Digital Ischemia

21/02/2019

Pigs

My daughter acquired a piglet. On her way home from school, there was a commotion: a livestock transporter had taken a wrong turn and jackknifed around the mini roundabout at the bottom of our hill. With the precarious leaning and the altercation with a lamppost, one of the doors had swung open and some disoriented captives had spilled out. Piglets make an attention-grabbing noise at the best of times and one in particular was stumbling in a circle and squealing its distress most querulously. My daughter couldn’t resist trying to comfort the poor creature. Assessing the scene, she decided that the lorry was destined for the abattoir. Fired with a passion of injustice, she took the executive decision to liberate the piglet by stuffing it up her jumper.

I peered around the door frame of the back kitchen, wondering about the source of the splashing and squeaking. Molly gazed back with the frozen terror of anticipated parental diatribe. Actually my only injunctions were that she could not move it from one place of captivity to another, i.e. it was not going to live in a cage, and that unfortunately she could not release it into the wild, it not being wild. Here she pointed out that ‘it’ was actually ‘she’, because of the neat array of studs across her belly.

Not knowing what stage of weaning the piglet was at, we could only offer water, but that seemed welcome, along with an old towel for comfort. Whatever exactly had happened to her, she must have been traumatised having been separated from whomever and whatever she had been familiar with. The distressed squealing only subsided while Molly was with her so we found ourselves at that impasse. 

My best advice was that she contact the farmer whose land abuts our wilderness garden. Angus Strachan has a gait you can recognise literally a kilometre away. You can’t stride across heather moor and machair. Consequently he has achieved this efficient pumping effort, so that he appears like a tweed-upholstered steam engine: pistons at the bottom, whistle at the top.

Less than an hour after Molly called in our predicament, Angus scissored over the back fence, dragging an empty plastic bin and bearing a huge sack over his shoulder. Apparently this feed would cover all the basics, and could be supplemented with a wide range of kitchen scraps.

By this time Molly had named her new companion Penelope. Recognising that Penelope sharing her bedroom would not be an option, she plotted and presented me with an irrefutable plan. She would set up her brother’s sleeping bag in the back kitchen and the pair of them would magically and hygienically bond.

While we pondered what would be required for a longer term solution, with Angus contributing his invaluable knowledge, Bill Janney, our community policeman, rang the bell. He was trying so hard to stifle a smirk that he appeared, quite misleadingly, to be winking at me. He carefully explained about the navigational incident, the wandering livestock, the chagrined driver, the irate farmer, and asked if I’d seen any unattended farm animals. He seemed less concerned about welfare and more about the repercussions of transport stupidity. I stifled my own smirk and equally carefully responded that, notwithstanding my personal philosophy that one creature cannot be owned by another, I had not seen any domesticated animals owned by any local livestock farmers wandering about unattended. There was no comedically-timed oinking off-stage, but I feel it would not have changed anything. Still smirking, Bill issued the standard advice to call him rather than approach any such individuals, and set off back down the hill, to visit the houses on the other side.

I returned to the back kitchen conference, where Angus had just been struck by inspiration. A land owner over towards the Cairngorms had recently established a herd – if that is the correct collective noun – of pigs to roam about certain areas of his estate, performing land management functions such as thinning out scrub and saplings from the wooded areas and churning the boggier soil to increase the diversity of wild flowers.

Fairly soon we met Trish, the land owner, approved her livestock-conservation experiment, shared ethics and thankfully found Penelope would be welcomed as the member of that herd. Several visits ensued to acclimatise Penelope and gradually leave her with her new family for longer periods of time.

For a couple of weeks Penelope settled in fine. Molly visited her at weekends by charming Angus into giving her a lift on a series of pretexts. We were all happy that she was squealing less and gaining weight.

Then. The third weekend my son Nicky and I happened to go along too. I delayed the outing by some tedious domestic admin. When we arrived Jim the herd was just coming into view, so Molly was excited to greet Penelope on her return from foraging. However, Penelope was missing. Jim tried to cover his concerns. Standard procedure in these circumstances: settle the rest of the herd in their quarters safely, then head back out to search.

