TAA Outtake No. 6: Ethical Reckonings

Cartoon by Steve Benson

It’s hard to write a book on taxidermy and not write about hunting. It kept coming up. I would write about hunting, and then I would tell myself my book is about taxidermy and not about hunting. That hunting is, yes, often the process that begins a work of taxidermy, but not always. And then I’d think more about it and decide to write about hunting again.

The book’s final chapter eventually tries to reckon with the ethics surrounding taxidermy’s dead-animal prerequisite. What follows is a much clunkier way of writing about all this than what (I hope) I eventually got to in the final draft. And note, once again, how doggedly I tried to work Architectonica perspectiva into the book!

(Many thanks to Adam Peterson for his help and advice on this section of the book.)


[Anti-t]axidermy protests tend not to get covered in the media outside of online forums among taxidermists, and indeed it’s the Internet that has made whatever outrage ever existed toward taxidermy grow and spread among those who may never have thought they were against it until a URL was sent their way, or a search turned up something unwanted, or they got forwarded one of a million effectless online petitions. Like the one against Art by God, a Web site that sells “natures [sic] art of earth’s wonders”—essentially fossils and skins and other such animal products. The petition argues that “[t]he global awareness as to the sanctity of wildlife, and man’s duty to preserve same is an ethos which obviously does not fit in with [Art by God’s] trade,” and asks not that the company stop selling animal parts, but merely that it change its name.

It’s a reasonable request, though “Art by God” is far more absurd than it is offensive, the idea of the All-Powerful brooding in a skullcap and soul-patch in the hopes that New York will pay big bucks for [H]is Architectonica perspectiva, fuming over all the bad reviews for the mosquito. Still, Art by God is audacious enough in its name to get a lot of people (well, [by the time of this writing] about 200 of them, which is paltry by Internet-petition standards) riled up. “This shop needs to close. Next they will be using human skin because, in their sick thinking, it also is God’s art,” writes one signer, putting a pretty clear hierarchy on the sickness of certain skins. Another one asks, “How can you possibly believe killing/murdering beautiful and innocent creatures is art?? They were born beautiful and you should respect that beauty by NOT MURDERING them!! Preserving the memory of a clients beloved pet is one thing but what you are doing is absolutely disgusting and inhumane. It should truly be illegal.”

For a few semesters, I’ve taught a course my school belaboringly calls Writing: Rhetoric as Argument, where, among other things, I try to get underclassmen to feel comfortable developing sound arguments on the page, and part of this job is dissecting the parts of an argument as spelled out by smarter and more capable rhetoricians before me. Specifically a British guy named Stephen Toulmin. His argumentative structure goes like this: an argument starts with a claim, which is a statement not inherently true but that can, one hopes, be proven true. “The sky is blue,” therefore, is not a claim, whereas, “The sky is a kind of hideous blue,” is. This claim is followed by a reason, which supports the claim by setting it in a context. “The sky is a kind of hideous blue because it doesn’t match my eyes,” marks that this argument will focus on the relationship between the arguer and the world around him.

This brings us to what Toulmin calls “the warrant”; an unspoken but essential piece of information that shows us how the claim and reason are connected. Like the search warrant in an episode of COPS, Toulmin’s warrant tells us whether we can barge right on through the rhetorical door, ready to support our claims. In my ridiculous claim about the sky, there are a couple warrants at play. One is that any blue other than the precise shade of my eyes (a confession: my eyes are mostly yellow) is hideous. The other is that everything in the natural world should somehow fit in chromographic harmony with my person. This is the warrant—the underlying assumption—that renders the argument absurd and fallacious. For extreme examples like this one, such a warrant is inherently obvious to students. They just sort of know it to be a bad argument, but breaking it down this way helps to show them exactly why.

