Frog puppets to make a statement against the wearing of animal fur. I can only hope that if vegetarians don’t dissuade her from further flesh fashion, the buzzing flies will. (Maggots and music don’t mix!)
Much more encouraging is the October issue of Men’s Journal, which announces at the top of the cover, “The Rise of the Vegan Power Diet.”
Inside, writer Kevin Gray explains that “No one is saying that eating vegan will make you stronger, but the rap that you cannot build muscle or get enough protein for competitive strength training, or have the stamina for endurance training, turns out to be a myth.”
The article presents detailed information aimed at guys looking for macho meals that are both healthy and humane, using some famous athletes as examples.
And just a month ago, Time magazine’s excellent cover story about animal cognition put front and center the continuing realization (which is old news to many of us) that animals do indeed think on a higher level than most people (and, sadly, scientists) have given them credit for.
In his story about bonobos, crows and other select species, author Jeffrey Kluger notes, “[O]ne by one, the berms we've built between ourselves and the beasts are being washed away.” Note that we built them, the animals didn't.
For those who read the studies published in the ASI’s Society & Animals academic journal or some of our other publications, it may be frustrating to see the mainstream media acting so surprised by animals’ abilities. Articles such as this one, as do others, still suffer from the tendency to frame all studies about nonhuman intelligence by stodgy human standards. They themselves should read the excellent books written by behavior experts Jane Goodall, Marc Bekoff, Jonathan Balcombe, Frans de Waal and others around the world who have outlined – some of them for many years – the unique abilities of different species.
Kluger concludes, “If animals can reason — even if it's in a way we'd consider crude — the unavoidable question becomes, Can they feel? Do they experience empathy or compassion? Can they love or care or hope or grieve? And what does it say about how we treat them?”
National Geographic devoted a good amount of ink to how animals think when it published a cover story in March 2008 that noted what it considered the outstanding mental capabilities of dogs, parrots (the famous Alex) and several other types of animals. A relatively few species still get the bulk of the attention, but we can hope that it’s a stepping stone to the enhanced appreciation of many other animals.
By taking animal issues seriously without trivializing or stigmatizing animal advocacy, populist publications can help these concepts move from the margins into the mainstream. Greater understanding and appreciation of animals may encourage people to rethink their prejudices and practices. And by writing letters or editorials in response to these articles, animal advocates can keep the conversation going, and students can use them to build upon toward a new generation of scholarship.
I look forward to seeing our collective worldview expand. And maybe this time next year, a more educated public will instead go gaga over what the animals have to say.
Jill Howard-Church is a writer and editor who specializes in animal issues. She serves as the part-time communications director for the Animals and Society Institute, and is the volunteer president of the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.