Tag Archives: modern influence

Reason, Compassion, and Humanness in the Animal World

By Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler

During the Renaissance, debates raged about the necessary properties that defined humanness and human superiority.  For some, including Jean Bodin, “the real essence of a human being…was not physical form, but the rational faculty.”  While such a position sat in line with humanism, which privileged human interiority and cogita, Bodin’s assertions did not sit well with all.  Contemporaries such as Reginald Scot claimed that the separation of humanness from human physicality might too broadly construe humanness, allowing us to locate examples of animal reason that would suggest “euerie asse, woolfe, or cat that we see, were a man, a woman, or a child” (in Fudge 53).

More recently, philosophers such as Peter Singer have argued that there is, in fact, no essential property that elevates humans above non-human animals.  Indeed, humanness is merely a species condition the same as an animal’s being labeled as feline or canine.  Drawing on utilitarian Jeremy Bentham’s ethical assertion that a being’s ethical value emerges from its ability to suffer, animal rights philosophers and activists suggest that the choice to rescue a child or a chicken from drowning should not rest on the creature’s species, but on the level at which it would experience distress and suffering.

Not confined to the halls of academe, these philosophical discussions persist in daily life as well.  “Compassion,” so often considered synonymous with “humanity,” has been called to question each time a news story emerges in which witnesses to a crime video or tweet updates during its commission, failing in the process to stop and render aid to a human victim.  Only one of many examples was a recent convenience store stabbing in Wichita, Kansas: as 27 year old stabbing victim LaShanda Calloway laid dying of internal bleeding, 5 shoppers stood by. According to the local police chief, “she lay on the floor while people continued to do their shopping […] They’re taking photographs.”  Another account stated that a witness  “step[ped] over the body to reach the snack food display near the counter” (Todd).

How are our assumptions about human superiority and human compassion troubled or broadened when we find greater reason or sympathy among non-human animals?  In a recent video released on YouTube, for example, a young goat falls into a petting-zoo pond and begins to drown. Behind the camera, a man consistently comments, “Goat in the water, goat in the water” while continuing to film.  At no point do any zoo staff or visitors attempt to aid the struggling kid.  Yet the kid does not ultimately drown: from the right corner of the screen, a pig appears and purposefully swims into the water and nudges the goat to shore and safety.  The same unhelpful cameraman from early in the video acknowledges the amazing thing that he’s witnessed, dubbing the rescuer a “hero pig.” 

Such a moment of cross-species aid draws attentions to the failures of the humans observing a creature in pain—a creature different from themselves and potentially less deserving of their own efforts or inconveniences.  How does such an example of compassion, of problem-solving—of so-called “humane” or “human” qualities—function for us?  How does it differ from other moments when animals rescue animals within their own species or families, inspiring our awe because they are “like us” in their affections or biologically instinctual drives?  It seems that an instance like that of the petting zoo brings an interesting contrast and blurs boundaries in crucial ways.


Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler is an assistant professor of early modern literature at Ball State University in Indiana.  Her current book manuscript examines Renaissance drama and women’s silent authorial performances in England.


 Images: Jean Francois Largot, “Lioness Saves Cub” (Mail Online, 26 September, 2011).  Screenshot from “Pig Rescues Baby Goat.”

Erica Fudge, Perceiving Animals (University of Illinois Press, 2002).

‪jebdogrpm. “Pig Rescues Baby Goat.” (YouTube, 19 September, 2012) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g7WjrvG1GMk&feature=autoplay&list=ULg7WjrvG1GMk&playnext=1.

Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (Harper Classics, 2009).

David Todd, “People Snapped Pictures But did not Assist a Dying Woman. Could they be Charged with Failing to Render Aid?” David Todd Law Letter (davidtoddlaw.com/library).