With less overly simplified arguments involving warrants that don’t solipsistically orient the whole world around the writer, figuring out what the warrant is and whether it enables us to proceed with our discussion is a lot more difficult. Take the above comment from the Art by God petition-signer, which I’m asking you to consider for a minute because I think it gets precisely at the problem with the pro-taxidermy/anti-taxidermy “debate” such as it might be. The argument is wrapped up inside that second sentence: “[Animals] were born beautiful and you should respect that beauty by NOT MURDERING them!!” This person’s claim is that Art by God, and thus the hunters and collectors who outfit the company, should not kill animals. The reason for this is that animals were born beautiful and that beauty should be respected.

Here’s the rub: no hunter or taxidermist would ever disagree with this reason. Of course animals are beautiful. Of course we should respect that beauty. Everyone’s on the same side here vis-a-vis the whole “loving/respecting animals” bit. The trouble underlying the entire hunting debate lies with the warrant: killing an animal is not a way to respect its beauty. To animal-rights activists this is not a claim, not a statement that can be argued. It’s as true to them as “the sky is blue.” This, however, is not the case for the hunter. Respecting an animal (or its beauty) and killing an animal are not mutually exclusive activities. One can lead to the other without the slightest amount of hypocrisy present. And so for a hunter, for this argument that they shouldn’t kill animals to proceed soundly, the arguer needs to argue the warrant. And here’s the tragic thing about the debate about hunting: no one ever argues the warrant.

Not those on the side of animal rights, surely, because to acknowledge such a claim as up for debate would be to expose a hole in one’s complete ideology. In animal-rights rhetoric, killing an animal is only and always a brutal and selfish act that should universally be banned. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals calls hunting “nothing more than a violent form of recreation that the majority of hunters does not need for subsistence.”** But oddly enough, few people on the side of hunter rights bother to argue how killing an animal is a way to honor it, how hunting can be an exercise in animal love. How there can be a kind of morality to hunting. They just take it as given, citing Genesis 1:28, “[A]nd God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

Or they back it up with arguments so fallacious that they end up making the case for an end to hunting. James Swan, in his A Defense of Hunting, continually makes the age-old mistake of reading humans as just another kind of animal. At an animal-rights meeting he kind of journalistically infiltrates he asks himself, “What is the difference between an animal hunting and a human hunting?”, and is unable to come up with an answer. Really, James? The difference is clear, and it comes down to choice. Animals cannot choose whether or not to hunt. Just as we cannot choose whether or not to sneeze, or whom to be sexually attracted toward. That’s why we don’t condemn sneezers for releasing their germs into the air. That’s why we (well, increasingly) don’t condemn gay people for being who they are. No human needs to kill. They just want to. This alone isn’t enough to condemn them, but surely it’s enough to see how human hunting is different from what goes on between animals in the wild.

Swan’s book isn’t all bad, although at times it seems as if he were writing for The Onion: “Compare the following two statements, the first by William James speaking of the religious experience, and the second by modern hunter Ted Nugent describing his feelings at the moment of killing a nine-point Texas white-tailed buck.” He gets quite smartly at the idea that the debate over animal rights is essentially an ongoing custody battle. “Down through the ages,” he writes, “the concept of stewardship—that humans have a responsibility to care for the creatures that feed them—has been the law of the land and it has worked to the benefit of both.” The question of course is who gets to decide what’s best for animals, and what exactly does that entail? Even posing such a question, and certainly coming to an answer for it, implies that humans and animals—like parents and their children—are not equal. It’s a truth that animal-rights activists never seem to admit: the liberator, historically, is never on common ground with the liberated. Just because we have language that gives us not only the words but thus the concepts of liberation, rights, and stewardship, doesn’t mean we know what is best for these creatures without language.

** PETA sees itself able to make an exception on the don’t-kill-animals rule when it comes to euthanizing pets for whom no caring homes can be found, which PETA has been repeatedly found guilty of. [See here for details.] More than 2,300 animals were killed by PETA in 2009 alone, according to records held by the Commonwealth of Virginia. And not always humanely. In 1999, two twentysomething PETA members were arrested in North Carolina for allegedly tossing euthanized dog and cat carcasses into dumpsters. “[M]ost of the animals we receive are broken beings for whom euthanasia is, without a doubt, the most humane option,” PETA has said about the practice.

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