August 2009

Stephanie Hlywak

nonfiction

Filling the Ark: Animal Welfare in Disasters by Leslie Irvine

In February 2009, as devastating wildfires swept across Australia, an image of an injured koala drinking water from a rescue worker's plastic bottle fanned across the internet. In the photograph, the marsupial tenderly holds the firefighter's hand, her paws covered with second- and third-degree burns, as she accepts a sip of water amid a scorched landscape. As observers, we anthropomorphized the koala; that the animal is typically -- despite its teddy-bear-like appearance -- cantankerous and evasive around humans only imbued the scene with even more emotional immediacy.

The video from which the image was taken quickly went viral, and for good reason: it was excruciatingly heart-rending. But there was something deeper at play, something more that propelled the image into inboxes and onto cable news. Koalas rank high on something called the sociozoologic scale: they are cute and, therefore, we want to save them. If the image had shown a large spider or mangy rat, few would have paused to say "Awwww."

Responding to the interest in the marsupial, David Tree, the firefighter in the photograph, told the Associated Press that he hoped the koala's rescue didn't obscure the catastrophe of the lives and property lost in the wildfires. But to sociologist Leslie Irvine, the koala, and the firefighter's dismissal of its celebrity, sheds light on attitudes about animals in disaster situations. Just as people are displaced and imperiled by extraordinary events like hurricanes, flooding, oil spills, and war, so too are animals. A slender but impassioned volume, Filling the Ark argues that in dealing with disasters, we have an obligation to consider animal welfare alongside that of human welfare in our response plans.

In her thought-provoking book, Irvine takes a deeply vexed question -- When disaster strikes, who (and what) should be saved? -- and, rather than providing a facile answer, examines how we make decisions about which animals deserve a place on the biblical boat of her title. Key to her argument is an understanding of special positions on the sociozoologic scale. Since the time of Aristotle, Irvine writes, humans have always ranked higher than animals; the sociozoologic scale "ranks animals in a structure of meaning that allows humans to define, reinforce, and justify their interactions with other beings." In other words, animals can be different things to different people: a beloved Labrador can be a best friend, a chicken can be dinner, a sea otter can be local color, a lab rat can be a research subject. And how we respond to their loss tells us a lot about the value we place on them: while we mourn the passing of a pet, we tend to write of the death of lab animals as a "loss of data." Therefore, because of its sociozoologic ranking, the pampered Persian is a lot more likely to survive a disaster that research subject 8340.

In defining vulnerability, disaster researchers have identified factors -- such as race, class, gender, and ethnicity -- that affect how people fare in hazardous situations; women, the poor, the elderly, and minorities tend to have fewer options in disasters. But, to this list, Irvine innovatively adds species to the register of qualities that affect vulnerability. She then proceeds to explore the barriers to rescue in disasters facing different species along the sociozoologic scale. Irvine goes far beyond companion animals -- the cats and dogs that we have elevated to family member status; she considers farm animals, wildlife, and laboratory animals as well. But her goal isn't simply to examine our attitudes towards animals; she wants also to argue for changing our behavior -- and in so doing, the conditions we impose on animals.

Ultimately, Irvine proposes a radical solution to the problem: put fewer animals in harms way. When it comes to disasters that effect livestock (she details the bulldozing of half a million hens after a series of tornadoes destroyed egg-laying sheds in Ohio in 2000), Irvine advocates "curtailing and eventually ending the perverse industrial farming practices that make animals so vulnerable." To prevent harm to wildlife from man-made disasters, such as oil spills at sea, she recommends stricter regulations of shipping companies and vessels. And when it comes to laboratory animals (which she illustrates with a wrenching account of floods that drowned tens of thousands of animals in Houston in 2001), Irvine argues for a broader definition of the word "animal" in federal laws -- rats, mice, and birds do not have protection under the Animal Welfare Act -- and a reduction of the number of animals subject to outmoded experimentation.

Whether or not her recommendations help affect policy, Irvine's book will have a much more immediate impact: readers' eyes will be opened to those invisible animals, the ones tucked away on factory farms or those caged in basement laboratories, that need as much help in disasters as our pets do. The media jumped on the story of Snowball, a small white dog confiscated from the arms of a sobbing little boy as his family prepared board a bus at the Superdome in New Orleans. But few wrote about millions of chickens or tens of thousands of cattle that perished in the aftermath of Katrina. Irvine's book gives voice to the animals we have forgotten, even when we are the one who have made them so vulnerable in the first place.

Throughout, Irvine's prose is infused with personal passion. As a volunteer animal rescuer in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina, she witnessed first-hand the hardship and horror that resulted from poor planning and bad policy (read the chapter on companion animals in disasters with a box of tissues nearby) but Irvine's book is neither sociologic goobledygook nor sentimental treacle: it is a clarion call for change, both in attitudes and policy, about how we manage animal welfare in disaster situations. This book should be required reading every human whose own health and welfare is enmeshed with those of animals -- that is, all of us.

 

Filling the Ark: Animal Welfare in Disasters by Leslie Irvine
Temple University Press
ISBN: 1592138349
176 Pages

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