At a concert in Warsaw recently, singer Morrissey said: "We all live in a murderous world, as the events in Norway have shown... Though that is nothing compared to what happens in McDonald's and Kentucky Fried S**t every day." This didn’t go down so well, and he subsequently tried to flesh out the thought in a statement: “If you quite rightly feel horrified at the Norway killings, then it surely naturally follows that you feel horror at the murder of ANY innocent being. You cannot ignore animal suffering simply because animals 'are not us'."
Well, it’s seldom wise to use specific tragedies as a conduit for broader ethical points. As a matter of empirical observation, most people didn’t find any thoughts about the treatment of animals “naturally following” from what happened in Norway. Still, much of the conversation about “animal rights” does reflect some kind of parallelism, an assumption that animal suffering and human suffering are the same kind of moral evil. Of course, human morality – to the extent there’s any consensus on what that is - is a complex creation, based on our sentient capacities, our religious beliefs, the tangled history that brought us to where we are, and continually evolving over time as our culture shifts. On the face of it, none of those factors apply to animals in quite the same way, and of course the ecosystem is full of examples where animals exploit each other’s suffering (that is, by eating each other) rather than tending to it.
I actually agree though with Morrissey’s basic premise that the treatment of animals which underlies the fast food industry is an institutional evil which degrades us all. So that’s how my cards look. But I can’t bring myself to agree that all meat automatically constitutes murder, because it doesn’t seem consistent with the organization of the world. One might argue that because of our higher capacities, we ought to be capable of moving beyond the instincts that drive carnivorous behaviour in a more natural state. But the great majority of people, to varying degrees, are just struggling to survive, and remain prisoners of instinct and circumstance.
While we ignore the pain that hundreds of thousands of cows and pigs and chickens are suffering at this moment, every other week brings us some random animal selected for fifteen minutes of fame, whether it be a penguin who’s wandered alone onto a beach, or a cat who gets thrown into the trash, or a dog who somehow travels from one end of the country to the other. The plight of the surviving Toronto zoo elephants was a big story a while ago, culminating in their being moved to a sanctuary. But I’m not sure why these were the only creatures whose lives were judged suboptimal; it’s surely an abomination that any animal should be torn from its natural space and pushed into such limitations and repetition. Unless, perhaps, the zoo has a wider purpose in promoting love of the wild, conservation and so forth; that is, the animals within it must give up their freedom for the greater good of their species (I’m not sure there’s any evidence that kids who go to the zoo end up doing any more for the planet than those who don’t, but it would be nice if there was).
The new documentary by James Marsh, Project Nim, isn’t explicitly about anything I’ve said so far – the film isn’t explicitly about anything other than the specific case history it relates. But its power comes from how it inherently reflects these ambiguities and others. Nim was a chimpanzee, born in the early 70’s, removed from his mother while still nursing, to be the centre of a grand scientific experiment – to determine whether he could learn to communicate in sign language. The project proceeded with a randomness which must have reflected looser times – the presiding professor, Herb Terrace, simply deposited Nim with his research assistant and her family, within which they raised him substantially as they would a human child (she even breast fed him for a few months). Nim did indeed learn an impressive number of signs, which brought him some fame for a while (the movie includes a clip from an old David Suzuki show). But he also became increasingly unruly and even dangerous, and after five years or so Terrace terminated the experiment, moving Nim to a chimpanzee facility and then mostly forgetting about him. Poor Nim went through a lot of suffering, loneliness, fear and pain from there, as well as some episodes of human tenderness and kindness.
Marsh (who won an Oscar for his previous documentary, Man on Wire) located a considerable amount of archive footage, filling in some of the gaps with mostly unobtrusive recreations, and also interviewed just about everyone who played a major role in the story. Terrace ultimately concluded that Nim never really learned language at all, that he was merely a brilliant “beggar,” and that’s as much of an overview as we ever get on all this. Otherwise we must interpret Nim’s story for ourselves.
The Meaning of Nim
My own interpretation is that the project was inherently wrong-headed in assuming that teaching a chimpanzee to use human sign language would somehow be informative or beneficial. Nim’s a potent symbol because he embodies the continuing duality of our views on animals. On the one hand, because chimpanzees look somewhat like humans and exhibit various kinds of behaviour that we can understand in terms of our own, he was treated for a while as “one of us,” indeed subject to a degree of comfort and privilege exceeding that of many human children. But once the novelty wore off (which of course, as with the polar bear Knut and countless abandoned pets, often accompanies their attaining adulthood), he was, after all, only an animal. I don’t suppose Nim’s story would unfold in quite as bleak a way today, if only because of heightened institutional neurosis about media scrutiny. But the same crazy clashes of principle and so-called ethics permeate every aspect of our relationship with animals. It’s mitigated only by the fact that our relative valuation of human tragedy across the globe is just as incoherent.
My favourite part of the film shows Nim and the man who turned out to be his most reliable friend, simply out in the fields playing, without any weight of “scientific” expectation or notion that Nim should be judged according to his success at appropriating aspects of human behaviour. It encapsulates what ought to be one of the prized treasures of our place in this world; the possibility of building a fulfilling and sustainable life for our own species, while becoming enhanced through our interactions with other kinds of life, respecting and delighting in the very fact that they’re not us.