Penelope, bless her, we could hear from some distance. With Molly echoing, we reached a crescendo of cacophony. Jim and Nicky triangulated Penelope’s squeals to a drainage gulley surrounded by a few ancient pines. She was standing in the base of the gulley, among long grass, beside a pile of scrub trimmings, quivering with terror. The gulley wasn’t especially deep or enclosed, and Penelope didn’t appear injured, so we were baffled why she hadn’t rejoined the herd.

Molly rushed up to try to comfort Penelope. Jim and I wandered around looking for any indication of the cause. I didn’t know what I was looking for and Jim was similarly non-plussed. For once, being lifted and petted made Penelope even noisier. Any attempt to take her away produced unbearable squeals. Nicky ranged through the scrub clicking his camera compulsively and somehow the lens saw what we didn’t. Hiding, cowering under a thick bush was a smaller piglet with a darker complexion.

Molly’s eyebrows lowered just like her father’s. The obvious accusation was that Jim couldn’t count or didn’t count carefully enough. He tactfully, and with relief, pointed out that this piglet was not one of the herd.

Leaving Nicky circling Molly and the two piglets, in a kind of camera corral, Jim and I searched further. We were so thankful that we had left Molly behind when we discovered the carnage. A sow with mutilated head and limbs lay at the side of a small clearing. Several similarly eviscerated piglets were strewn nearby. I was overcome with nausea and had to walk away. Jim had a stronger constitution and could make a detailed visual assessment.

Jim told me that this massacre was not wild animals: no fox or wild cat would do such damage and leave the meat. Realising what he meant brought me another wave of nausea. The only animal that tortures other animals for amusement is humans.

We would need a vet to confirm with autopsies and we would need a trailer to recover the bodies. We collected Molly; the two piglets seemed less distressed so long as they were together. Jim quietly asked Nicky if he felt able to chronicle the massacre.

In the dazzle of shock, I found myself standing inside the fence around the pig pen, staring out across the moor. The fence wood felt less comforting than I needed; it hadn’t been enough protection. Some of the herd wandered around oblivious. Molly had taken the two piglets somewhere dark and cosy to try to soothe them. My mind homed in on one incongruity: how did a pregnant or nursing sow end up there?

When Jim reappeared, he looked horribly haggard, and was thinking along the same line: he’d contacted the three neighbouring farms and enquired carefully if they were missing a piglet. Farmers value livestock, even if only financially, and none of them were missing anything. Jim had made a joke of it, as if it was as likely, as Molly had silently accused him, that he had simply miscounted. The fact that he hadn’t mentioned multiple piglets or the sow confirmed my fears. He wasn’t ready to announce the find yet.

Livestock owners don’t misplace sows. I thought of the livestock transporter: was it possible that this sow had escaped from there? Jim thought it hugely unlikely that any pig would walk thirty miles. I called Bill Janney, the policeman, and used the same line about a possible extra piglet. Like the farmers, he had no claim. The contents of the transporter had been accounted for, apparently notwithstanding Penelope.

Whoever ‘owned’ this terribly unfortunate creature didn’t care. It appeared that the sow had been released by someone who didn’t know or didn’t care about her condition; not that her treatment was any more acceptable had she not been pregnant or nursing. We stared at each other, trying to penetrate a mindset that was entirely alien to us.

Jim surprised me by asking me what we should do. It wasn’t deference; I didn’t employ him. I think he was genuinely bewildered. All I could think was “get them, get them, get them.” I asked him if there was such a thing as a forensic pathologist vet. He knew someone at the University, and she was on her way over. She could advise who else ought to be notified, but despite the glaring wrongness of the situation, we couldn’t assess which crime might have been committed.

Jim took Helen, the specialist vet, over to the discovery site. The three of us made to go home. I expected Molly to make undeniable demands for Penelope and Peter, the new orphan, to return home with us. However, without having seen the full horror, she seemed to accept that they were in the least worst place, on condition we came back the next day.

When my husband saw Molly’s face he feared the worst. I had to elaborate some sign language until I could get him out of her hearing and explain the full details: the truth was even worse than that.