The Lasting Legacy of the Black (M)Other

By Dr. Andrea Powell Wolfe

Early Modern European travel narratives consistently depict the female African as animalistic in childbirth and infant rearing.  In a widely circulated 1602 narrative, Pieter de Marees claims that the women of Sierra Leone gave birth in mixed company and, instead of “lying in” as European women did, cleaned themselves and continued working after childbirth (Morgan 184).  With imagery that influenced the representation of black women for centuries afterward, De Marees continues, “When [the child] is two or three months old, the mother ties the childe with a peece of cloth at her backe. . . .  When the child crieth to sucke, the mother casteth one of her dugs backeward over her shoulder, and so the child suckes it as it hangs” (Morgan 184).  The use of the term “dugs” here (used during this time to mean an animal’s teats), as well as De Marees’s depiction of the mother’s purported nonchalance in nursing her child, contribute to African woman’s characterization as bestial.  Her animalistic nature is carried forth in the behavior of her children, who are described as “lying downe in their house, like Dogges, [and] rooting in the ground like Hogges” (Morgan 184).  As Jennifer Morgan points out, in that it came to represent the quintessential otherness of Africans, the trope of the animalistic black mother in travel literature “marked the boundaries of English civility even as she naturalized the subjugation of Africans and their descendants in the Americas” (192). 

We must look no further than the rhetoric surrounding America’s self-proclaimed “Mom-in-Chief” to find continued linkages between black women and animalism.  In 2009, GOP activist Rusty DePass insinuated a familial link between First Lady Michelle Obama and a primate, commenting on Facebook in response to a post on a missing gorilla, “I’m sure it’s just one of Michelle’s ancestors—probably harmless” (“Rusty DePass”).

As recently as January 2012, Mike O’Neal admitted to forwarding an email that compared Obama to the Grinch (Rothschild).  Besides the subject line “Twins separated at birth?” and an image of Obama alongside the Grinch, the message also included the text, “I’m sure you’ll join me in wishing Mrs. YoMama a wonderful, long Hawaii Christmas vacation—at our expense, of course” (Rothschild).  Implied here is not only Obama’s animalism—in that she is like a hairy, cave-dwelling Seuss character—but also her deviance in using “our” money to travel.  The racially-coded term “YoMama,” used in mainstream culture as a marker of black, urban rhetoric, defines African Americans as the others in the text of this email.  White readers are constructed as the intended audience, the real Americans whose hard-earned dollars are being used to fund Obama’s trip.  As “Mrs. YoMama,” Obama is portrayed as a black matriarch, the archetypal emasculating mother-figure made the butt of the joke in the endless flow of “your mama” stories exchanged in African American culture.  Since she is also the First Lady, though, this “Mama” is figured as threatening, not necessarily to black men but, instead, to white men atop the political power structure of the nation (many of whom, thanks to O’Neal, received the email).  Obama’s characterization as yet another in a long line of animalistic black mothers is supposed to be funny.  What the joke reveals, however, is sobering: that today white men draw on the trope of the bestial black mother to contain the social and political threat of blackness (perhaps felt all too keenly throughout President Obama’s first term) and continue to justify the oppression of black individuals on the basis of the black mother’s otherness.


Andrea Powell Wolfe teaches literature and humanities at Ball State University.  Her current book project considers the literary positioning of black motherhood within the nation.


Image: de Bry, Theodor.  Woman Breastfeeding over Her Shoulder.  Title page from Verum et Historicam Descriptionem Avriferi Regni Guineaa. Small Voyages.  Vol. 6.  Ed. de Bry.  Frankfurt: Frankfurt am Main, 1604.  Web. 25 June 2012.

Morgan, Jennifer.  “’Some Could Suckle Over Their Shoulder’: Male Travelers, Female Bodies, and the Gendering of Racial Ideology, 1500-1770.”  The William and Mary Quarterly 54.1 (1997): 167-92.

Rothschild, Scott.  “Speaker O’Neal Apologizes for Forwarding Email that Calls Michelle Obama ‘Mrs. YoMama.’” Lawrence Journal World.  5 Jan. 2012.  Web.  20 June 2012.

“Rusty Depass, South Carolina GOP Activist, Says Escaped Gorilla Was Ancestor Of Michelle Obama (VIDEO).”  15 July 2009.  The Huffington Post.  Web.  25 June 2012.

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