Monday, May 19, 2008

Being Humane

I am not a big fan of Ann Mccaffrey's dragon series, or Eragon. My favorite story about dragons is E. Nesbit's The Dragon Tamers. You can find this story in two places I know of: The Book of Dragons by E. Nesbit, which is a collection of her dragon stories, and The Book of Dragons selected and illustrated by Michael Hague, which is a gorgeous book and a good introduction to the tradition of stories about dragons.

There are many things to like about Naomi Novik's dragon novels, the Temeraire series (His Majesty's Dragon, Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, Empire of Ivory). Her next Temeraire book, Victory of Eagles, is scheduled to come out on July 8, 2008, my birthday (hint, hint). One of these days, Peter Jackson may make a movie based on the first book. Novik's premise is that in the days of the Napoleonic wars, the British are using dragons much as they used horses, except that the dragons have more mobility and, well, firepower.

In the second book, Throne of Jade, Temeraire finds out that dragons in China are treated much better than dragons in England. Rather than sleeping outside on the ground, being given raw cows and sheep to eat, and only allowed to breed at special grounds set aside for the purpose, Chinese dragons get cooked food, have special houses with heated floors, and are revered and encouraged to breed, although the Chinese are interested in which dragon breeds with which other dragon to produce the best offspring. Temeraire himself is an "Imperial," the best kind of dragon, and it was a mistake that his egg landed in British hands. The hands it landed in are those of a former navy captain, Laurence. Temeraire, like all dragons in these novels, can talk, and he and Laurence discuss the cooked Chinese food after the first time Temeraire has eaten it:
"Well, I only hope you will not find it indigestible, from so much spice," Laurence said, and was sorry at once, recognizing in himself a species of jealousy that did not like to see Temeraire enjoying any Chinese customs. He was unhappily conscious that it had never occurred to him to offer Temeraire prepared dishes, or any greater variety than the difference between fish and mutton, even for a special occasion.
But Temeraire only said, "No, I like it very well," unconcerned and yawning; he stretched himself very long and flexed his claws.

At the end of Throne of Jade, Laurence offers to stay in China if Temeraire would be happier there, and they discuss it:
"You would rather go home, though, would you not?"
"I would be lying if I said otherwise," Laurence said heavily. "But I would rather see you happy; and I cannot think how I could make you so in England, now you have seen how dragons are treated here." The disloyalty nearly choked him; he could go no further.
"The dragons here are not all smarter than British dragons," Temeraire said. "There is no reason Maximus or Lily could not learn to read and write, or carry on some other kind of profession. It is not right that we are kept penned up like animals, and never taught anything but how to fight."
"No," Laurence said. "No, it is not."

Laurence, who has from his first introduction to the dragon corps, spoken out against the abuse and neglect of dragons, continues to learn about the similarities between "owning" such a sentient creature and slavery, which in good-guy 19th-century British fashion, he opposes. In the fourth book, Empire of Ivory, he is forced to "understand the accusations which had been made" against him and his fellow British dragon officers:
That they had stolen medicines, cultivated for the use of the King's own subjects, was only the least offense; the foremost, that they had offered a territorial challenge, by invading in the company of their own ancestors, as Kefentse considered the dragons of the formation to be; and in league with enemy tribes had been stealing their children, for which he offered as one portion of evidence that they had been travelling with a man of the Lunda, notorious kidnappers."
Of course, even as Laurence is forced to understand his behavior, the reader is forced to see it in light of something we now acknowledge to have been wrong, the enslavement of Africans.

I like the way Novik weaves this thread in and out of her story--that it's not humane to treat anyone the way the rigid hierarchy of the British Empire proscribed. And by extension, of course, the fiction asks us to examine how far we have come. Do we still breed horses for our own purposes? Yes, and their legs break. Do we still have puppy mills? Yes, because they're profitable (and we have plenty of them right here in my home state of Ohio:

Do we have a right to buy and sell animals? This may sound like kind of a wacky question, but I don't think it goes too far. If we didn't regard animals as "ours" and think that we can do with them whatever we like, the worst kinds of abuse couldn't happen. By extension, the less we regard children as "ours," the less we feel a right to educate them in whatever narrow way we believe, and the less chance there is that the person who has "custody" of a child feels so alone that she has to leave the napping child in the car just so she can run in to the store and buy food for supper, or that he feels overwhelmed in the way that can lead to physical or verbal abuse.

I do think we have a right to buy and sell animals for food; I do it myself. But I buy beef and chicken, not to mention eggs, from local farmers, because they see a point in letting the animals use their legs and see the sun, while big food companies tend to treat animals in any way that will maximize their profits, both because they can and because few people are interested in finding out what happens to those animals. If you don't like to read books like The Jungle or the more recent Fast Food Nation, you're not alone, but ignoring a problem allows it to persist. I might even go further--the rhetorical effect of Uncle Tom's Cabin was to demonstrate that if you don't speak out against evil, you are part of it.

Less of the feeling of "ownership" and more of the feeling of "custodianship" would benefit the dragons of Britain in Novik's fictional world, and certainly the animals we still feel the right to breed in this world.

If you're interested in this issue, you might take a look at the Humane Society website:


ben said...

I agree with what you've said, with three small caveats. First, having had some real experience with large-scale animal agriculture (both poultry and cattle) as I grew up, I am not so quick to condemn it as inhumane. A lot of such talk may be based on psychological projection -- and the attitudes of a big-brained descendent of primates will not necessarily be the same as those of a ruminant herd animal. (I hate crowds. Cows love crowds. I need plenty of visual stimulation. Cows would rather look at other cows.)

Second, I'm not altogether convinced by your theory of the cause of child abuse. Are people always more careful with stuff that does not belong to them? Not in my experience. (See "students, college".) I do agree, though, that "ownership" is a horribly wrong attitude to have about children.

Third problem: In your description of abuse, you include the idea that "we feel a right to educate them in whatever narrow way we believe". Do I not have a serious duty to pass on to my children the very best that I can give them, including my clearest perception of the Good? And shouldn't I help them defend themselves against the lunacies of the culture? Isn't that exactly "the narrow way that I believe"? Children will pick up values from somewhere -- if not from people who really care about them and want the best for them, then willy-nilly from anyplace. In the end, they will become less free, not more; more vulnerable to manipulation, not less.

Jeanne said...

The problems with large-scale animal agriculture that I'm talking about include keeping chickens in cages that barely contain their bodies for their whole lives, and crowding pigs so close together that they chew each other's tails off.

And you don't isolate your children from other people; I've always had ready access to them to instill my beliefs alongside yours!