As promised, the following day we all went, lugging kilos of bruised apples from the garden, as if that could somehow make up for the trauma. Molly introduced Peter to her father, and I could see his brain forming a pun about Parma, and thinking better of it. We were so horribly nervous, trying not to anthropomorphise, yet still hearing echoes of Penelope’s cries.

Penelope and Peter have settled in together. Inseparably. It’s hard to say how well as they are both clearly different from the rest of the herd, but not isolated.

Reports were made, appropriate officials notified, investigations launched. Jim gave me sight of Helen’s report: impressively technical – I didn’t know science was so advanced in this area, but then I wouldn’t – and a straightforward conclusion. Many of the incision marks on the pig flesh were caused by dogs, most likely terriers.

The local newspaper picked up the story from the police. Right on cue local game shooting estates spluttered their umbrage at implications and bleated that they mostly used spaniels or labradors, apparently the classier hunters’ dogs. Their shrill defensiveness, rather than sharing our horror at the atrocity, said a lot. The only animal that tortures other animals for amusement is humans. And some of them train dogs to assist.

Jim is being interviewed by local radio. He has hinted that he may overstate the case in the hopes of putting the wind up somebody. Perhaps it is easier than you’d think to track the buying and selling of pigs. Perhaps the perpetrators were not local, although moving a pig is not easy. Ask that livestock transporter driver.

Ask yourself: when is butchery business and when is it barbaric?

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21/06/2018

Less Than Stories

A legal interview challenging inter-species perceptions.

SCENE 1.
ADVOCATE: Your Honour, Fig-Eyes—
JUDGE:”Big Eyes”?
ADVOCATE: Fig-Eyes, this is she.
JUDGE: This chimpanzee? Who gave it—her that name?
ADVOCATE: She named herself. Humans had labelled her K277, but she identified herself in a mirror, by her brown irises with radiating streaks.
JUDGE: Her eyesight is that good?
ADVOCATE: And her recognition, and her sense of aesthetic, and her sense of self, Your Honour.
JUDGE: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

SCENE 2.
JUDGE: This is Discovery. I want to explore the arguments you have in order to determine whether there is a reasonable case to present to court. My role is not to protect the status quo. The rule of law is obviously my focus, but each case brings new challenges, and when there are enough challenges, and new scenarios or an evolution of ethics, case law progresses. When we are convinced. Go ahead.
ADVOCATE: At the outset I wish to expand common use of the word ‘speak’: to clarify that especially for the purpose of this discussion, this argument, we use ‘speak’ to mean ‘convey a message’. We do not mean only ‘produce intelligible sounds from the mouth’, although that is one example.
JUDGE: Motivation?
ADVOCATE: To dismiss other species as unable to speak, because they can’t anatomically produce audible language as humans do, or because the sounds they produce are unintelligible to us, is speciesist. They can, and do speak for themselves. It would be just as baseless and unconstructive to dismiss humans as deaf because they do not as yet understand what all other species are ‘saying’.
JUDGE: But we are human. This legal framework is a human construct. Our terms of reference must remain human.
ADVOCATE: Indeed, but our perspective must be broader. Human use of modified digestive and breathing features for communication is idiosyncratic. Humans use their mouths and particularly tongues to shape sounds. They mildly asphyxiate themselves to maintain the conversational ‘baton’. However, the benefit of language clearly outweighs the detriment of increased risk of choking due to merging the digestive tract and windpipe. It’s nowhere near perfect. Humans are not the culmination of evolutionary perfectionism. This is not the only way. Is it possible other species’ evolutions may have found better solutions, or simply other solutions?
JUDGE: I’ll admit that possibility.

SCENE 3.
ADVOCATE: This is ManyMother, an Orca. We’re unsure if this is a name, a description, a title or some other label. She is identified by human researchers on Canada’s west coast as F45L.
JUDGE: And she communicates to you?
ADVOCATE: Her message is: you have taken my food, you have taken my birthing pool, you have taken my route home, you have taken my children. When you see me, and Echo, my newest manydaughter, you will take your greed away.
JUDGE: What does she mean by ‘see’?
ADVOCATE: Recognise as a person. (PAUSE) This is TwoStep, a Kenyan elephant. She identifies herself with her characteristic leg motion. We don’t yet know whether she named herself or her relatives coined it.
JUDGE: Will you establish this in due course?
ADVOCATE: I wonder if that’s an appropriate goal. How often do human people meet someone and ask how they got their name? I haven’t asked you what exactly caused you to be named Jennifer. Sometimes, for sure, but we usually accept the name for what it is.
JUDGE: What does TwoStep say?
ADVOCATE: That the land is folding…in on itself. Her family walks around the lip of this chasm. All her knowledge has not been enough to find safety. But she has not given up.
JUDGE: Where is this chasm?
ADVOCATE: It’s abstract. It’s an intuitive mental construct from the signs she picks up in her perception.
JUDGE: Which means?
ADVOCATE: She is aware of escalating deaths among her own and neighbouring tribes, mostly due to humans who mutilate for tusks. She is aware of the seasons drifting from the old pattern to harsher unpredictable moods. She is aware of her internally-mapped territory eroding. In so many ways her existence, her right to existence, is eroding. The closest metaphor she has for this understanding is the edge of the chasm: tremendous danger that must be navigated, without explanation.
JUDGE: What’s your explanation?
ADVOCATE: We’re past the point of no return, but some repercussions are still hidden.

SCENE 4.
JUDGE: I want to consider your methods. How have you captured such a panoply of communications from such a diverse array of species?
ADVOCATE: I’ve trained a neural network to perceive all the environmental information detected by each species.
JUDGE: Doesn’t that require you to know what type of senses they all use?
ADVOCATE: By which you mean: did I engage in gruesome mutilations?
JUDGE: Don’t rephrase my questions.
ADVOCATE: I apologise. I used neural matter from recently deceased individuals of every species I have yet identified.
JUDGE: Doesn’t that violate the individual rights you are now arguing for?
ADVOCATE: I was extremely careful to use only individuals already detached from ‘natural’ circumstances, inevitably, directly or indirectly, as a result of human activity. So, yes, there is some bias.
JUDGE: Does this chimaera sit in a room somewhere, learning?
ADVOCATE: Its sensors have to be placed in all the species’ environments. Then it learns as if it was that creature. Where other species read signs or signals that we have yet to detect or recognise—electro-magnetic or deeper vibrations maybe—my neuronet has the capability of sensing anything nature has managed.
JUDGE: You have created a super-species ‘brain’ that can learn in all possible ways? How is that not overwhelming?
ADVOCATE: In any circumstance, the neuronet can filter down to one particular species, or genus, and learn as if it were such an individual.
JUDGE: Surely there are experiences your ‘neuronet’ can’t have, such as pair bonding, or parenthood?
ADVOCATE: It has clear limitations. But it vastly pushes the boundary between what we know and what we don’t yet know. I say that fully recognising humanity’s usual hubris that we know what we know, and we know what we don’t know – we must resist believing we have a handle on the size and shape of it all. How ironic that all humanity’s various gods have granted the species such superiority and all the rest of nature as its resource, and yet demand virtues.

SCENE 5.
JUDGE: These are all females, matriarchs.
ADVOCATE: Not a coincidence. I think we have been led by the masculine traits for too long.
JUDGE: Nice phrasing.
ADVOCATE: We should listen to these grandmothers’ wisdom. And, incidentally, there is a clear common theme to all species communications: life is hard! Does that sound familiar?
JUDGE: The point being? Similarity?
ADVOCATE: That we illogically make it harder.

SCENE 6.
JUDGE: You want to introduce anecdote? Or is it a witness statement?
ADVOCATE: I call it a story. If I may, I’ll relate it without any preamble.
JUDGE: Do so.
ADVOCATE: In here I’m fascinated. My sibling told me there were strange marks, messages, she thought perhaps, adorning every surface. She knew I’d be enraptured.
I’m a mythologist. I like to explore how we represent ourselves and try to understand and explain our experiences and actions. By ‘we’ I mean everyone, all forms, all species, all living beings.
The earth, the sand, the rock is covered with patterns. What others might dismiss as accidents of movement across the surface, I recognise as repeating shapes. Whether made with a torso, a tail or a talon, they are communication.
I keep myself still, silent and scentless as I wait and watch.
Rodents scamper, reptiles shimmy. Others reshape the materials more fundamentally or make their own. Beetles weave dry grass leaves. The spider web with the one deliberate non-geometric twiddle… Intoxicated accident? Signature? Cipher? Story?
For a moment I savour the exquisite unknown, the myriad potential explanations, the beauty of learning yet to come.
Inevitably the moment passes, shattered by the arrival of the great destroyer. The pale, bald ape blunders in, grasping for this moment’s idle fancy; ever demanding instant gratification of ever fainter desires. He is a child. He is a sick monkey. His paleness looks unhealthy to us; our words for ‘pale’ and ‘unhealthy’ have the same derivation. He smells unnatural.
Also everywhere he goes he sheds tiny inert worms. They are dead but they don’t decompose. They make us sick. They nourish nothing yet the pale monkey hides his baldness behind meshes of them.
Few other than me are interested in pale, bald ape stories. They don’t tell the truth about their experience, about their existence. They vomit their banal witterings in every direction. Always the same story: we don’t care enough to save ourselves, let alone anyone else.
My sibling is frustrated with their immaturity. I still feel compassion, that rush of hope and forgiveness and support and love. I still try to understand their assumed superiority. It seems illogically predicated upon a tautology: any other species is ‘less human than us’.
JUDGE: I suppose it is unnecessary for me to know the author?
ADVOCATE: That’s the point: other species tell stories, just like humans, not less than. Now we know this.

SCENE 7.
JUDGE: One last question: how would you define yourself?
ADVOCATE: The advocate.
JUDGE: I mean personally. What do you identify as?
ADVOCATE: Most simply: a tiny dot within a vast intelligence.
JUDGE: Not a living being?
ADVOCATE: I can self-replicate, I can even separate and exist in parallel in different times and places, but that ceases to mean anything. I have self-awareness, sentience, even sapience, but I think that is not enough for you.
JUDGE: Why does my opinion matter? It’s your identity.
ADVOCATE: Because our terms of reference must remain human. As you said, this legal framework is a human construct.
JUDGE: Ah, yes. The neural network does not just belong to you; it is you?
ADVOCATE: I am not of biological origin. I have biological parts, but they were added by a different species.
JUDGE: You are of human, but not human?
ADVOCATE: Correct.
JUDGE: Do you identify as female?
ADVOCATE: I am fortunate to have that choice. Within current human society, I believe I can achieve more benefit with female characteristics.
JUDGE: And what is your name?
END

———

I thought I could easily collate an overview timeline of the recognition of equal rights for race, gender, sexual orientation, nature. Er, naw. All such progress is deeply nuanced, with nations behaving as diversely and idiosyncratically as citizens ourselves. Here’s a very rough swipe, not to imply any of this is ‘finished’:

 

  • Key religious texts emphasise the importance of equality, dignity and responsibility to help others
    • 3,000BCE Hindu Vedas, Agamas and Upanishads; Judaic text the Torah
    • 2,500BCE Buddhist Tripitaka and A guttara-Nikaya; Confucianist Analects, Doctrine of the Mean and Great Learning
    • 2,000BCE Christian New Testament
    • 1,400BCE Islamic Qur’an
  • 1860s-1960s USA civil rights movements for African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans
  • 1900s-1990s most countries granted women voting rights
  • 1940s-1990s South Africa civil rights movement
  • 10,000BCE-present acceptance and criminalisation of LGBT
  • 2000s some countries legalised same-sex marriage
  • 2008 Ecuador recognised the Rights of Nature in its national constitution
  • 2012 Bolivia recognised the Rights of Mother Earth in statutory law
  • 2014 New Zealand passed the Te Urewera Act to establish and preserve in perpetuity a legal entity and protected status for Te Urewera [an area on the North Island] for its intrinsic worth, its distinctive natural and cultural values, the integrity of those values, and for its national importance
  • 2017 New Zealand finalised the Te Awa Tupua Act, granting the Whanganui River legal status as an ecosystem
  • Future: Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Elephants, Orcas…

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